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Report: Male teachers now an ‘endangered species’

St. John Barned-Smith

Male pre-kindergarten and early education teachers are almost as rare as komodo dragons, and they’re getting rarer, according to recent findings and recommendations released by the Community Advocates for Young Learners (CAYL) Institute.

The number of men working in education has reached its lowest point in the past 40 years, the Cambridge-based organization found. The group cited lack of encouragement for males to pursue teaching as a profession, stereotypes about men who teach in early childhood programs and low salaries as the three major impediments to drawing men into the field.

“Men in education at this level — arguably the most formative years of a child’s life — are an endangered species,” wrote CAYL President Dr. Valora Washington in the report.

The lack of men working in early education could have troubling effects on preschoolers, according to numerous experts in early childhood care who argue that an absence of male figures reinforces potentially harmful ways of thinking about gender roles.

“Children need to see guys who can talk about Tedy Bruschi and Pampers, and that there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Kitt Cox, a longtime preschool teacher now working as a program coordinator for the Massachusetts Family Network. “Guys have to be seen as approachable and nurturing,” he said.

If they’re not, according to veteran early childhood educator Bryan Nelson, the results could be damaging.

“By not exposing [preschoolers] to diverse populations or a diverse set of perspectives … [it] also sort of strengthens stereotypes that if men are teachers, they must be abusive, or pedophiles, or gay,” said Nelson, founder of the Web site www.menteach.org.

When men do enter the early childhood education field, many find themselves subject to special rules or unwitting sexism, cast in roles like the disciplinarian or the go-to guy for lifting boxes and other heavy loads.

“This isn’t about men versus women — it’s about what’s best for the children,” said Nelson, who argues that “as we’re seeing a shift about what it means to be male, students need strong, caring men in their daily lives.”

Nelson also worries about male students of color who enter preschool programs and don’t see many teachers like them.

When that happens, “they get the message that men of color don’t belong in education,” he said.

Men also bring a different style of teaching to early childhood care by virtue of their life experience, Nelson added, “just as a working-class person brings something slightly different from a middle-class person.”

Nationally, male teachers make up about 5.5 percent of early childhood care providers. The numbers are similar in Massachusetts and the metro Boston area.

According to Melissa Duggan, a communications specialist for the Boston Public Schools, seven out of 213 kindergarten teachers working with 3- to 5-year-old students in the BPS system are male. The numbers are similar in Cambridge, where 10-15 men work in early care, according to Just Holm, who works as a preschool manager for the city and contributed to the CAYL report.

Another problem facing both male and female preschool teachers is the low pay, which limits preschools’ abilities to lure high-quality teachers of both genders into the early education and care workforce.

“Given that early childhood education is viewed as ‘women’s work’ and lacks the perception of professionalism, early childhood educators are not paid on a par with their elementary, middle and secondary teaching peers,” according to the CAYL report.

Massachusetts has taken some steps to address these disparities. It was the first state to develop an office strictly for early childhood education. Julia Campbell, CAYL’s vice president of public affairs, called the creation of the Department of Early Education and Care “a huge step toward legitimizing the field.”

Other efforts are also pulling men into early childhood care. When Holm went looking for teen recruits to work in Cambridge day care centers, he said, he signed up more than 130 male teenagers interested in working with kids. He ended up placing 35, as many as he had space for, in day care centers around the city.

“I think [when] choosing a career that is not a typical male-oriented field — a lot of people don’t advertise they’re working with little kids — [men] have to justify it,” said Holm.