As it stands, we are losing male teachers at a rate of knots. In fact, some believe that it may stop being an option as soon as 2050. So, how did we get here?
When I was ten years old, I had a magical teacher. His name was Kees (this was, of course, the early ’70s, when every adult suddenly became a person, not just a sir with a tie) and he really understood children. When we were restless, he would stop maths or history for a while and tell us a story. Exciting stories they were, most of them made up on the spot, and always ending on a cliff-hanger. If we were really, really fidgety, he played his guitar and organised a sing-along, with all of us out of our chairs and dancing. He understood that children, especially boys, need to move. So often, there were impromptu walks or hands-on biology, looking for flowers and herbs in the neighbouring bush. We shared our classroom with kids whose parents were ferrying coal or gravel or grain on their river barges from Holland to Germany and Switzerland. Often the children were lonely and homesick in their nearby boarding school, so Kees would have us all write, design and perform plays that he then recorded on video. Documents of connection, of “look at me, I’m here,” that worked a treat.
I am telling you this because male teachers, especially in primary schools in Australia, are disappearing. At the moment, only about 18% of teachers in primary schools are men, and it is a little better, but not much, in secondary schools, where 39.3% are male. Those men, by the way, are almost all teaching what we consider “male” subjects: STEM, PE, IT. And they are headmasters. Nevertheless, they are as rare as hen’s teeth, and every year there are less and less of them. There is even a prediction that they will become extinct in 2050 or so. And that is a problem, because we need more—far more—teachers in the very near future. You might have realised that there is a baby boom going on. Hey, maybe you have even contributed to it. The consequence is that before 2025, we will need 1,627 more classes and 390,480 primary school places nationally. So this is the issue: we need more teachers, and we are losing male teachers at a rate of knots.
Why? And what to do about it?
The why is complex, yet simple. Teaching, especially primary school teaching, is considered a girl thing. We regard it as something emotional, not intellectual, something that “real men” don’t want to be seen dead doing. A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald concluded that it is “derided as glorified babysitting”, and that is not something men want to do. All this nurturing is not for them, they think, and they are strengthened in that idea by the prevailing ideas about masculinity. In Australia, men are identified by their jobs, and teaching is not considered a point scorer. It is not competitive enough (you can get into an education degree with the lowest ATAR possible), the salary is so-so and the status is low. In fact, the idea seems to be that if you are a male teacher you must be a pedophile, or gay, or both. And who would want the stress, the long hours, the claims on your free time, the bureaucracy, the often bad leadership (from governments in particular)? Women, apparently. Men don’t. So even the unicorns who do teach for a while leave far more often than women do. And that has left Australian schools looking like “educational nunneries”, as one American researcher wrote: the preserve of females, who are seen as asexual and vocationally inspired. “No place for any man we would trust.”
The decline in male teachers is sharp and it has been steady for 50 years. It is the biggest in government schools, where most of our children—2.5 million, or 65%—are. The researchers from Macquarie University, who came up with these figures, based them on information collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The issue is that the ABS only looks at full-time jobs, and as we know, a lot of women work part-time. So there is a good chance that “the findings might actually overestimate the male participation in the workforce”. The academics regard male teachers as “an endangered species” that needs saving. Especially because they also think that the lack of them is self-perpetuating: because boys don’t see men in front of the class, they don’t consider it a career option. And so we go further down the rabbit hole. So what do we do?
First of all, the Macquarie researchers say, we need to do the obvious: increase salaries and offer more permanent teaching positions. That would help lift the status. Then we need a government review of diversity policies. Although there are a lot of good intentions where Aboriginal people are concerned, or minorities, nobody has thought about men. We are so used to focusing on other groups that we have taken our eye off the ball there. In fact, the academics say, it would be good to see if you could incentivise enrolments in the education degrees. There are female-only scholarships for women studying STEM, but offering male-only scholarships is against the law. That might need to change. Lastly, we need a large-scale campaign to attract men to the profession, focusing on what it can give them. Personally, I would like to add a few things: what good teachers, male or female, need, is respect, and a voice in the content of what they teach and the way they teach it. At the moment, somebody inspiring like Kees would be limited and restricted within an inch of his life. Taking kids out of school grounds to investigate flowers? Craziness! Dancing in the classroom when you should be doing maths? Sack that man! If we don’t trust teachers to know their job and do the best they can by their charges, why do we expect anybody to become a teacher? Secondly: we have to stop regarding men as perpetrators. Of course, there are horrible ones amongst them, but there are terrible women too. Not all female teachers are nurturing, and not all men are pedophiles. We have to try and put some nuance in our thinking. Students want to see both genders showing them what life is like. And governments say they want teachers to reflect the student body. At the moment, none of this is happening, and it is mostly ridiculous clichés about men and women that are causing it. Maybe we can change the tide by changing our thinking. Wouldn’t that be something?
For this story I have used the following sources:
The Conversation — We need to support more men to become primary teachers
The Conversation — Male teachers are an endangered species in Australia: new research
Teacher Magazine — The Research Files Episode 35: The decline in male teachers
NSW Education Data Hub — Gender Analysis of School Teachers
Sydney Morning Herald — Panic about male teachers quitting obscures key factor: what about women?