This just in: Men make up a small fraction of early childhood and elementary school teachers. And for children younger than 6, having a male teacher is a rarity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 2.3 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers are men.
This is not new. I didn’t have a male teacher until sixth grade math class. Apart from that, there may have been the occasional male teacher, but the majority of men in my schools were either filling janitorial or administrative positions.
And yet, here I find myself a full-time teacher in a kindergarten classroom. I guess I never got the memo. I’ve been lucky to have my female colleagues (and mentors) encourage my growth as an early childhood educator. I even started off working part time in a classroom for 3-year-olds.
A lot of times, men steer clear of working with young children to avoid many gender-based biases stacked heartily against them. Traditionally, child-rearing has been the responsibility of mothers and, by extension, female caregivers. We’ve been mistakenly led to believe that mothers know how to interact with children, but fathers don’t. There isn’t very much data on informal babysitters, but I would wager that the overwhelming majority of them are female.
Beyond this, there exists an even more pernicious bias: men who want to work with young children only do so out of some perverse sexual desire. Fortunately I only encountered this personally once, in Latin America, where I spent a year before college working in a residential home for foster children. I was denied lodging in the facility, while a female co-volunteer was readily allowed this housing arrangement. Here at home, I have only felt welcomed in my classroom.
Biases aside, the pay structure is a problem in attracting men who might consider being a pre-K teacher. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay of child care workers in 2010 was $19,300; for preschool teachers, it was $25,700. As the age of the students taught increase, so does the pay, reaching more than $50,000. (Of course, since student-teacher ratios must be kept lower for pre-school children, the per-pupil cost is greater.)
In essence, working with young children is devalued work, something that hearkens back to the fact that it is also traditionally woman’s work. So why would a man choose to work with young children when he could make nearly twice as much teaching middle or high school?
I work with young children because there are few things I can think of that are simultaneously rewarding and important. Early education sets the stage for learning later in life. And for the most disadvantaged children, high-quality early childhood education can make the difference—in terms of the social-emotional, academic, physical, cognitive and creative skills necessary for school success. I want to be part of making a positive difference.
I work with young children because I find it personally fulfilling. I love playing the guitar and singing along with young children, painting murals using natural dyes and becoming entranced by a read-aloud story.
I’m not very physical, I don’t encourage children to play rough. Playing sports is not my thing. I am a gentle, thoughtful, musical, artistic, passionate, practical, reflective and creative early childhood professional. I may not make a lot of money and I may be only one of a few men I my field, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Palenski is a kindergarten teacher in Connecticut.