Benefits and Challenges of Male Early Childhood Teachers in Trinidad and Tobago

by Sabeerah Abdul-Majied and Kerwyn Seenath

There are few men in Early Childhood Education in Trinidad and Tobago (island population 1.2 million). In fact the total is 6 male teachers trained in Early Childhood (EC) in a twin island republic with 167 government and government assisted EC centres and 865 private EC centres. The number of male early educators seems strikingly low particularly since the government in its quest for quality EC provision is currently funding the expansion of the EC sector. With a budget of approximately US $73 million planned for achieving Universal Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) by 2015, new Centres are being built, partnership arrangements with private sector proprietors are being finalised and free teacher training is being provided for EC teachers to the undergraduate degree level. Yet in spite of all the government spending on the sector, there seems to have been some oversight somewhere. Male teachers continue to be almost non-existent in preschool classrooms in Trinidad and Tobago.

There are several reasons why men are underrepresented in early education locally. First of all the under representation is part of a culture which recognises that the business of educating young children is a woman's job. There are hidden sanctions that steer men away from early education. When three male EC educators were asked about the nature of the discrimination they experienced, they identified challenges in the workplace. These included having their ideas trivialized by female peers at staff meetings. Also though not verbalised, there were limits to the type of care that a male EC teacher could provide to young children, especially girls.

Secondly there were challenges from parents and other community members. One teacher explained the discrimination he has had to "swallow" over the years to continue being an EC teacher. He said, "There are stigmas attached and at times one could be ridiculed for (being male and) working with children of that age". Sometimes male EC teachers have their sexuality questioned. Always they went through a period of initiation where they had to gain the trust of community members regarding safety, care and nurturing issues before being accepted.

Another area of challenge is the personal conflicts experienced. One teacher stated that reflecting about his negative experiences sometimes, contributed to low motivation which he said, "is a challenge that I force myself to overcome because I understand the importance of a quality early childhood experience (which I could provide)". On days when he was demotivated, Mr. Paul questioned his ability to nurture a child; a quality which society "told" him was a female trait.

In addition, monetary compensation for EC workers is relatively low. Low wages makes it difficult for men who are usually the providers, to attain a decent standard of living for themselves and their families. While remuneration for EC teachers has recently been substantially increased, this information is not widely known. The perception still exists that the salary is low. This unfortunately continues to dissuade men from seeking employment in the Early Childhood sector.

As a teacher educator at the University, my experience has been that the few men, who choose to pursue the undergraduate Early Childhood Education Degree programme, graduate at the top of the class. They are extremely brilliant and possess innovative ideas for teaching young children. One male EC provider expressed the viewed that, "Men in ECCE are imperative to the field. Just like women, men can contribute to the development of several programs within the institution based on their expertise, knowledge and skill."

All respondents expressed the view that children benefit the most when they have male early childhood educators as well. Men deal with some situations differently. They also provide an alternative experience for the child and family. In one situation Mr. John noted that child rearing issues critical for the child's development and learning would sometimes naturally follow discussions about a football match. Women would hardly bond with fathers through conversations about a sporting event.

Male EC educators also fulfill the fatherly role which is critical especially for those, "whose fathers are absent in their lives." They sometimes provide the only opportunity for young boys to be able to identify and communicate with another male. Mr. Smith stated, "I have experienced first-hand where both boys and girls, without fathers adopted me as their father. Even their mothers were depending on me to provide love, security and discipline to their children. I could name a few who even after having completed school are grown and still maintain strong positive bonds with me."  Sometimes male teachers continue to attend graduation functions for past students who are well into their teens.

In one disadvantaged community the image of a "Father Figure" has taken on a new dimension. Mr. Thomas is the father to whom children without a father in their lives, bring gifts and cards on Father's Day. He provides food for children as well as the needed male voice to enforce discipline at times. His role also includes raising the children's self-esteem and advocating for a change in the negative perceptions of children from the community. He even teaches children the social graces necessary for functioning in the wider community.

Mr. Carmona, president of the Republic recently renewed his appeal for more male teachers in classrooms throughout the country. The ratio throughout the system is currently 72% female to 28% male teachers. He advised the authorities to encourage men to go into the teaching profession. His concern was raised during a ceremony for President's Medals for achievers in Education, where five of the six young adults receiving awards were female. The education minister also alluded to, "the need for male model figures within the school system." He noted too the detrimental effect to the development of boys into manhood, when fathers are underrepresented in society and male teachers are too few in classrooms.

Moving forward we need more men in education including Early Education. There is need for advocacy to strengthen the president's appeal for more males in classrooms and to highlight and address the dire situation in EC classrooms. Tertiary institutions and society have to underscore the importance of men in EC. Serious effort is needed by all to "defeminize the field." Mr. Smith summed it up nicely when he said, "Just like women, men with expertise, knowledge and skill can contribute to the development of several programmes. Early Childhood is one of them!"


Sabeerah Abdul-Majied (PhD)
The University of the West Indies
St Augustine Trinidad
www.uwi.edu
1-868-662-2002 Ext. 83829