by Nalin Ratnayake - Boston Teacher Residency

Something about our visit to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative a couple of weeks ago stuck with me, and it’s only recently that my percolating thoughts on the matter have condensed into something bloggable. During the welcome presentation, a gentleman from the board of DSNI (or possibly DSNCS) came in to say hi. He spoke briefly but warmly. On the way out he turned and added: “And by the way. Fellas. Where you at? Stand up, stand up. [applause] Fellas, I’m glad you’re here. Ladies too, but fellas… thank you for being here.”

At the time, I was caught off guard by the attention and the words. I think that was the first time it really directly occurred to me that I might want to think about what it means to be a male teacher.

Among my reading since then has been G. Jeffrey MacDonald’s article in the Christian Science Monitor, “Too Few Good Men.” The following passage really hit a chord:

On the one hand, a recent survey shows that men continue to shun the field of early childhood education for seemingly timeless reasons: low pay, low status, and stereotypes about teaching youngsters as being a feminine endeavor. Add to the list a heightened fear of being accused of sexual abuse, and the result is a field saddled with a mounting image problem when it comes to recruiting men.

On the other hand, many children without a father at home crave a male presence in the predominantly female domain of elementary school. And as the push for more male teachers grows, a chorus of voices is delivering a fresh case for why men should consider teaching youngsters: They need what men have to offer uniquely as men.

“We all need someone to emulate,” says Bryan Nelson, a former teacher and director of MenTeach, a Minnesota-based organization for the recruitment of male teachers. “Men show boys what they could become. And girls need to see a nurturing male in order to see what kind of men they’d like to have in their lives.”

I then tried looking at Census data to help me characterize the issue in my head, and discovered via KidsCount that 55% of Boston’s children are growing up in a single-parent home (2010). Of all single-parent families, approximately 84% (nationally) are headed by women. One estimate puts the proportion of fatherless homes in urban communities at around 70%.

Whatever the actual number is, the upshot has been that over the last few weeks I’ve had a dawning realization that this isn’t just about poverty, good science education, and closing the achievement gap. I’ve been realizing that in many cases, I might actually be one of a very few men, and perhaps even the only male role model, consistently in the day-to-day life of my students.

By no stretch does that mean that I should, or even can, replace a father figure. But it does mean that I have the potential to create a profoundly positive or negative impact on how my students, of either gender or any gender/sexual identity, view men and deal with men in their adult lives. I will be part of a fabric that can help fight gender role stereotypes, strengthen character, and redefine what “manhood” means to the next generation. That’s a humbling and empowering thought.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. The flip side of the male teacher issue hardly needs explication. Just Google for “male teacher” in the news. As Lauren Cox puts it in “The Mistrusted Male Teacher” :

Nelson, who took a graduate fellowship at Harvard to study men in secondary school teaching, found that overzealous suspicions of sexual abuse are one of the top three reasons why the teaching profession doesn’t draw more men. From his research, the other two reasons are perceptions about men’s nurturing abilities and low social status combined with low pay.

Graham Holley, chief executive of the Training and Development Agency for Schools (U.K.) spells it out more explicitly:

“In my view, the biggest obstacle is society’s attitude. Men are deterred, partly because there is a prurient element of society that questions the motivation when men wish to work closely with young children.

“That is an immensely sad indictment of the way, in this so-called enlightened century, we can still be so uncritically suspicious of people who share the most selfless of motives: to help improve young lives.

“This fear of being labelled a pedophile is the single biggest deterrent to men who would otherwise consider teaching in our primary schools”

(quoted by Martin Beckford in The Telegraph)

That particular quote is for primary school, in which we have the most severe dearth of male teachers, and you can find plenty more with a simple internet search. While I acknowledge the particularly high need for male teachers at the primary school level, I also couldn’t search for “male high school teacher” (or any variants) without having to wade through news media on sexual abuse, teacher-student sex scandals, and harassment allegations.

As an unmarried male in my twenties going into a high school classroom, this clearly has an effect on how others will perceive me and how I perceive my roles and boundaries. The implicit message I’m getting is: “Toe the line, or you’re done. Even if you do toe the line, you might be done anyway.” That is, even if I do nothing wrong, the system appears to have a perception bias and suspicion against me from the start. How do I reconcile this with what everyone agrees is a huge need for increasing the number of healthy and appropriate adult male relationships with youth?

On the one hand, I have a powerful chance to be a much-needed positive male role model for my students, including adolescent female students. On the other hand, I may have to be fighting a constant uphill battle against society’s perceptions of the teaching profession as it relates to masculinity. This is whole thing is not a light subject it turns out; and by the way I haven’t even taught yet, so I’m sure this will be an evolving reflection over the next few years and perhaps beyond.

Here’s where one of the things I love most about BTR comes in: the program is not afraid to talk about this, nor is it afraid to discuss much of anything else for that matter. In our Human Development class a couple of weeks ago, this and many other thorny issues related to the teaching profession were laid out on the table. I really appreciated the chance to discuss these issues in the open with a diverse set of colleagues–to hear from and to learn from our collective experience and wisdom. Because of this willingness to frankly discuss the very real problems we will come across as educators in urban schools, I have a lot of confidence that BTR is actually rigorously preparing me for what I’m up against, and not sending me blind into unfamiliar terrain. This attitude makes me excited for the challenge, despite an increasing awareness of the depth and variety of challenges I will face.

On a more amusing note, Nelson (quoted in Cox, linked above) also appears to hold a dim view of the effect my career transition from research engineering to teaching will have on my dating life:

“And if you’re a single man and you’re going out to date somebody, when they ask you ‘what do you do?’ it [teaching] just doesn’t have the same cache [sic] as saying I’m an engineer or a scientist.”

I guess I wasn’t aware that science nerds and engineers were a particularly hot commodity; though to be fair, I don’t think I actually ever tried the “hey baby, I’m a rocket scientist” line at a bar. The times I could have had… ah well, too late now. Guess I might as well work on that positive male role model schtick and see what that does for me.

It’s not like it’s rocket science–in fact, I think it might be harder.