For more than a century, the place of male teachers in schools has been questioned. In earlier research we pointed out that male teachers were possibly even facing ‘extinction’. We now know that previous reasons behind calls for more male teachers – such as to provide role models or ‘father figures’ or to enhance academic outcomes for boys – were wrong.
However our current research shows that there are compelling arguments for increasing the representation of male teachers in our schools. And we believe it is becoming increasingly important to understand the ‘need’ for men in the education of children.
Boys’ education and male teachers
At the turn of the century, a debate ignited in countries such as Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, when achievement scores began to show that girls were outperforming boys.
As girls’ educational outcomes had previously been used as a marker of disadvantage for women, this shift created a backlash that was quickly exploited by social commentators, authors, and politicians – sparking a narrative that has more recently evolved into a ‘crisis of masculinities’.
The backlash was strongly felt in Australia as it followed more than 25 years of Government focus on the educational needs of girls. This was marked by the 2002 Australian parliamentary inquiry ‘Boys: Getting it Right’, which attributed boys’ disengagement from school to a lack of male role models and absent fathers.
It was perceived at the time that education systems were failing boys, and the absence of men and ‘feminisation’ of schooling were to blame. Male teachers were seen as necessary to address this failure.
Getting it wrong: Why previous arguments are not supported
The case for including more male teachers in schools appeared to have stalled, with outmoded arguments about teacher gender not backed by evidence.
For example, research indicates that teacher gender has no direct effect on students’ academic outcomes. Children’s role models tend to be their peers or relatives – suggesting there is no deficit of role models for children. And while a male teacher may be a positive and reassuring figure for some children, there is scant evidence that fatherless children require compensatory male teachers. Additionally, with teaching being fundamentally different to parenting in scope, duration, and intensity, there are good reasons to avoid conflating these two roles in a child’s life.
At the same time that the case for including male teachers in schools has weakened, arguments to exclude men from the teaching profession have gained momentum: with perceptions of men who work with children becoming distorted by a dominant narrative of male teachers who are conspicuous, deviant, and dangerous. These social conditions work to deter all men from teaching, whilst further marginalising men who may help to break down gender stereotypes, and reinforcing emotional detachment between men and children.
A more recent position that male teachers may threaten the representation of women in school leadership positions also has the potential to serve anti-male rhetoric – although this too has been shown to be a faulty argument. While equitable gender representation in leadership is important, this should not come at the expense of equitable classroom representation.
Getting it right: Why male teachers matter
Beyond faulty arguments for male teachers to improve boys’ academic outcomes or to act as role models and father figures, male teachers are needed in schools for psychological, social, organisational, and societal reasons.
First, male and female teachers contribute to children’s gender knowledge. The presence of male teachers may be particularly important for some children – allowing them to observe men who are non-violent and whose interactions with women are positive. Limited visibility of male teachers, however, further perpetuates the view that teaching is a job better suited to women.
Second, the presence of both male and female teachers in classrooms gives students the opportunity to learn from teachers who they perceive as being similar to themselves. This may promote feelings of school belonging, which can reduce disruptive behaviour. Additionally, for some students the presence of male teachers may support understandings of how to interact with adults who are different to themselves – promoting positive relationships between men and young children.
Third, for schools, having a diverse workforce of teachers can enhance decision making processes and drive positive outcomes. People from different backgrounds may see the same problem in different ways, leading to innovative solutions. Workforce diversity has also been linked to improved performance and job satisfaction.
Finally, and more broadly, the presence of male teachers may help promote alternative, non-violent, and gender equitable versions of masculinity. By working in roles that are typically viewed as appropriate only for women, men can help to break down the polarised differences that foster gender inequalities.
The crossroads or the cul-de-sac
There are compelling reasons to ensure a gender diverse teacher workforce. With male representation continuing to fall without intervention, however, countries such as Australia are at a pivotal moment for gender diversity in the teaching profession. If education authorities are serious about ensuring that the teacher workforce reflects the diversity of the student population and broader community, then a shortage of male teachers warrants a remedy.
To achieve greater gender diversity in the teaching workforce, education must move away from rhetoric of ‘competing victims’. Instead, the underlying factors that deter men and women from the profession need to be addressed: including high workloads and disproportionate salaries, a lack of support, and the unjustifiably low prestige with which teaching is typically held.
Additionally, to attract and retain male teachers, it is necessary to present positive representations of teachers from a range of demographic groups. It also is necessary to challenge dominant and stereotypical forms of masculinity by highlighting the positive and caring role of men in the lives of children. Finally, it is important to ensure that efforts to support equitable gender representation in leadership positions co-exist alongside efforts to support equitable gender representation in classrooms.
Preserving and pursuing a gender diverse workforce of teachers, now and into the future, is ultimately in the best interests of all school stakeholders.
For those who would like to read our full paper – The Plight of the Male Teacher: An Interdisciplinary and Multileveled Theoretical Framework for Researching a Shortage of Male Teachers
Kevin F. McGrath is a Tertiary Supervisor and associate member of the Centre for Children’s Learning in a Social World at Macquarie University and an Affiliated Research Scientist with the Integrative Behavioral Health Research Institute, California. After working as a primary school teacher, he completed a PhD in Education in 2016 at Macquarie University, where he received an Excellence in Higher Degree Research award and Vice Chancellor’s Commendation. Dr McGrath’s research interests include gender and education, disruptive student behaviour, and the student-teacher relationship. His research focusing on male participation in the teaching profession has gained national and international media attention. Twitter @DrKevinFMcGrath
Deevia Bhana is currently the DSI /NRF South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Gender and Childhood Sexuality at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Professor Bhana enjoys considerable international recognition as an expert in the areas of gender, childhood sexuality, and schooling. Her research is informed by a cross-cutting interdisciplinary approach, drawing from the sociology of childhood, political economy, critical feminist and sexuality studies, and masculinities. Professor Bhana’s published work includes more than 100 journal articles, 31 book chapters, and 8 authored and edited books. Her most recent book is Love, sex and teenage sexual cultures in South Africa: 16 turning 17.
Penny Van Bergen is an Associate Professor in Educational Psychology in the Department of Educational Studies at Macquarie University. She is also Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching in the Faculty of Human Sciences and Director of the Centre for Children’s Learning in a Social World. Her research focuses on children’s development of memory and emotion skills in social contexts. She studies how parents reminisce with children, how children use emotion and perspective-taking skills, and how group-work in schools and universities may facilitate learning. She is particularly interested in mapping the kinds of social interactions that best facilitate learning and development. Her work has been featured in several national and international media outlets. Twitter @Penny_VB
Shaaista Moosa is a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Dr Moosa is a recipient of a DST/NRF Innovation Doctoral Scholarship and her key area of research focuses on exploring the need to increase men’s involvement as teachers of young children in South Africa. She is particularly interested in societal perceptions of men who work in the Foundation Phase of schooling. Her research, situated in the fields of gender studies and education, has been presented at the Gender and Education Association Conference in London, featured in The Conversation (Africa), and published in several journals, including the Oxford Review of Education.
Penny Van Bergen will be presenting on Coping with Academic Stress: The Relationship Between Online Support Seeking, Isolation and Adolescent Girls’ Mental Health on 4th December at the AARE 2019 Conference.
Deevia Bhana will be presenting on “Hit and run: Heterosexuality, misogyny and teenage masculinity” on 3rd December at the AARE 2019 Conference