Education

LOOKING FOR MR. CHIPS

Some experts contend that boys suffer from the lack of male teachers

SUE FERGUSON March 7 2005
Education

LOOKING FOR MR. CHIPS

Some experts contend that boys suffer from the lack of male teachers

SUE FERGUSON March 7 2005

LOOKING FOR MR. CHIPS

Education

Some experts contend that boys suffer from the lack of male teachers

SUE FERGUSON

BY THE NOON BELL, Aaron Jermyn is starting to fade. Since arriving at King Albert Public School in Lindsay, Ont., at 7:30 a.m., he’s prepped lessons, corrected papers and run 20 Grade 1 students ragged around the gym—before retreating to his homeroom of sixth graders to review lessons on kinetic energy, electrical circuits and long division, and to lay out the principles of calculating discounts, sales tax and interest. Along the way, he’s tied

shoelaces, dealt with a boy too sick or bored to keep his head from falling onto his desk, and cajoled a girl who hasn’t spoken a word to him since entering first grade five months ago. Other days, he’s busy patching hurt feelings and playground wounds and getting food for students without a lunch. “Sometimes, honestly,” says Jermyn, 26, whose wife is expecting their second child this month, “I feel more like a parent than a teacher.”

More like a mother, you might say. Teaching elementary school has long been seen as women’s work precisely because it involves so much caregiving. That started to change

in the 1970s when a shortage drew a trickle of men into the profession at the primary level, and more for higher grades. In 1989, males accounted for 41 per cent of all Canada’s teachers. But guys, it turns out, don’t have the staying power. Now, only one in three public school teachers are men (one in 10 at the elementary level in Ontario). And with 40 per cent due to retire in the next decade and a shrinking pool of male applicants for teacher’s training, males will be rarer still in the future.

(The same trends are evident in

Jermyn’s early experiences minding younger kids led him to the profession

Britain, Australia and the U.S.) But as we wave farewell to Mr. Chips, the question some are asking is, will the kids—especially the boys—miss him?

Jermyn set his sights on teaching early in life—in Grade 7, when he abandoned his dream of playing professional hockey. “I always got along with younger kids,” he explains. “I looked after my cousins and helped out in my church nursery school.” But a significant number of boys today “believe teaching is women’s work, and men can’t be nurturing,” says David Hill, Jermyn’s boss and director of education at the Lindsay-based Trillium Lakelands District School Board, 90 minutes northeast ofToronto. Ontario university and high school students surveyed for a recent report on

men in teaching co-authored by Hill said they were also turned off by the profession’s low salaries—an average of $39,700 for elementary and $42,500 for secondary teachers in 2000. As well, they cited its beleaguered public status resulting from the turmoil between teachers and government in recent years, and the tiny but alarming possibility of being wrongly accused of professional misconduct. (Discrimination, however, is not an issue: men enter teacher education programs in proportion to the number that apply and, once in jobs, are more likely than women to ascend into administration.)

Jermyn agrees the pay and backlash against teaching can be tough. But false accusations, he insists, are “one of the scariest things about being a teacher.” Although such incidents are extremely rare, he avoids

‘A SIGNIFICANT

number of boys today,’ says a school board director, ‘believe men can’t be nurturing’

being alone in the classroom with a student as much as possible and, when he is, takes care to keep his door open and advise the teacher across the hall. Men also have to deal with the occasional parent, says Paul Toews, a second-grade teacher at Calgary’s Scenic Acres School, “who believes all males in elementary are perverts.” Even those who won’t say so directly will wonder, he adds, “why you’re really there.”

Hill’s report recommends that school boards take some small steps to reverse the so-called feminization of teaching. These include encouraging older boys to tutor or mentor younger students and promoting teaching at career days. It also suggests they explore ways to make it easier for people in mid-career to switch into teaching. Lending these proposals an added sense of urgency is a growing concern about how poorly boys are faring academically vis-à-vis girls—most evident in lagging literacy skills and higher dropout rates. Men in the classroom, the thinking goes, connect better with boys, and thus motivate them to learn.

But slow down a minute—we’re on sensitive territory. Isn’t this the same as saying women teachers are less effective than their male counterparts? Although Jermyn, in his

third year of teaching, wouldn’t go that far, he does see an advantage to men teaching boys. “I know the energy boys have,” he says. “Eve been there.” He points out as well that, when dealing with behaviour issues, size matters. “I’m bigger and louder too. I don’t want to be intimidating, but a little fear breeds respect.” Toews agrees that kids may initially perceive men as tougher. But they soon discover otherwise. As a general rule, he notes, “guys play more than women. I don’t know why, but all male teachers I know fool around with their classes a lot.” Tougher but inclined to fool around. Does that sum up the male teacher? Some experts aren’t convinced that pedagogical styles are gender-linked. “There are plenty of differences in the way men and women use language and relate to others,” says Jane Gaskell, dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. “But there’s a huge overlap” between the sexes, and no definitive research indicating men and women teach differently. More important, she adds, “nothing suggests either men or women are more effective teachers in terms of outcomes.” Hill acknowledges as much. “Bottom line,” he says, “what matters is having a good teacher.”

Nonetheless, he and Garry Jones, a veteran elementary school teacher and a literacy specialist with the Calgary Board of Education, both call for further research to confirm what they intuitively sense. “You may not see test scores go up,” says Jones, who runs a study group called males in education. “But for many children—perhaps more often for boys—to have a man in that year of their lives can make them enjoy school more, and perhaps work harder.”

For Gaskell, the more compelling argument for gender balance in schools is that by interacting with young children in caring, respectful and imaginative ways, men give kids “images of masculinity that are more flexible and open.” That seems like a no-brainer—and Jermyn, Hill, Toews and Jones all bring it up. Yet a recent Australian study of 80 preschoolers found the mere presence of a male teacher doesn’t, in fact, challenge stereotypes. Gaskell counters that such change is extremely gradual and notoriously hard to measure. And she suggests more men in schools “could begin to change all kinds of things about the ways that boys are in the world.” Including, perhaps, their belief teaching isn’t for them. I?]