A plea for help: Policies against touch

[MenTeach: We receive e-mails asking for help. What advice would you provide this man? Identifying information has been removed to protect the confidentiality of all staff.]

Hey fellas,

I have a question about a new policy my center is trying to put into place.

I teach preschool children from ages 2.9 until kindergarten at X Homeless Program. The center director and a family advocate (basically a social worker) met with my teaching team, two men and one woman, yesterday. They told us that parents were concerned about boundary setting in our classroom.

Then they described what they thought it looked like to parents and visitors (we have two windows placed high in one of our walls so that potential donors to our organization can come and look into the classroom). They described scenes like children sitting on our laps, climbing on us, jumping with us, being carried by us, dancing with us, etc. They said that while this is completely normal behavior for a teacher, it sometimes looks bad because parents and visitors may not know the circumstances and specific situations.

They mentioned that we need to be careful of the boundaries we set with children because of fear that they will run up to any man on the street and jump into their laps. I have met with families during intakes to discuss having men in the classroom, try to allay fears, and establish myself as a professional. However the work that we have done is apparently not enough.

In addition the director and advocate expressed that some families were conerned that if their children were to have strong attachments to male teachers, then their attachments to their own fathers would be in jeopardy.

The conclusion to this meeting was a little vague. I expressed that I felt uncomfortable with the topic, that we are aware of the concerns and that we are working individually with children and their families to meet their needs.

They suggested that we have a blanket rule that no children should be allowed to sit on anyone's lap and that we have a curriculum theme about appropriate ways to express affection. I agreed to give it a try to see how it affected our teaching styles. It proved to be very difficult to find appropriate ways to comfort a child without picking them up, holding them, or sitting them on our laps.

I am curious if you have any advice. Is this a typical situation? What can I do now? I am wondering about what is appropriate.

I don't believe that a restrictive atmosphere would be better for the children, but I am always thinking about my own safety and fear of being accused or something.

Best Wishes,

Patrick

[MenTeach replies:]

Hi, Patrick,

I'm really glad you wrote!

First, let me congratulate you on being able to hang in at the program you work. You and I know - AND - most importantly the children know - how important it is that you are with the children.

Your e-mail has created a wonderful firestorm of replies (it looks like you sent it to some other men on the east coast who forwarded your e-mail to me). So be aware that you have much support AND there are many resources available to deal with your question. (I'm sure you're already getting responses).

The first one of many idea is to suggest connecting with Frances Carlson and providing her book to the director and advocate - Essential Touch: Meeting the Needs of Young Children available from NAEYC for $12

I'm including Frances in this e-mail because your story is one that she has heard before - that's why she wrote her book - and I know it will interest her.

I also would like your permission to post your e-mail to MenTeach to get additional responses. I, of course, will remove any identifying information to protect your privacy. I know it will help other men in your situation to not feel isolated and alone.

I suggest that you not use the name of your program - I assume you love your job and from my experience it's important to be thoughtful and respectful of your program director. S/he is certainly in a very challenging position with parents, staff and community and by publicizing your disagreement won't be helpful to you - I know I would feel defensive if you took it public without trying to meeting with me further.

There are numerous comments suggestions that I can provide (and I'm confident others will to) about the significance of your role and that it doesn't have to conflict with the dad's (or mom's as Steve Shuman points out). In addition, I support your director and advocate to support homeless children in having healthy boundaries - I have worked with young children who HAVE run up to me - a complete stranger - and that is inappropriate. I have worked with homeless programs before and the child-family turnover is quite high - so - the children have a short time frame to bond with the teachers. Unfortunately, your director's approach will do the exact opposite of what they intend.

But let me share a perspective that I assume you share:

That the director and advocate TRULY care about the children and that it will serve you well to keep that idea central in your mind as you try to resolve your differences.

Yes - it's unfortunate and wrong that people have prejudice and often the policies they want are not the best for our children. When meeting with your director it is best to emphasize that you want the exact same thing they want - that children are safe - then you can work towards the solution together. From the tone of your letter, I'm sure you understand and appreciate this.

I noticed you mentioned your discomfort with the topic, I hope that with time and support you can become very comfortable with people's discomfort with men in the classroom and appropriate touch. It's unfair, it's not right that people are scared but it IS why we work together (and you e-mailed MenTeach) to try to change people's misinformation and misunderstanding.

I'd encourage you to see this situation as an opportunity to be a teacher - a teachable moment - but this time with adults!

Feel free to contact me or others - you might suggest to your director bringing in someone like Frances who is respectful of your community and culture - or a local person - but it is ESSENTIAL that the person who comes in won't try to "fix" the situation but rather support everybody and be thoughtful in resolving this process of growth.

MenTeach