Building a Gender-Balanced Workforce: Supporting Male Teachers
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When Javier, a kindergarten teacher, leads morning meeting, he begins with a mindfulness exercise to prepare the 27 energetic and curious children in his classroom to be present with each other. Throughout the day, Javier’s gentle demeanor balances and supports the exuberance of the children in his care.
Javier knows he is fortunate—many male early childhood educators are the only ones working at their sites, but Javier is one of several on the staff at his small public elementary school. When asked to reflect on what his role as a male teacher means for his students, Javier offers, “I’m showing them that not every man is scary or somebody that isn’t dependable. That a man is someone who can say ‘Good job! I notice how you did this.’ Men can give you advice or can be encouraging or nurturing and give you, like, a hug. You know, a side hug.”
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019), fewer than 3 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers are men—and this figure has not changed substantially in recent decades (US Bureau of Labor Statistics 1995). Male early childhood teachers like Javier find themselves and their work received in a variety of ways. Some colleagues and families offer affirmation and support, while others treat male early childhood educators with curiosity or suspicion. Wanting to understand the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that impact men’s decisions to teach in early childhood, we spent two years studying the experiences of male early childhood educators in New York City.
We embarked on this research to learn more about the circumstances that impact recruitment and retention, including how professional development and mentoring experiences can support the growth of these educators’ practice. To become excellent early childhood educators, male teachers require the same preparation and ongoing professional development as female teachers. However, because of their current scarcity in the field, male educators may also require intentional supports that address the particular circumstances they face related to bias and isolation. This article documents some of the joys and challenges that male early childhood teachers experience, and offers concrete recommendations for policy and practice that can be implemented to increase gender balance in the field.
As young children grow, they need to know that people of all genders have an important role to play in their care and education. Early childhood education plays a critical part in young children’s gender identity development (Solomon 2016). When young children do not have relationships with male teachers and caregivers, traditional gender stereotypes are reinforced, particularly as they relate to children’s understanding of who is responsible for their growth and learning (Aina & Petronella 2011; Brownhill & Oates 2016).
Children experience a range of models of femininity and womanhood though their exposure to a variety of female educators and caregivers. When young children do not experience a comparable range of models of masculinity, their view of what it means to be a boy or a man may be monolithic or incomplete (Giese 2018). As they grow, all children need to see and be part of relationships in which male children and adults are allowed to be emotionally expressive and deeply connected; this is especially true for children who identify as male, since our culture often discourages them from such expression (Way 2013). Improving the gender balance of the early childhood workforce would provide all children with a richer variety of role models at this critical time in their gender identity development (Drudy 2008).
A Note on Gender
Throughout this article, we refer to male and female educators and children as well as to notions of masculinity. We recognize that the labels of “male” and “female” suggest that gender is binary and do not encompass the range of gender identities that exist; we also acknowledge the complexities and contradictions such binaries reinforce.
When arguing for the need to increase the numbers of men working in early childhood education, we do not mean to promote an essentialized view of gender, as if only male educators can provide young children with models of masculinity. Our argument for the need for more male educators in the profession is grounded in a desire to offer young children a more multifaceted experience of gender throughout their care and education. The harms caused by a culture of toxic masculinity are increasingly visible (Clemens 2018; Giese 2018), and the effort to create a more gender- balanced workforce seems more important all the time. As we build the profession, we seek to offer all young children a healthy and supported environment in which to grow, learn, and become themselves.
A place-based study of male educators
The goal of our two-year study was to understand the conditions that support or constrain male early childhood educators. To create a detailed picture of their experiences, we collected data in various forms, including from a questionnaire, interviews, and focus groups. (All of the narratives in this article come from these sources.) Although our study was limited to New York City, we sought participants who worked at a variety of site types—NYC Department of Education schools, community-based organizations, and a few tuition-based programs—and who educated children in a range of neighborhoods with low, medium, and high levels of economic supports and resources. Our participants held a variety of positions—assistant teachers, paraprofessionals, coteachers, lead teachers—and they had a range of levels of experience working in the field: 10 percent of our participants were in their first year in the classroom, while 40 percent had worked with young children for more than 10 years.
We began our data collection by distributing a lengthy questionnaire to 81 male early childhood teachers. Although this sample size seems small, we had to reach out to 82 sites just to find this many male early childhood educators. Interestingly, though many of the centers we initially contacted employed no male educators, several of the sites employed a number of men, perhaps reflecting a hiring priority on the part of administrators to develop a more gender-balanced teaching team. The questionnaire was completed by 46 respondents and gathered quantitative and qualitative data about the educators’ career trajectories, teacher preparation, compensation, professional development experiences, and mentoring.
After analyzing the questionnaire data, we began a series of interviews. We interviewed early childhood administrators, both male and female, to gain their perspectives on the experiences of their male staff and to gather their recommendations for increasing male participation in the early childhood workforce. Next, we completed interviews with 16 male early childhood educators who represented a cross section of our questionnaire participants. Interviewees provided more in-depth narratives about the topics covered in the questionnaire and their reflections on gender and masculinity in their work as male educators.
During the course of our outreach to identify research participants, we learned that one male administrator (the fourth author) working at a multisite agency had convened semiregular meetings of a cohort of male early childhood educators. In our analysis of the interview data, we learned that many of our participants felt isolated and would benefit from joining with other male educators to discuss the particular circumstances of their work as male educators. To learn more about how this support group functioned for the male educators, we conducted a focus group with the participants. In the final section of this article, we describe our recommendations for replicating this model.
Finally, we developed a draft of the implications for policy and practice that emerged from our study and convened a focus group of early childhood administrators to gather their feedback about our findings and implications. Their insights were invaluable in helping us to refine our recommendations to improve the recruitment and retention of high-quality male early childhood educators.
The pressure and promise of being a “male role model”
The participants in our study reported that they are frequently told their commitment to their work is especially important because they are serving as male role models. Many of the men expressed pride at this mantle—pride that can offset the disappointment of working in a profession that is not respected or compensated as it should be.
Some participants specifically felt positive about providing a male presence in the lives of children who do not live with their fathers. One participant explained that many of the children in his program
come from a socioeconomic background where the father is not present in many homes. . . . So I take on the role of a father. For example, I’ve had many parents come in and say, “I’m not with their father. The father is not in the picture. So I’m really happy . . . [my child has] a man for a teacher.”
In the opening vignette, Javier similarly expressed satisfaction in being able to serve as a consistent and nurturing presence in the lives of young children, especially for young children whose primary early attachments are with women.
Male early childhood educators also often feel valued because of the assumption that their presence is a tool for classroom management. One male special educator recalled that a mother told him, “Use the male figure voice, because his grandpa, my father, does that to him and he listens.” Other participants in our study echoed this sentiment, explaining that colleagues, families, and administrators expect that their presence will bring order and discipline to the classroom.
Yet, in the context of an early childhood classroom, many male educators are equally aware that their presence can be experienced as intimidating. One participant explained, “I’m not normally a person who raises their voice a lot. But when I do . . . I feel like I have to be more careful. I don’t want to come off as being scary or scaring a kid.” Remaining calm and caring when helping children resolve conflicts or responding to challenging behavior is, of course, best practice for all educators—but this male educator shows that even a small slip in his professional demeanor may be perceived as having serious consequences. Thus, male educators feel that they must walk a fine line, expected to deploy their masculinity as a tool of control while also providing a caring model of attachment.
Male educators under suspicion
While many participants find it highly gratifying to serve as a positive example, Javier’s story in the opening vignette highlights a tension that many male early childhood educators feel. Javier felt gratified at being able to offer a hug to comfort a child, but he quickly self-corrected to explain that his affection would be expressed as a “side hug.” Nearly all of the male educators we interviewed for this study reported that they had faced some amount of suspicion, sometimes leading to serious accusations, as a result of their decision to work with young children. One participant recalled being advised by his first supervisor,
You’re amazing. You’re good with the kids. But to protect yourself, just make sure if somebody needs to use the bathroom or needs changing to call somebody for help, or make sure that somebody’s there with you. Because you’re a male and you just want to avoid any issues.
Another participant shared his female colleague’s caution that “if a child says I touched the child, the parent’s not going to think anything. But if they hear that you did, then that would seem weird.” Many of our participants reported facing this double standard. When working with young children, educators express their nurturance through positive, healthy touch. Yet when asked why more men do not enter the field, one participant explained, “A lot of these guys now don’t want to teach because of all the bad things that are happening. Especially the little kids! They don’t want to teach the little kids.” When male educators attempt to express affection for young children, they may face scrutiny and suspicion that puts their livelihoods and reputations at risk.
Another participant hoped that his presence as a male educator could allow him to offer a more complex expression of gender, showing that men can behave in ways that are often thought of as feminine as well as in masculine ways. He explained,
They want to see that I am rough and I’ll be tough on them if I need to, but at the same time, present this piece of tenderness. . . . So I’m playing two different roles here. I can be both of those things at the same time. I’ll give you a hug to show what it means that I can be both sides, that any male can be both sides.
Ultimately, if we want men to join and remain in the early childhood workforce, we must confront the pressures that inhibit male educators from bringing their full selves to the classroom.
Supporting male early childhood educators
Many participants in our research cited inadequate wages and benefits as an explanation for why there are so few men in the field of early childhood. The low status of the profession and levels of compensation are endemic to the field and a problem for male and female educators alike (Whitebook, McLean, & Austin 2016). Nonetheless, the male educators we interviewed were all deeply committed to working with young children despite these challenges. In addition to addressing issues of compensation, however, several recommendations emerged from our study that would directly address challenges to the recruitment and retention of male early childhood educators.
In New York City, programs like the NYC Teaching Fellows program have addressed high-needs areas in education (e.g., math, special education, bilingual education) by engaging in targeted recruitment and providing tuition remission and other supports for qualified individuals who make a commitment to working in these areas. The field of early childhood would benefit from programs like this to attract male educators.
Additionally, while our sample was small, we found that compared with their White and Asian American peers, far fewer African American and Latino male educators held the positions of lead teacher or coteacher; on average, they also had lower levels of educational attainment. Given recent research demonstrating the great benefits for all children in having a more racially diverse and representative education workforce (Cherng & Halpin 2016), development of the early childhood pipeline should prioritize African American and Latino male educators. New programs like NYC Men Teach seek to bring men of color into K–12 classrooms, but they have not yet focused on recruiting men into early childhood education specifically.
NYC Men Teach
NYC Men Teach was launched by the Office of the Mayor’s Young Men’s Initiative in 2015, with the goal of adding 1,000 Black, Latino, and Asian American teachers to public school classrooms across the city. In partnership with the NYC Department of Education, the City University of New York, and other local colleges and organizations, NYC Men Teach supports aspiring educators and offers mentorship, pathways to certification and other professional development, networking opportunities, and more. Learn about their programs at https://nycmenteach.org.
Professional development for administrators
The male educators we interviewed were best able to thrive when they worked for administrators who were sensitive to the particular pressures they face. Mentoring by both male and female administrators helped our participants to navigate challenging situations, such as when families expressed discomfort with their presence in the classroom. Many of the administrators we interviewed made a specific effort to hire and mentor male educators because they saw the great value of a gender-balanced workforce at their sites. However, the majority of early childhood sites we initially contacted did not employ any male educators.
While it appears to be true that few men seek to enter the field, administrators’ unconscious biases about men who wish to work with young children may also have an impact. Professional development experiences could offer early childhood administrators opportunities to understand the value of a more gender-balanced workforce and to build the skills administrators need to mentor and support men working in the profession.
Support groups for male early childhood educators
To begin to address issues of racial justice, many institutions have developed race-based affinity groups to encourage people to explore issues of privilege and oppression in safe spaces (Parsons & Ridley 2012). As men are a distinct minority in the field of early childhood education, they may benefit from the development of support groups specifically for male educators.
The fourth author worked as an administrator at an agency that operated multiple early childhood sites. Because each site included only one male educator, he saw the need to create a structure that would allow them to collectively process some of the particular issues they faced as male educators.
Initially, the administrator created a cohort specifically for male educators of color, but later the group was expanded to include a White male educator who faced many of the same issues the others were exploring. The cohort began by establishing healthy norms for their discussions (see “Establishing a Support Group” on this page). They developed a sense of solidarity by sharing the narratives of their own educational and career trajectories.
As the meetings continued, the administrator facilitated the sessions to enable the male educators to talk through what he called “dilemmas of practice.” Participants shared and generated strategies for dealing with issues such as what to do when children want to sit on the teacher’s lap; how to respond to a parent who does not recognize a male educator as the teacher; and how to manage the expectation that male educators will do physical labor (e.g., moving boxes) that takes them out of the classroom.
Establishing a Support Group
Set norms that make group members feel supported and safe
- Maintain confidentiality
- Engage in accountable talk that is respectful of male educators and colleagues
- Have the courage to be vulnerable; by sharing feelings and experiences fully and candidly, all participants have the opportunity to gain insight and support
- Be generous and willing to take risks
Focus sessions on specific topics (including others suggested by group members)
- Reflecting on personal educational and career trajectories
- Sharing dilemmas of practice
- Developing strategies for responding to challenges
- Networking and career planning
- Exploring intersectional identities (e.g., gender, race, sexuality)
After each meeting, the administrator distributed notes from the session, which helped participants to continue to reflect on their work together.
At our focus group with the men’s cohort, participants shared that they had gained invaluable support from these sessions. As one participant reflected, “Since this field has mostly been more devoted towards women, they can’t really relate to a lot of things that us men go through. So when we want to talk about it, we can’t really talk about it to them because they haven’t experienced those things.” Another participant described the men’s cohort as a “safe space” where he had the opportunity to be vulnerable and to learn how other male educators handled the specific challenges that result from being one of a few men working in the field. The primary obstacle the group faced was that their time for professional development was limited, and the men’s cohort meetings could be seen as conflicting with their need to attend workshops with their female colleagues. Despite these challenges, the positive potential of this program should be explored further and replicated elsewhere.
Despite the obstacles, many of the men in our study described the great sense of pride and power that comes from contributing to this important field. One participant reflected,
Do I ever ask myself, “Why am I a guy teaching preschool?” Sometimes I do. But the positive feelings I get from this job outweigh any negative feelings. . . . I can’t picture myself, like, working as a trader in a stock market. Because I wouldn’t be working with people anymore. In the business world, the bottom line is how much money can you make for the company. . . . In education, the bottom line is how many children can you help? . . . In what other profession do you know that the work you do now will forever affect the students you teach into their future?
In order to increase gender balance, we must be intentional and proactive in how we recruit and retain men in the field—especially men of color. In this article, we have suggested some concrete actions that we hope will inform efforts to build the profession in ways that will benefit children, families, and educators.
Aina, O.E., & A.C. Petronella. 2011. “Why Does Gender Matter? Counteracting Stereotypes with Young Children.” Dimensions of Early Childhood 39 (3): 11–19.
Brownhill, S., & R. Oates. 2016. “Who Do You Want Me to Be? An Exploration of Female and Male Perceptions of ‘Imposed’ Gender Roles in the Early Years.” International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education 45 (5): 658–70.
Cherng, H.S., & P.F. Halpin. 2016. “The Importance of Minority Teachers: Student Perceptions of Minority versus White Teachers.” Educational Researcher 45 (7): 407–20.
Clemens, C. 2018. “Toxic Masculinity Is Bad for Everyone: Why Teachers Must Disrupt Gender Norms Every Day.” Teaching Tolerance. www.tolerance.org/magazine/toxic-masculinity-is-bad-for-everyone-why-teachers-must-disrupt-gender-norms-every-day.
Drudy, S. 2008. “Gender Balance/Gender Bias: The Teaching Profession and the Impact of Feminisation.” Gender and Education 20 (4): 309–23.
Giese, R. 2018. Boys: What It Means to Become a Man. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins.
Parsons, J., & K. Ridley. 2012. “Identity, Affinity & Reality.” Independent School 71 (2): 38–47.
Solomon, J. 2016. “Gender Identity and Expression in the Early Childhood Classroom.” Young Children 71 (3): 61–72.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor. 1995. “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.” https://www.bls.gov/cps/aa1995/aat18.txt
US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor. 2019. “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.” https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm.
Way, N. 2013. Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Whitebook, M., C. McLean, & L.J.E. Austin. 2016. Early Childhood Workforce Index 2016. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California at Berkeley.
Note: This study was funded by a grant from the Foundation for Child Development. The authors would also like to acknowledge the invaluable feedback and support of their colleagues in the NYC Early Childhood Research Network—a project of the NY Early Childhood Professional Development Institute.
Photographs: 1, 2 © Getty Images; 1 © Ken Alswang
Copyright © 2019 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
Kirsten Cole, PhD, is a teacher, researcher, and parent based in Brooklyn, New York. She has the pleasure to teach and learn with her students as associate professor of early childhood education at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), part of the City University of New York.
Jean-Yves Plaisir, EdD, is full professor at BMCC. He teaches coursework in teacher education with an international research focus on men’s experiences in early learning environments.
Mindi Reich-Shapiro, PhD, is assistant professor of early childhood education at BMCC. Dr. Reich- Shapiro has been teaching and coaching pre-service and in-service early childhood educators in New York City for more than 20 years.
Antonio Freitas is adjunct professor in the teacher education department of BMCC and a senior content manager on the US Social Impact Team at the Sesame Workshop. He has worked to create, implement, and refine early childhood education professional development programs at organizational, city, and national levels.