Where are the men? The closer you look at early childhood care and education (ECE) in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the more apparent it becomes: Men in education at this level — arguably the most formative years of a child’s life — are an endangered species.
Just as Massachusetts works to expand ECE through the move toward universal preschool and all-day kindergarten, the paucity of men couldn’t be more apparent.
Right now, it appears that nationally, about 4 percent of ECE teachers are men, according to data collected by the Cambridge-based Schott Fellowship in Early Childhood Care and Education. Massachusetts likely reflects those numbers, and we need to do better for many reasons.
After parents, teachers are a child’s most significant role models. Girls and boys need positive guidance and a healthy influence from both male and female educators to successfully interact, learn and negotiate in today’s society.
Massachusetts ranks a startling ninth in the United States in preschool expulsions — most of which involve boys. With classrooms being predominantly female environments, they may not be set up in a way most beneficial to boys’ special energy and focus at this age. Some experts in the field suggest that an early education workforce more diverse and balanced in both gender and ethnicity could be an effective first step in addressing the situation.
Despite the acceptance of many types of families today, there are too many children who don’t interact with a man at all during the course of their day or share a positive, memorable relationship with a male during the entire course of their childhood. It is important to expose both boys and girls to positive interaction with men in their daily lives and development as a matter of equity and justice.
Ironically, in the early- to mid-1800s, most of the teachers were men, and most of their students were male. Women were not yet allowed to attend college or to teach in the schools just being established by the state and the towns. They were relegated to setting up informal classrooms in their homes or working as governesses or tutors.
However, over the last 180 years or so since the introduction of kindergartens in Massachusetts, we have changed direction by 180 degrees. Women dominate the profession, especially at the preschool and primary school levels.
While it is difficult to determine just how many men are out there, we do know there are many social and economic factors discouraging them from entering early childhood education. Among them are two myths and a fact:
• Myth: Men who choose to work with young children are sexual predators. After 30 years, Massachusetts still hasn’t recovered from the effects of the Fells Acres Day Care case and other scandals. In truth, the incidents are remote, but the headlines stay with us.
• Myth: Men are not naturally nurturing and can’t give the children in this age group the security and encouragement they need.
• Fact: Low compensation in preschool education is a deterrent for young men (and women) who are the major earner in a family.
As educators and as a society, we must attack and dispel these myths to encourage men to return to teaching in our classrooms. As educators and as a society, we need to prioritize expending social and economic resources for education that supports strong, healthy families. The solutions must come from both inside and outside the educational system.
We need to change the way of watching progress in early childhood care in the state. Massachusetts does not currently track the gender of teachers in ECE. It is a simple change that will allow us to see how our state is faring in terms of attracting male teachers into the field. It will also provide regional data on where we are successful, allowing us to derive best practices that can be employed in areas where recruitment and retention is low.
The few men who complete ECE education often leave the field after a short time. Tracking the number of men and women who enter the field and then pursue other careers would give us an insight as to what the retention rate is and allow us to develop ways to entice qualified staff to remain in the field.
We have to raise awareness by inviting young men into the classroom to encourage them toward a career in teaching or working with young children, showing them that this is a viable career option and letting them experience some of the rewards firsthand.
Higher education institutions must look at their recruitment of male students in education. Data shows that many young men enter their freshman year of college planning to study education, but later change majors. Making the coursework and choices more inclusive of men will give undergrads more time to gain insight into what ECE is about and how it can benefit them personally as well as society as a whole. Creating a career path inclusive of men in all the child care careers will have a great impact on our health and social welfare system.
The men who are currently working so diligently in ECE must continue to make themselves known, mentoring younger colleagues as well as helping to recruit and encourage both young men and those looking to change careers, promoting the profession as a viable option with benefits that reach far beyond having summers off.
Finally, we need to encourage parent or guardian interaction with teachers. The best way to dispel distrust and reduce hidden and overt biases is by getting to know your child’s teacher. Meet the teacher, be a part of the classroom as often as your personal schedule allows.
The fact of the matter is that we need excellent men and women teachers for young children if we are to meet the goals laid out by the state. But more importantly, we need excellent teachers who will help every boy and girl meet their own special needs, to recognize their own responsibilities and to develop the resolve and resilience to make realities of their dreams.
Dr. Valora Washington is the president of the Community Advocates for Young Learners (CAYL) Institute, whose mission is to ensure the opportunities for diverse and representative leadership in state-focused policy advocacy for children. Kitt Cox is a former Schott Fellow and program coordinator for the Massachusetts Family Network.