Back when my son was two or three years old, we used to spend a lot of time over at Ferdon visiting his best friend who was the son of Kim Shillieto, the Dean of Students, and his wife Pam, the Director of Student Activities. The two kids played wonderfully together, giving Pam and I (most often the two parents in charge) lots of time to talk. One day, she was complimenting me on my way with the kids, and commented that if I ever wanted to open a day care center, she thought I would be really good at the job. I thanked her, and added, “But it would never work.” “Why not?” she asked, and I responded, “Imagine you’re looking for a day care center for your child. You look down the list of providers. Jennifer, Diane, Sue, Liz, Bill… What are the chances Bill is going to get the first call?” Looking sad, she acknowledged my point.
That sexism is one major reason why, for years, the proportion of men in early education has been abysmally low and even in high school is lower than 50%. Furthermore, the recession has taken a toll on those numbers. From 2007-2011, the proportion of men teaching pre-school and kindergarten fell from 2.7% to 2.3%, at the middle school level from 19.1% to 18.3%, and at the high school level from 43.1% to 42%. In an article at edweek.org, Chanté Chambers of Teach for America cited the perceived low status of teaching as one major factor, stating, “They’re coming from communities that are not necessarily affluent, so it adds to the pressure to be that breadwinner, to have financial stability, … to make six figures so they can give back to their community in a meaningful way.”
The article continues to point out that one doesn’t want to stereotype teaching as “women’s work” nor stereotype male and female teaching styles. It is clearly well-meaning and tries to incorporate a variety of perspectives in seeking a solution to the problem. But it reinforces gender stereotypes right and left, starting with the above assertion that earning money is how men “give back to their community.” Schools are encouraged to make sure their faculty lounges have not just Cosmo but also Sports Illustrated. Yet Jeffery Daitsman, a pre-school teacher, states men often go into teaching precisely in search of “the ability to break some of these stereotypes, to show kids that they can be caring, that they can be nurturing, that they can wear pink.”
We work hard to expand opportunities for girls but don’t reach out to boys in the same way. “Researchers argued that though girls are increasingly encouraged throughout school to enter male-dominated fields such as engineering and mathematics, boys are given less incentive or opportunity to explore working with young children.” I’ve argued before, and no doubt will again, that the implicit message is that what is considered masculine is also considered superior to that which is considered feminine.
Still, schools can certainly work to mitigate this effect. In another article at edweek.org, a series of experiments was described in which children were randomly given red and blue t-shirts to wear. In some classrooms, the t-shirts were ignored. In others, they were used for practices such as lining up to come in from recess or determining who would go fetch books for the class to use. The study’s author, Rebecca Bigler, observed that “what we find is when teachers use groups to label children in their classrooms, you get the formation of stereotyping and prejudice, and when teachers ignore the presence of those groups in their classrooms, you do not find stereotyping and prejudice.” Later, she commented further, “If you compare it to race, if you said to your 1st grade classrooms, ‘Good morning, whites and Latinos; let’s have the Latinos get your pencils,’ what would happen is you would go to federal prison. Labeling children routinely by race in your classroom is a violation of federal law, and, of course, you can do this routinely with gender.”
Of course, girls schools are helping to lead the fight against routinely labelling children by gender – or at least, we are helping to lead the fight against pre-determining what a gender label has to mean. For just one example, we certainly have to make girls aware of the Curse of the Good Girl and provide them means of resisting it, but we also have to be aware that not all girls are Cursed in the first place.
These articles, both pointed out in the May 9 ASCD SmartBrief, formed a sort of counterpoint whose timing coincided with National Teacher Appreciation Week. In that sense, it is cruelly ironic that another stated factor in the diminishing numbers of men going into teaching is “the diminishing status of teachers generally. (…) Researchers said federal and state accountability measures have effectively lowered the prestige of teaching.”
So if we want to attract a more representative balance of genders into the profession, if we want to improve education for all children, if we want to get past gender stereotypes in general, one absolute imperative is that we reverse the current trends to bash teachers and to elevate those forms of accountability that can be easily quantified. I am lucky – my accountability is directly to my students and indirectly to their parents, and does not rely in the slightest on a commercial test designed to see what my students may have memorized. I do feel supported and appreciated by the families with whom I work (as just one example, the Parent Association’s annual “Make a Muffin Day,” always a treat, is just around the corner!). However, my case should not be exceptional. All teachers, of all genders, deserve to be treated as professionals – and until we all are, there will be a bittersweet quality to National Teacher Appreciation Week.