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It’s not often spoken about, but there’s an underlying mistrust of men who want to teach KS1 or 2 instead of working in secondary, says Ben King...
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“You’ll be expected to lift things, get things off shelves and carry anything heavy. Say no. Do not let yourself be defined by your gender.”
This was the instruction I received at a ‘men in teaching’ lecture at university in 2010. The seminar was held in a room built for 200 students, but there were only seven of us. To me, the whole thing felt farcical.
Firstly, why assume that women are incapable of lifting things and secondly, why refuse to help a colleague? This kind of confusion over gender identity in schools is dangerous and has a tangible impact.
Eight years later, the number of men teaching in primary schools still sits at around 15%. Why? What prevents men from joining the profession, inspiring our youngest minds and taking on an incredibly hard, but fulfilling challenge?
Part of the problem, it seems to me, is reputation – or lack of it. I genuinely feel that for many men, primary teaching is simply not presented as a ‘normal’ career option.
“Did you not fancy secondary?” people ask me when I tell them what I do. This is a real issue for male teachers, many of whom have got in touch with me to discuss their experiences.
There are also deeply rooted issues surrounding safeguarding. It’s not often spoken about but it’s certainly there: there is an underlying suspicion of men in primary.
Once children reach UKS2, they generally split to get changed. This is easy to implement if there happens to be a male and female teacher in a two-form school, but what if it’s two men?
I don’t enter the room when the girls are changing, but female teachers and TAs often think nothing of walking in on the boys. One teacher told me that his TA entered the room and said, “It’s 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 am under suspicion; an assumption not made of my female colleagues.
It gets worse when changing for swimming is involved. I’ve heard of female members of staff staying inside communal changing rooms while boys get ready to stop them ‘mucking around’. It sends a shiver down my spine imagining the headlines if I were to do the same thing.
Children routinely fling their arms around my female colleagues, especially younger ones. While I have fantastic support in my current school, 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 sit on a female member of staff. When he challenged this he was met with, “Well, you’re a bloke.” Apparently we can’t be trusted.
In pubs I’ve been drunkenly asked, “You enjoy hanging around with little kids, eh?”. Someone else said to me, “Guy teachers always worry me. It’s like vicars, isn’t it? They love touching kids too.” Thankfully, disgusting comments like that are rare, but they’re not unheard of. Most male teachers will have had similar comments directed at them.
Working in an industry dominated by women has many benefits, but it can have its drawbacks too. Many men report feeling isolated and locked out of conversations in the staffroom.
Others have told me that they are mothered or treated like school boys themselves. Some have had to leave their school in search of a more professional relationship with colleagues.
The #WomenEd movement does a fantastic job in supporting aspiring and existing female leaders in schools, but if I were starting my career again now, I’m not sure I would find anybody representing or helping young men who want to work with small children.
The negative assumptions that surround men in schools are, I believe, impacting on the numbers of men who want to work in primary settings. Being a man in a primary school can be very lonely.
I now work in a fantastic school where I feel respected and valued, but sadly this is simply not the case everywhere. The vast majority of teachers are wonderful people that would never mean to generalise about men or women.
However, these issues are affecting morale and men are leaving the industry because of it. Something needs to change, or the problem will persist.
Ben King is a Y5 teacher, reading lead and columnist based in West Sussex. Find him on his website at kingintheclassroom.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter at @mrbking1988.
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