‘You teach primary? But you’re a bloke?

‘You’ll be expected to lift things, get things off shelves and carry anything that’s heavy. Say no. Do not let yourself be defined by your gender.’

This was the instruction I received at The University of Winchester in 2010 during my >Men in Teaching< lecture. It was held in a room built for 200 yet there were only 7 of us. 7 out of 75 on my course. For a few it was a second career. The whole thing, for me, felt farcical. Firstly the assumption that women are somehow incapable of lifting things and secondly that I would refuse to help. Why if I would help someone carry their shopping or get something off a high shelf in a supermarket would I not help future colleagues that ask for it? This kind of confusion over gender identity in schools is dangerous and has a real tangible impact.

Fast forward 7 years and the number of men teaching in primary schools sits at around 15%. Why? What prevents men from joining the teaching profession, from inspiring our youngest minds and from taking on an incredibly hard, but fulfilling challenge?

A significant part of the problem is pay. Let’s not beat around the bush, teachers are not paid well. With men still representing 59% of the main earners in a household, pay naturally has an impact. This is why so many men want to climb the ladder so quickly. To maximise earnings in a sector that they love and wish to remain in. This is the quandary I myself am in. However this can’t be the only reason.

It seems to me its reputation. Or lack of reputation for male teachers in primary. Even more so if you want to work with our youngest children.

I genuinely feel that for many men primary teaching is simply not presented as a ‘normal’ career option. I have lost count of the number of sympathetic ‘oh that’s nice’ responses when I tell people what I do, lost count of the confused looks and ‘did you not fancy secondary?’  It’s not a joke, it’s a real issue and many male teachers have got in touch with me to discuss their experiences. Lots of them unfortunately are rooted in safeguarding. There is an underlying suspicion of men in primary, one that people do not speak of but is certainly there.

Once children reach Upper Key Stage 2 they generally split to get changed. This works fine if there happens to be a male and female in say a 2 form school. But what if it was 2 men? I don’t enter the room when the girls are changing but teachers, and teaching assistants that are female, will think nothing at all of walking in on the boys? One teacher contacted me to say his TA actually entered the room saying ‘its ok boys I’ve seen it all before!’ Let’s be frank this is blatant sexism, there is an assumption being made that I am a risk or that I’m under suspicion. An assumption not made of female colleagues. It gets worse when changing for swimming or water sports is involved. I have been told of female members of staff that have stayed inside communal changing rooms whilst children change, admittedly this was several years ago and was to ‘stop them mucking around’ but it sent a shiver down my spine imagining the headlines if I were to do such a thing. Children routinely fling their arms round female colleagues, especially younger ones, I have fantastic support in my current school but in previous ones I’ve been told that I’m not allowed to receive a hug because I’m male. In a primary school in Liverpool a male teacher was told children couldn’t sit on his lap if upset but could if it was a female member of staff. When he challenged this it was met with ‘well you’re a bloke.’ Apparently we can’t be trusted.

In pubs I’ve been drunkenly asked ‘you teach primary, just enjoy hanging around with little kids eh?’ and ‘guy teachers always worry me, it’s like vicars isn’t it, they love touching kids too.’ Disgusting and thank goodness rare but these kind of interactions are not unheard of and most male teachers you speak to will have had comments of a similar ilk directed at them.

Working in an industry dominated by women has many benefits but it can have its drawbacks. Many men report feeling isolated and locked out of conversation with staff rooms simply not worth visiting. Others that spoke to me about being mothered and treated like little school boys themselves having to leave their school in search of respect and to be treated as a professional, an equal.

WomenEd do a fantastic job in supporting aspiring and existing female leaders in schools but if I were starting my career again I see nobody supporting people like me. Nobody representing or helping young men who want to work with small children. The farce of ‘don’t lift anything for anyone’ entirely misses the point, lifting something doesn’t change anything. The negative assumptions that surround men in schools, the almost sympathetic attitudes from the public and the lack of awareness of male viewpoints among the faculty are all, I believe, impacting on numbers of men in primary settings. Being a man in a primary school can be very lonely.

I now work in a fanatic school where I feel respected, my opinions valued and I genuinely believe that all staff are treated equally and have the support of SLT but sadly this is simply not the case everywhere. Within an hour of asking for thoughts and experiences from my twitter followers I received 12 messages of concern and 2 from people that have left the profession over related issues. They speak of feeling isolated and not fitting in. The vast majority of teachers of both genders are wonderful, fantastic people that would never mean to generalise men or women for that matter. However these issues are occurring, they are effecting morale and there are men leaving the industry because of it. Something needs to be changed going forward, conversations need to be had or the problems will persist.