by Sam de Brito - Blog

I don’t have children but one of my standard questions when I meet young couples is to ask “Do your kids have any male school teachers?” If their biters are in primary school, the answer is invariably “no”, which comes as little surprise considering that just over 20 per cent of primary school teachers nationwide are male.

There are a lot of reasons for this – the rates of pay, the status of teachers in society and the greater threat faced by male educators of being accused of kiddie fiddling, to name a few.

By asking the question that heads this post, I am not attempting to query the fine work done every day by female teachers; I’m interested in knowing whether you think this early dearth of male influence in the lives of young boys actually means anything and if it’s having an effect on them?

It’s an issue that’s far less sexy than global warming, the ‘ice epidemic‘ or the adventures of Shane Warne’s penis, so it tends to bubble just under the public’s radar. However, I wonder if its long-term effects won’t be just as profound? …

In his book Manhood, Australian psychologist Steve Biddulph talks about the tribal upbringings of men past: “Fathers, uncles and grandfathers taught the young men their own work or trade and, at the same time, how to be a man. It was a long apprenticeship: 40-year-olds were still learning.

“All day, every day, boys were surrounded by men, actively (and usually enjoyably) encouraging and teaching them. They drank in deeply the tone, style and manner of being a man from a dozen available role models, who were tough and tender with them as needed.”

This tradition came to a screeching halt thanks to the industrial revolution and, for the first time in history, fathers trudged off to factories at dawn, returning at night and leaving the heavy lifting of child rearing to women.

What it also meant, and means today, is that many kids have virtually no male influences in their life, save on weekends, and if children are being being raised by single mothers, you can scratch the Saturday/Sunday option as well.

Does this matter?

Further on in his book, Biddulph talks of his experiences travelling the world as a speaker on men’s issues: “Everywhere I hear the same message – boys don’t live up to their potential. They don’t have aspirations. They get aggressive. They think it’s ‘cool to be a fool’. The girls are racing ahead, the boys are losing the plot.”

The reasons for this, he says, are many, but one of the most obvious is that “men have disappeared from teaching, especially primary teaching, so boys don’t see learning as masculine.

“Boys with absent or busy fathers don’t aspire to be like Dad. They are governed by the peer group instead. The peer group, unfortunately, is a rather stupid animal.”

And we all know what happens when boys abandon any pretence of learning; delinquency rises, as does drug and alcohol use, violence, self-harm and text-messaging women other than your wife.

According to statistics faxed to me by the NSW Teachers Federation, as of June 30, 2005, there were 14,446 female primary school teachers in NSW compared with just 2820 who were male.

In Victoria for the same period, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were 15,640 primary school female teaching staff as opposed to 3952 who were male.

Of course, this discrepancy changes when you compare the gender breakdown for principals and assistant principals in primary schools in the two states, with men outstripping females despite their lower representation.

What this means is that even in a female-dominated profession, the glass ceiling seems to be in effect and male teachers, whose presence is badly needed in the classroom, are being siphoned off to do administrative work, reinforcing the stereotype to kids that men are remote and inaccessible, just like many of their fathers.

It’s a problem not lost on staff, with one education insider I spoke to about this inequality quipping: “There’s a saying among teachers that if you’re 35 years old, male and not a principal, there really is something suss about you.”

Educators insist, fairly, that the No.1 priority when recruiting teachers is the quality of the candidate and that there are just not the numbers of good male teachers out there compared with women, in part because the profession is so poorly paid.

So what do we do?

At present there are no official policy initiatives in either the NSW or Victorian school system aimed at addressing the gender imbalance, though individual schools are making their own attempts.

A push in 2004 by the Catholic Education Office to introduce male-only scholarships for teaching met with predictable reactions and results and was subsequently abandoned.

There’s a saying that “it takes a village to raise a child”, meaning that the demands of shaping a boy’s development should not be left to one person but to many.

As Biddulph says, “school can, and does provide a way for boys to be socialised and grow into adulthood assisted by resources far beyond those the family can offer alone. School is [a boy’s] last chance to get some surrogate father or mentoring.”

“It’s very striking to realise that 80 per cent of non-readers and problem learners are boys. We can speculate as to whether this is a direct consequence of the inadvertent femininity of schools.”

“Boys need role models who can show them that learning is a masculine activity, that men are interested in them, and are not always remote, critical or uncaring,” says Biddulph.

“This may be their only chance to experience men who are nonviolent, friendly, good at dealing with misbehaviour and interested in their development. Men can show boys that the world of reading, writing, music, art and learning is as much a man’s as a woman’s world.”