Column: Men in Early Childhood Education - On the Retreat In Hawaii

by Donald E. Piburn, M.S.Ed

[MenTeach: Don Piburn has been working in early education for years. He has been instrumental in recruiting and retaining men teachers through his work in Hawaii hosting MenTeach retreats, serving on the AEYC affiliate board and being a founding father of the World Forum Men in Early Childhood Education (MECE). You can also read Roberto Reggio's reflection, one of the participants of that retreat. These articles were written 10 years ago and are still relevant to our work today.]

Our Hawaii Affiliate of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) - Men in Education Network Retreat was a resounding success!

By design, the majority of attendees were men who work directly with young childre,n birth through age 8 years old, yet their professional positions and experiences range from PhD's and teachers of 25 years, to first-year students, teacher assistants, and a long-time doorman at an early childhood center.

Attendee evaluations were filled with descriptive words like "amazing," "rejuvenating," and "healing."

All gratitude belongs to those who pioneered the retreat concept, as we just followed the dots from Bryan Nelson's NAEYC bulletin: "How to Organize a Retreat for Men."

We restricted this first effort to a one-day event and kept the total numbers to less than 20 as suggested in the bulletin, but by the end of the day our collective mantra was: "We have got to do this again and soon!"

Since males (boys and men) are typically action-oriented, an initial activity during our Hawaii Association for the Education of Young Children - Men in Education Network Retreat involved four signposts with the words "Never," "Hardly Ever," "Sometimes," and "Always" placed on a continuum across the length of the room.

The male early childhood educators were instructed to move to the sign that most closely approximated their answer to general statements like "I change diapers," "I am the only guy in professional settings," "unfamiliar men/women respond positively on learning what I do for a living," and the like.

As the majority of us shifted back and forth along the scale between always and never, master teacher Nailima Gaison of the non-profit Aha Punanaleo - a Hawaiian language and cultural immersion early childhood program (http://www.ahapunanaleo.org) and a contingent of our Hawaiian male counterparts frequently aligned at the opposite ends of the continuum from the rest of us.

Their actions vividly illustrated several cultural and systemic gender equity contradictions. The transmission of culture occurs through communication, and as the language goes, so goes the culture.

After hundreds of years of physical, cultural, and political oppression the Hawaiian language is disappearing. For Hawaiians and many other indigenous peoples, the act of pulling back from the brink of linguistic and cultural extinction inspires a breathtaking depth of commitment.

Gender equity is virtually a non-issue for most of these male early childhood educators as the whole of the "ohana" (Hawaiian for family and inclusive of the entire community that raises the children) sees their "kumu" (teachers) as front-line linguistic and cultural champions.

Consequently in these Hawaiian "language-nest" early childhood programs there are sometimes as many male kumu as female, plus father and father figure involvement in school activities and governance far surpasses what is typical for elsewhere in the field of early childhood education.

Though Aha Punanaleo provides developmentally appropriate education as a program service, the net flow of resources, supports, and services is as much into as out of their early childhood programs.

The wages and benefits of the kumu are not exceptional, but the community's admiration, respect and commitment for what they do run deep. Another glaring cultural paradox arose in response to retreat discussions about "no touch" policies.

Touch, hugging and physical closeness is a nearly universal value in Hawaiian culture. The very idea that members of the ohana should not touch one another, let alone not touch the children could be viewed as a cultural affront bordering on madness.

Their example to the rest of us is humbling. Our society is turning a corner of sorts as more and more men take up domestic tasks including caring for young and very young children. According to a survey by "Reach Advisors" quoted in Exchange Everyday on July 15, 2004, roughly half of Gen-X fathers devoted three to six hours a day to domesticity; only 39% of baby-boomer dads could say the same.

Men's sense of belonging in the culture of early childhood education will come only as the number of involved men multiplies.

Through the "kane" (men) and "wahine" (women) of the Aha Punanaleo ohana we can see gender equity in early childhood education as it can be, and the question that emerges is: Why not such parity for all early childhood educators?

October 2004