A few years ago, when I started to seriously consider a career in teaching, the possibility of specialising in teaching the under-sixes didn’t even cross my mind. For me the choice was whether to train as a secondary English or primary school teacher.
After much thought, I applied for a primary place on the Teach First Leadership Development Programme and, to my surprise, was offered early years – back then, I wasn’t even entirely clear what “early years” meant (it’s from birth to age five). But after some research into the play-based ethos of the curriculum for the under-fives, I chose to accept. A year or so later, I stood nervously at the gates of the east London nursery and children’s centre, at which I was to spend the first two years of my career.
My choice didn’t go unchallenged. More than a few people raised concerns with me about the pitfalls of being a man working in early years. These pertained primarily to an irrational culture of suspicion surrounding such men, and I was warned a number of times that I’d have to be “extra careful”.
It didn’t help that around this time I watched Thomas Vinterberg’s powerful drama The Hunt, about a Danish kindergarten teacher wrongly accused of abusing a child in his class. I also had anxieties about whether there would be sufficient opportunities for career progression, and the extent to which I would feel adequately challenged.
I’m clearly not alone in the apprehension I felt before starting. The percentage of male early years teachers is tiny: it currently floats around the 3% mark.
When I look back on how I felt that first day at the gates of my new workplace, I can understand why. However, thrown straight into the process of welcoming a new class, there was no time to dwell on anything, and any fears I had about challenge were swiftly alleviated. While I was the only male in the team, and still am, I did not feel in any way the focus of anyone’s suspicion. I simply asked a few questions about the policies on contact with children, which were met with clarity and reassurance, and got on with the job.
I am now nearing the end of my second year and would describe my time in the classroom as a rich and fascinating experience. But it has not been easy, and I am passionate that others in the wider teaching profession and beyond understand the refined skillset required for success in early years (I’ve heard too many fellow teachers talk down teaching in early years).
We need to strive for a much better gender balance among early years teachers. Good role models for boys early on in life are essential, particularly considering the gender gap. While these role models can, of course, be male or female, if boys see men immersed in picture books, belting out nursery rhymes, and drawing and talking about pictures with enthusiasm, it stands to reason they’ll feel that these are things they too can enjoy.
It can’t be underestimated just how important it is for boys to experience men in caring, nurturing roles if they are to grow into the kind of adults we want in society. It can also have a positive effect on girls’ expectations of the men in their lives. And it’s important to have a diverse workforce, with a variety of interaction styles, interests and approaches to teaching, to ensure children are receiving an appropriately rounded education reflecting the gender balance in their communities.
Striving for greater balance in a traditionally female-centric profession is also a constructive move in the wider context of gender equality. Demonstrating that men are also prepared to adapt and challenge long-established norms can only be a good thing.
So how do we promote nursery teaching as a positive career for men? There are no simple solutions, but we must avoid stereotyping and work to promote a better understanding and appreciation of early years education as a tough and rewarding career for both men and women.
There should also be an onus on schools and nurseries to encourage men already in the teaching profession to think about positions in nursery and reception classes.
The benefits for me, both personally and professionally, of teaching in early years have been immense, and I have felt in no way out of place; I am simply another member of a great team in our nursery. I highly recommend it.
Tim Cooke is a freelance journalist and teacher.