by Teacher Tom

This is the time of year when my gender comes up a lot at school. I usually don’t think much about it during the rest of the year, but February and early March are when prospective new families tour the school and many of them want a moment to speak with me. Most of these conversations include a sentence along the lines of, “My child would really thrive with a male teacher.”

I think I know what they mean. I think what they’re talking about is that male teachers are stereotyped as being more tolerant of loud, active play. I think what they’re saying is that they can’t imagine their 2-year-old sitting still for long stretches of time, just watching or singing or listening to stories, which is, of course, a not-so-flattering stereotype of female teachers. That said, I do tend to not just tolerate, but encourage loud, active play, but I know plenty of female teachers who do the same.

In general, I’m uncomfortable talking about gender, and while I acknowledge that I often benefit as a teacher from gender stereotyping, I am in awe of so many female teachers that I would never hazard to suggest that I have any advantages over any other teacher by virtue of my gender.

Last Fall I wrote about the futility of trying to get anything useful out of dividing human beings by gender and my discomfort in even discussing gender differences. In that post, I told this story:

Many years ago, my wife and I belonged to a couple’s book club. One of the books we read was Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand, which catalogs the different ways men and women communicate and why we so often misunderstand one another. Everyone in the book club agreed that Tannen had hit the nail on the head, yet every one of us also agreed that the dynamics she outlined didn’t apply to our own relationships.

I then tried to explain my opinion about gender labels:

When it comes to our friends and family, when it comes to the individual students in my class, there is nothing important to learn from Teacher Tom’s observations or Deborah Tannen’s parsing of gender and communication. Labels have their uses, but not when it comes to real relationships between real people. The only labels that matter to individuals are the labels they apply to themselves, be they 2 or 92. It’s not our place to insist that they’ve mislabeled themselves, but rather to try to understand and accept them at their word.

I always find myself getting twisted into a pretzel in talking about gender because I genuinely believe that any sentence that begins with “Men are . . .” or “Women are . . .” is a false statement and I intend to deal in truth.

That said, there are probably some valid academic uses for studying gender tendencies, which is why I’ve agreed to fill out a questionnaire for a study being conducted by a student in developmental psychology at Johnson State College in Vermont. This and our ongoing tours have got me thinking about gender again.

With the advent of our new playground, our slightly less new Little World play area has fallen on hard times. As the kids are actively exploring our new sand pit, water play, tinkering area, and garden, this “outdoor doll house” zone has been almost completely abandoned. That is, until yesterday, when Dennis’ dad Terry was responsible for the Little World station. He immediately dropped to his knees in the damp wood chips that pave the area and began playing with the various “loose parts” there, all the while carrying on an imaginative narrative. Within minutes he was surrounded by children, and for the first time in awhile, Little World was alive with activity.

Just the night before, in working on the Johnson State College questionnaire, in answer to the question, What do you think the differences are between a male and a female worker at a daycare or preschool? I had written:

At bottom, I feel like the men who work in our preschool see playing with the kids to be their main reason for being there, while the women are more likely to see their main role as taking care of the kids.

This is not to say that women aren’t perfectly competent players and men are not perfectly competent caretakers, but I’ve often observed that the women I work with put more emphasis on the intellectual, emotional and physical well-being of the children, while men tend to concentrate on getting a gang of kids doing something together. I see great power in both perspectives and this is why I would like to see more men in the largely female profession.

Speaking directly to my own teaching style, I approach my class work very much the way I approached the 40+ baseball teams I coached (with players ranging from 4-years-old to 30) before becoming a teacher. I’m not necessarily conscious of this, but when I step back and take a look at what I’m doing, this is what I see. It’s all about the team and getting everyone involved. My best days are the ones when I can get a large gang of kids engaged in a single, communal project. You know, teamwork.

Observing Terry’s play in Little World yesterday, I wonder if this might be a more “male” approach to working with young children. We tend to make games out of things, be they strategic, dramatic, or competitive, and these games require pulling others in, helping them find their roles, all the while keeping up a steady stream of “coach-y” banter. I often observe the fathers with whom I work engaged in this kind of activity with children, be it working together to build a fort that will never be finished, taking roles in a dress-up game that involves periodically running for shelter, or playing a game of one-upmanship at the sensory table.

I’m curious what others think about this question. I know that there are plenty of playful women out there, I work with them every day, but I wonder if others see this as being linked to gender or am I way off base.

I really don’t know and it’s not particularly important to me, but since there do seem to be a lot of parents out there who are actively seeking out a male teacher, I guess I should at least try to become better able to understand what they’re talking about

(If you’re interested in more of my general confusion and discomfort about discussing gender, my only other posts on the topic are Being A Man, which is an attempt to discuss masculine love, and Riding Our Hobby Horses Along The King’s Highway, which I quoted from above.)Go to his blog to read his other articles about gender.