Bryan Nelson wants to see more men on the playground and in the classroom.
Two-year-old Emme Sugnet’s feet came out from under her at the top of a playground slide. She slid a couple feet flat on her back wearing that puzzled look toddlers get when trying to decide if they’re wounded. Then she burst into tears. “I want my mommy!” she cried.
Bryan Nelson scooped her up and held her close.
“I know you do,” he murmured. “Of course you do.”
Nelson isn’t Emme’s dad, or even her uncle. He’s a family friend who makes time to babysit a half-day every week. Caring for young children has been Nelson’s passion and off-and-on profession since he was a college student.
Now, he’s the first man to become president of the Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children. With a degree from Harvard behind him, he’s using the position to push his cause — to get more men working in early education.
Men make up less than 5 percent of child-care providers and preschool teachers. And, according to a survey from the National Education Association, men are leaving the teaching profession in droves. In 1981, males made up 18 percent of elementary school teachers — an all-time high. Today, the figure is 9 percent.
“We have more women going to law school and medical school, we have women going to war, we have women going to the Olympics,” Nelson said. “Well, are men entering predominantly female fields in the same numbers? Are they going into education? The answer is, no.”
As Nelson held Emme, crowds of children poured from a nearby public school onto the playground for recess. A half-dozen watchful women strolled and chatted on the periphery.
“How many men do you see on the playground?” he said. “None. It’s not a reflection of the world. Children need men, strong men, nurturing men in their daily lives.”
NO MEN’S BATHROOMS
Nelson’s wanderlust led him to child care. While he was a college student, his Russian professor steered him to a summer job at a camp for diplomats’ children in the former Soviet Union. He ended up staying a year in Moscow on a nanny visa — he called it his “manny visa.” Then he landed a job as an assistant to Pulitzer Prize-winner Edmund Stevens at the Sunday Times of London. The job involved caring for the journalist’s young granddaughter.
Later, Nelson followed his girlfriend to Paris, where he coached high school basketball and volleyball. He has always loved sports. As the youngest son of an Air Force bomber pilot, he moved frequently with his family.
“If you knew how to play sports, you immediately fit in,” said Nelson, who graduated from high school in Duluth.
After Paris, it was back to Minnesota. He found factory work boring, and once again, ended up working with children.
“It was random chance that I landed in this field,” he said. “But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to believe this is one of the most revolutionary ways to improve the world. You think, ‘This child I’m working with could be the future president.’ My spending time with children has an exponential influence.”
Later, working at the Seward Childcare Center in Minneapolis, Nelson found a mentor who encouraged him to stay in the field. It also sunk in how rare he was.
“I’d go to early childhood conferences and all the men’s bathrooms would have been converted to women’s bathrooms,” he recalled. “I’d have to ask the janitor where the men’s bathrooms were. And then, in the men’s bathrooms, I’d finally bump into the handful of other men who were at the conference.”
Slowly, a support network of men in child care grew. But the support wasn’t enough to keep Nelson in the job.
WHY MEN DON’T TEACH
Nelson quit and went to nursing school after meeting his wife. He needed money to support his two stepchildren and worked six years as a nurse before getting back into early childhood education. This time, he took a better paying manager’s job as director of health at Head Start in Minneapolis. The part of his job he found most exciting was figuring out ways to get fathers and men more involved in children’s lives.
In 1997, he applied for a Bush Leadership fellowship that allowed him to study for a master’s degree in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at Harvard.
There, he was able to flesh out the problem: Why don’t more men care for little kids? It’s not as simple as low wages (though that is what drove Nelson from the classroom).
Nelson conducted a survey that suggests three other reasons: stereotypes about appropriate male roles, fear of abuse allegations and the fact that caring for young children is a low status job.
Nelson has confronted the stereotypes himself.
“People assume that I’m a gay man,” he said. “When I was younger and more insecure, I’d quickly say I’m married and have kids. Now, I don’t say anything. I want to challenge their assumptions.”
The fears of abuse allegations have deterred men from working in the field. Nelson knows at least one male colleague who left child care after being falsely accused. Fears of lawsuits and parents’ uneasiness have also kept center directors from hiring men.
Low status associated with “women’s work” has also kept men out.
“As a society, we talk about valuing our young ones, yet teachers of young kids are paid less than dog catchers,” he said. “To me, that’s shocking.”
WORKING FOR THE FUTURE
Nelson now manages a recruitment and retention program for men in early childhood education called MenTeach (www.menteach.org). He consults with school districts and universities and other groups around the country.
Most recently, he has been organizing the annual training conference for the Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children coming up this weekend, which for the first time will have a track of seminars devoted to fathers and male involvement.
“I think it’s fabulous to have him as the president, in a more visible role,” said Patty Finstad, director of the University of Minnesota Childcare Center, which, like most centers, has no men among its 26 full-time teachers. “It’s sort of like a woman becoming CEO of a company that’s been dominated by males. I think it’s going to be important for the female work force to listen to Bryan and to find out from him what we can do to attract more men.”
Ideally, Nelson would like to work part time in a center or classroom. But for now, he stays in touch with kids by caring for Emme. On a recent weekday, she arrived at his house in her mother’s arms, wearing her shirt backward because she had put it on herself. She had a big smile for “Bri Bri” and put out her arms for him without a fuss when her mother said goodbye. On most days, he lets her set the agenda.
“I want to go in my stroller,” she said. So he buckled her in and they walked to the park. It had been raining and water had pooled on the slide and swings and in the metal tunnel. As she explored, Nelson followed a couple yards behind, letting her get wet and scrub at the puddles with a soggy napkin. Soon, she wandered back to the stroller and became preoccupied with trying to clip the plastic buckle. As her tiny hands missed the slot again and again, her mouth puckered in frustration.
“Want some help?” Nelson finally asked. At the sound of the click, her face lit up.
Do men interact with children differently than women do? It’s an age-old question and one that Nelson is hesitant to answer.
“I know that I just really love kids to have enough independence in their lives to figure things out,” he said. “I think fathers tend to do that a little bit more, they tend to let the child go out into the world and explore maybe a bit more. Women might do it a bit differently. That’s why I think we need men. They are a great complement.”