Eddie Murphy may have felt like a loser when his former boss in “Daddy Daycare” typecast daycare work as “wiping boogers for a living,” but it’s men like preschool assistant teacher Ryan Martin who’ve been left to defend themselves in the real world of childcare. Working in daycares since high school, Mr. Martin, 38, once deflected the sophomoric jabs from classmates that would put any Hollywood screenplay to shame. “Oh yeah, I work in a daycare but I’m the bouncer,” he would tell them, and has since held his own in a setting that many still consider the sole propriety of women.
That consideration does not prevail where he has been employed for the previous five years. His application, says Dotti Jordan, Executive Director of the Mt. Kisco Daycare Center, “was an opportunity not to be missed.” She can now boast five males on a staff of 30.
Remarkable, considering that males only make up 3% of the workforce, although it doesn’t come without adding some unique challenges. Foremost, according to Ms. Jordan, is the reality of men changing diapers.
For parent Beth Logan, knowing that men are subjected to the same level of background check did not alleviate those concerns. “I was very sensitive to the situation and actually had to talk to people about it,” she says. Ultimately, her fears subsided as she and her two year old daughter both built strong bonds with male staff.
Janine Felice, the daycare’s Finance Executive, also struggled with anxiety when her son entered the center. Very nervous, she says, “I didn’t know how I felt seeing men in a child group setting with my son still in diapers.” Ensured that she could ask as many questions as needed, their initiation confirmed for her that building trust between families and staff takes on an added dimension here.
Taking a direct approach works for Will Grandberg, as he sometimes senses a degree of trepidation when parents first see him. “I like to say hello, introduce myself and let them know I enjoy working with children,” says the assistant teacher.
The 21 year old philosophy student just tries to be the best role model he can be, but if apprehension exists so does the reverse. “I was thrilled,” says Dyllan Weigal, “in fact I was hoping there would be more male teachers.” Emphasizing the importance of a daycare that’s not unisex, she loves having men involved with her toddler in falling down physical play.
“Giving them a little rough and tumble,” says Mike Kernan on how child’s play differs in men. Mr. Kernan, 35, feels the shortage of male teachers diminishes the amount of controlled contact activity, leaving children with less knowledge of what their bodies can do.
An issue fathers obviously feel close to. With his 18 month old daughter in attendance, Ed Goralski says, “It’s important because men and women play differently with children, and if kids only see women outside the home, they miss out.”
These kids also will be less likely to miss out on the lessons men learn through play. For the most part, “Women are nurturers, says the center’s Program Director, Dawn Meyerski, “and they don’t want anybody to feel bad so they want everybody to win.”
That does not mean daily activities push for winners and losers, but a certain amount of testosterone on staff helps teach an important lesson. “You don’t always win in life and learning to lose graciously is part of development,” she says.
Although parents aren’t only falling over themselves just so their kids can learn to fall down. Having her three children pass through Mr. Martin, Gerry Tortorella finds his gentle, supportive nature of great importance to her daughter, but even more so for her two boys. “The more they get to see men as caregivers, the easier it will be for them when it’s their turn,” she says.
Still, Ms. Meyerski must sometimes remind her female teachers to balance their mindset in remembrance of boys. “There needs to be trucks and cars in the room,” she says, “because girls need to know that they too can be mechanics and boys need to know that they can bake bread.”
But what about the old-fashioned notion that a father figure commands obedience by sheer presence. “Not with these kids,” says Ms. Meyerski, as she finds her male teachers have mastered play but lag behind commanding respect.
Camille Ciacci, preschool head teacher, has come to a similar conclusion. “For the men I work with,” she says, “crowd control is not their strong suit,” although she feels men forge stronger relationships in smaller groups.
Relationships building takes on added significance especially when the family structure has broken down. “It’s ultra-important that she has that male influence,” says single mom Cristin Cilento of her daughter. The way “Sierra” has grown attached to the male teachers demonstrates, says Ms. Cilento, “that she is capable of developing close relationships with someone other than a female.”
A role Mr. Martin does not take lightly. “It’s kind of intimidating, he says, “because you realize the responsibility you have,” but the lack of men in daycare is not necessarily an issue to be solved by men. At least, that is according to Louis Torelli, co-author of “Educating and Caring for Very Young Children” and daycare teacher/administrator in California for the last 25 years.
Since women occupy 99% of daycare positions, he says, women must condition the men in their lives into seeing childcare as a worthwhile occupation. In addition, administrators need to reach out to schools – providing volunteer programs for adolescent boys. Reasoning, once the first male comes aboard, he says, “men will feel more comfortable about considering a job when there’s already a man there,” he added.
But the fifth man hired at Mt. Kisco Day Care would see it the same even if he had been the first. “I consider myself an assistant preschool teacher, says James Hepburn, “and that’s what I consider myself.” No punch line needed.