by Dr. Jill Klefstad - UW Stout

Twenty-five years ago, while attending the National Association of Education of Young Children (NAEYC) conference for the first time, I became interested in the male perspective of teaching young children. It was during this conference that I found myself drawn to presentation topics given by men in early childhood education. While the issues presented about young children were parallel to those that women presented, there was something unique about the demonstration style and the message carried by the male speakers. Even more significant, my thinking was altered as I looked around and realized that I was a minority among this sea of men! How grateful I am for having experienced this moment for it has become monumental in my work with male students who choose early childhood education as a profession.

Reflecting upon my emotions during those meetings, I recall a sense of inferiority and exclusion which paralyzed me from speaking out. I also felt a tinge of guilt for previously using my male colleagues to help me with unruly children or move heavy boxes. However, I realized that no matter what the circumstance, I, as a woman, was accepted, without question, for what I taught in my classroom. Whether it was my teaching practices or activities such as block play, a woodworking center, or rough and tumble play, I did not have to defend the how or the why because I was a female.

I will forever be indebted to one of the male early childhood students, Joe, in the ECE program. During one conversation with him, Joe was candid about what it was like to sit in the undergraduate classes filled with women and taught by one of four female faculty members. Joe gave examples of instances that made him uncomfortable. These included; the referral of teachers as ‘she’, asking him to pull down the projector screen because of his height, or requesting that the men move the heavy boxes used during class. This honest conversation between Joe and me, was the turning point that showed me how my own biases were blinding and limiting. This changed my perspective on teaching.

Thus, I began to examine attitudes of female early childhood women toward male early childhood teachers. It is apparent in any school setting that there are certain women who like to work with men and others who do not. I have observed this phenomenon over the years at this public institution. For example, twenty-five years ago there were three male faculty members in the early childhood department but I watched as seasoned female faculty wore them down until they ended up pursuing jobs at other institutions and in other professions. I am not certain about the history of those women’s attitudes nor what they believed an early educator should look like but undoubtedly, it did not include welcoming male teachers in the early childhood field. I assume that the male faculty were hired to satisfy a ‘diversity’ requirement for the institution however, the lack of support of these men or any diverse population in a predominately white university impacts the retention as well as recruitment of the population.

When I think about myself, I must admit that I do like men. I like to work with them and appreciate their style of leadership. The men I have worked with and worked for, have a keen sense on how to call a spade a spade. They also have the ability to address an issue and move forward, not harboring the fact. In contrast, some women I have worked with and alongside of, seem to begrudge, retaliate, and harbor differences between us. Perhaps the ease of my relationship with men has something to do with my history and my relationship to my father. I suppose that could be something a therapist would be better able to tell me but the aspects of my own father’s character were his straightforward attitude, his ability to redirect through example and guidance, his integrity, and honesty. These are attributes I seek to find and refine in the male students currently enrolled in the early childhood education program.

Through our men’s student organization, the MEN in education Facebook page, and the research I do will continue to support male students by connecting them to other strong men who model the dispositions of honesty, integrity, and a passion for teaching young children.

Our Men in Education group is small and each month we struggle to get enough men to attend the monthly meeting. However, in February, three of our former Men in Education members who are currently student teaching, were invited to come back to the group to share what they have learned throughout these four years. I had President Dylan Lubs summarize the presentation:

Our guest speakers: Dylan, Matt, and Adam did a great job expressing their passion for children through the experiences and their time at UW-Stout. They all felt that it can be stressful and complicated while making it through the program but ultimately feel prepared once they started their student teaching placements.

For those attending the meeting, their message brought reassurance of the impact we can have in the classroom. They shared endless stories of how simple daily conversations with students as well as the lessons learned through observing the cooperating teacher can impact teaching. The willingness of these guys to help those of us through the rest of the program who may have questions and concerns as we all begin to think about student teaching and passing benchmarks is appreciated.

Serving as advisor to these three presenters since their freshman year has given me a chance to get to know of their honesty and integrity and to support them in their journey. As these men shared about their experiences at the university, and as student teachers, and spoke of their excitement to be graduating in May and finding a job, well, it is no wonder that I continue to find happiness and contentment being a woman in a sea of men.