Hunt for a few good men

By Megan Jones

The kids at Russell Ballantyne's Dunedin preschool would send the PC police into apoplexy.

They are waving toy guns and stoushing with swords. Superhero outfits are de rigeur and bikes are tussled over in the playground.

At another early childcare centre, a wrestling mat is set up specifically for play fighting - albeit under the supervision of teachers.

This is not every parent's cup of playtime fun - many would say the games perpetuate negative male stereotypes.

But increasing numbers of educators believe this is natural boyish behaviour - and boys urgently need to be allowed to be boys.

A decline in the number of male teachers, and the feminisation of our playcentres and classrooms, is suppressing boys' natural behaviour, they say.

Too often boyish boisterousness is being misread, discouraged or frowned upon and as a result, boys can become alienated.

Boys are not only struggling academically, they also account for more than 80 per cent of those defined as having behaviour problems at school. They represent 75 per cent of those who appear in the criminal justice system, form the majority of those who develop serious mental health conditions, and account for the majority of youth suicides.

Auckland University Faculty of Education dean Dr John Langley says men won't necessarily teach boys better than women, but they have an important social and emotional role to play with boys that women simply can't fulfil.

He says this function of male teachers is even more critical as more families are raised by single mothers. Some kids don't have much involvement with men at all until they come across a male teacher at secondary school.

First-year secondary school teacher, Patrick Houlahan agrees. He describes himself as "a common or garden variety male", but he is finding for some kids he is a significant male role model.

"Many kids are raised by their mothers. If mum doesn't have a boyfriend they can get to secondary school and maybe haven't come across any men who they look up to other than WWF wrestlers or All Blacks," he says.

At preschool, a male teacher is like a needle in a sandpit. Of the 15,000 early childhood teachers, only 167 are male.

At primary school the male teacher is also an endangered species. Latest Ministry of Education figures show just one in five teachers is male, compared with 42 per cent in 1956. Some primary schools are now staffed entirely by women.

Secondary schools have been the last bastions of men in the classroom, but now even their numbers are starting to dwindle. In the past two years the number of male secondary school teaching graduates dropped by about 8 per cent.

It's predominantly women deciding what should be taught, when and how. It's predominantly women laying down expectations of behaviour and performance.

But the roosters in the chook house can see things quite differently to their female colleagues.

The examples are often subtle, says Houlahan.

"I sometimes hear students getting in trouble with a women teacher for maybe having a play fight or calling each other names, and I think it just wouldn't bother me, I don't think it's a big deal. Boys and men relate to each other in a robust fashion," he says.

"I certainly recognise if I have boys in my class being rambunctious - I know what that's about.

"That boy can't sit still for an hour. I can't sit still for an hour.

"I can relate to that pulsing energy, that need to move, shove and pull shit, and run around."

Early childhood teacher Russell Ballantyne cites the example of a female colleague who thought it was inappropriate for a boy to take his toy cars to bed with him, while it was perfectly okay for children to do the same with soft fluffy toys. Langley recalls women at one school wanting to ban some playground games because they were too aggressive.

Langley says educators need to start discussing what it means to be male these days, and what is acceptable male behaviour.

In a recent article he wrote: "When topics like this get identified many and various hackles get raised. This is an issue that needs to be discussed and debated and none of us, either male or female, should be afraid to do so. Frankly, it is dangerous for a society to ignore issues of importance because the dominant view at the time happens to see them as unfashionable."

"It's fair to say we have a way to go with women teachers knowing what is okay male behaviour," he told the Herald on Sunday.

The subject is a political hot potato. Some argue the lack of men is a non-issue - good teachers are what is required and if most of them are women, no problem. They can fully cater to the needs of both sexes - if indeed they have different needs.

"Why is it so bloody hard to accept - given the physicality involved - that the needs of boys and girls overlap in certain places but there are things that are just different?" asks Langley.

Ballantyne's Early Childhood on Stafford preschool not only allows its children guns and swords and bikes - it has an astonishing four men on the teaching payroll.

"Men relate to children differently," he says. "Men tend to be more physical with children. If a male and a female teacher observe conflict, a male is more disposed to stand back and let the kids work it out. Women are more likely to intervene and to see it as violence, as aggression."

Ballantyne also believes men encourage risk more than women and that children benefit from being encouraged to go beyond what they believe is safe. "Risk-taking is almost being managed out of our centres and I think we urgently need to look at what we are doing within our educational environments if we still want to be an innovative and creative country," he says.

Langley agrees: "We are developing a society where no one is prepared to take risks. We are trying to sanitise children and we shouldn't be doing that."

But it's not just boys missing out from the lack of men. Without safe male teachers, there are fewer opportunities for all children to be nurtured by and have positive interaction with good men.

But accusations of abuse in the school system seem to have tarred all male teachers with a potential abuser brush, which is one of the main issues deterring men.

When Houlahan was on section at an all-girls school, friends told him it was "dodgy" - that he was putting himself in danger of accusations of misconduct. "There is a lot of fear and paranoia," he says. "We live in fearful times."

As a trainee teacher he and classmates were taught to protect themselves. When he has to talk to a student out of class time, Houlahan ensures it's in an area with windows, and a good degree of exposure. He will ask other students to hang around or get another teacher to pop in to check on them.

Langley says these precautions are propagating fear and paranoia. It's a no-win situation.

"As a man I find it offensive," he says. "The fact that teachers have to do this propagates the notion that all men are sexual abusers about to happen - all you need to do is leave them alone, and their id will take over."

Langley is aware of parents who have asked a principal not to let men teach their children. "Fortunately the principal wasn't having a bar of it," he says.

Another deterrent for male teachers is status. Teaching used to be considered a fabulous career choice, alongside law or medicine, but its reputation has nosedived.

"Blokes are clubby," says Houlahan. "We like to do things together. So why get into a profession that is 80 per cent women?"

He did, simply because he loves English and literature, and he wants to share his passion for the subject.

"I will say one thing though," he adds. "It's a female profession but I couldn't imagine a more supportive, friendly and non-sexist bunch of people. They are so glad to have a male here; they really go out of their way to help you.

"It's not like when women become engineers or pilots and the boys' club closes ranks. It's astounding and quite humbling how I have been treated."

Langley believes the most significant deterrent for men is the pay.

"It's a no-brainer," he says. "We've got to up pay."

The maximum a teacher can earn unless he or she is a principal or deputy-principal is $70,000.

Are there any other solutions to the male teacher shortage? Langley believes advertisements targeting men would help, as would scholarships and financial incentives and support - moves which would undoubtedly breach human rights laws, he says.

Langley is conscious of increasing male teacher representation in university publications, but there have been accusations of sexism, because images of male teachers or trainees were out of proportion to the number of men who were actually teaching or studying.

He is clearly frustrated. "We either carry on as we are and do nothing and accept the consequences, or we have to take some drastic steps."

And it's not just about increasing the number of men teachers, he says. There needs to be a discussion around what sort of men we want to come out of our education system - "what is a good bloke these days?"

Male teachers are now not only rare, but may be afraid to behave like normal people because of possible accusations of abuse, or sexism, or perpetuating sexual stereotypes, he believes. Part of it is knowing what it means to be a decent male - what do males do? What relationships do they need to form? What do you say to people?"

In a recent article advocating for more men he wrote: "That is the value of having more men teachers.

"It is not just about achievement. It's about becoming a man and a good one and being proud of it.

"It's about having men to talk to, talking about men's stuff and being comfortable doing that.

"It's about seeing what you might become when you get older and admiring that.

"Most importantly, it is about knowing and understanding what real success is and striving for it.

"Some of that means academic success but most importantly its about the person you become and why."

- Herald on Sunday

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