Society often sees male teachers as some kind of super hero, says Rod Evans. (ABC North Coast: Elloise Farrow-Smith. Digital enhancement: Rod Evans)
During the 1980s, about 30 per cent of teachers in Australian primary schools were men, but those numbers have been in steady decline ever since.
Attempts have been made to encourage more males to take up the profession, but with limited success.
Vaughan Cruickshank, from the School of Education at the University of Tasmania, conducted research around the challenges faced by male primary-school teachers.
He found that three major areas of concern contributing to low numbers of male teachers:
- Fear and uncertainty around physical contact
- Expectations to take on masculine or gendered roles
- Social isolation
“The official stats are that 18 per cent of Australian primary teachers are male, but that number includes principals, PE specialists, etcetera,” Dr Cruickshank said.
“So the actual percentage in the classroom would probably be about 15 per cent.”
Male teachers are feeling the burden of society’s expectations, says Rod Evans. (ABC North Coast: Elloise Farrow-Smith. Digital enhancement: Rod Evans)
Following the rules around contact
The ABC spoke to male teachers about their experiences in schools, and by far the biggest concern for many is the uncertainty around contact with children.
Rod Evans, 43, from Tregeagle in NSW said each day he had to fight his caring instinct to reach out to children in need of comfort.
“Kids want to be comforted, especially when they are crying, but I have to be careful and there are rules about touching children and you have to follow the rules and do the right thing,” Mr Evans said.
Josh Cummings, 24, from Lismore had a similar experience.
Male teachers are concerned about contact issues around children. (ABC North Coast: Elloise Farrow-Smith)
He has worked with children for six years, first in early childhood education, and now half-way through his Bachelor of Education in Primary teaching.
He said some parents asked to only have females handle their children, but said that placed an unfair burden on his female co-workers.
“It makes you feel like you are letting the team down, especially in early childhood,” Mr Cummings said.
“If there is a parent who isn’t keen on letting a guy handle their child — doing nappies and things like that — you have to let the females do that.
“You have to be incredibly careful when it comes to comforting children, it’s so easy for it to be misconstrued.”
Mr Evans said children had few boundaries and would often try to hug teachers.
“I try to give them a pat on the head and then gently push them away because I don’t want to be seen as hugging them back or touching them, or being seen in any way as one of those people who have done bad things to kids,” Mr Evans said.
Dr Cruickshank said his research also showed there were very different societal expectations for men and women teachers when it came to physical contact with children.
Extra responsibilities also included being the go-to when it came to doing the school’s “heavy lifting”.
“There certainly is an expectation to be in charge of discipline or behaviour management within the school, even if you are not one of the leaders,” Dr Cruickshank said.
Being a ‘father figure’
Despite this, there is also an expectation male teachers should function as a father figure.
“Sometimes I am expected to be the nurse, the doctor, the carer, the counsellor, the father figure to these kids,” Mr Evans said.
At just 24, Mr Cummings had already been allocated the ‘fatherhood’ role.
“Everyone is always praising me for being a guy and they talk about how it’s good to have a father figure around, I get that a fair bit,” Mr Cummings said.
Mr Cummings said he wasn’t deterred and loved his job.
Stress versus money
Recently retired primary school teacher Robert ‘Jack’ Phelps has borne witness to the slow extinction of the male teacher.
He has worked in Australian primary schools, large and small, for 38 years.
The former Byron Bay teacher was considered “fair but firm” — a reputation he’s proud of.
It stems from his ability to conduct a class with a no-nonsense approach to behaviour management.
He said he could vouch for the pressures put on the male teacher, and was not surprised by the decline in numbers, saying it came down to stress versus money.
How close is too close for male teachers helping their students? (ABC North Coast: Elloise Farrow-Smith)
“Originally, teachers used to get a fairly good wage but over the years, the amount of money that you got declined and the workload tripled,” Mr Phelps said.
He said the education sector would never see parity or even come close to the male-to-female ratios of the 1980s.
“I believe we will never get back there because people are seeing the limitations they’ve got within the job now, and the amount of work … now being put on teachers, and they think, ‘I don’t want to be involved in that’,” Mr Phelps said.
“Society is pouring on all of these extra responsibilities and the stress level is detrimental to [teachers’] health.”
Bringing male teachers back from the brink
So how does Australia go about attracting men back into the classroom?
Kevin McGrath is the researcher behind Australia’s first longitudinal study of teacher numbers. He has also crunched the national workplace data on the gender and leadership positions in schools.
His studies have found schools are set to run out of male principals in the next 20 years and the male teacher will be extinct in the next 40 years.
Some argue that’s a good thing, given the struggle women face in the workforce, domination in one occupation can be considered a triumph.
Dr McGrath says parents should be concerned because it’s the world where young brains learn what society expects from them.
“In some schools, there are already no male teachers, there is no male principal, the only male in the school is the janitor or the maintenance man,” Dr McGrath said.
“Schools are a microcosm of society, they tell students a lot about the role of men in society.
“That’s part of what schools are teaching children, and teaching them what they can expect of men and what [young males] can aim for.”
Dr McGrath’s 2017 research created a backlash that shocked him.
“There was increased scrutiny of men in the lives of children, and a lot of criticism, [that] men probably shouldn’t have a place in schools because men are dangerous,” Dr McGrath said.
His study might have rung the alarm bell on the extinction of the male teacher population but Dr McGrath said governments had done nothing since his research was published.
“It’s frustrating and disappointing and people who hold decision-making power don’t seem to care,” he said.
“The two groups that do care — parents and children — want male and female teachers and they want teachers from a range of different groups,” he said.
The ABC sought comment from the Federal Department of Education which said in a statement:
“Attracting, supporting and retaining teachers is the responsibility of state and territory governments and non-government education authorities.
“The Government is working with the states and territories to develop a national teacher workforce strategy to better understand the current workforce.”
Male teachers an endangered species
For decades, state governments have made attempts to stem the decline and exodus of male teachers.
In 2001, there was a NSW parliamentary inquiry into male teacher numbers.
The following years also saw Queensland bring in a two-year plan to increase male teacher numbers to 36 per cent.
But as Dr McGrath’s research reveals, male teachers remain firmly on the endangered species list.
Dr Vaughan Cruickshank’s research showed very different societal expectations for male and female teachers. (Supplied: University of Tasmania)
“Universities have tried to offer male-only scholarships in primary teaching programs but I think they fell foul of the Sexual Discrimination Act,” Dr Cruickshank said.
Other initiatives included the University of South Australia’s ‘Men-tor’ program to encourage more men into early childhood education.
Dr Cruickshank said society needed to stop expecting male teachers to be the goal-kicking, football-coaching, tree-climbing, furniture-moving, father figure and all-round super hero.
“It’s easy to get the male teachers to cover the sport, get up on the roof to get the balls or help the groundsmen,” he said.
“Obviously, some men might want to be that kind of man but that shouldn’t be what all male primary teachers are expected to be.”
Who asked the question?
Sally Sedwick from Byron Bay is a retired high school teacher.
She wanted to know why there were so few male teachers in primary schools.