Opinion: Men can play a vital role in early childhood education
Kathy Wolfe, Chief Executive, Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood New Zealand
Last week in Wellington, I attended a meeting for education sector representatives, something I do frequently in my role as chief executive of Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood New Zealand. As I looked around the room, I was struck by how few men there were at the meeting.
This phenomenon is echoed at the frontline of our education system, where, for many years now, the lack of male teachers in New Zealand schools and early learning services has been a cause for growing concern.
Last year, men made up approximately 25% of the school sector’s teaching workforce. The figure for early childhood education (ECE) is much worse; in 2017 only 2.59% of ECE teachers were male, up from 2.19% in 2012.
While the overall number of male teachers in ECE is going up – in 2012, 486 of 22,195 ECE teachers were male; last year, 795 of the 30,674 ECE teachers were male – the increase is not at a rate that will address any time soon the current gender imbalance of the ECE workforce.
Commentators have touched on various reasons for the low numbers of male teachers in ECE services and men training to become ECE teachers. These include deterrents such as low pay and an unconscious bias on the part of teacher educators and careers advisors, reflecting a sadly prevailing societal suspicion of the “real” motivations of men who choose to work closely with young children.
I would suggest too that at a system level there has not been enough effort put into encouraging men into the ECE teaching workforce. ECE leaders and the Government need to take a close look at how to attract more men into what is currently a female-dominated environment.
The Human Rights Act and the Employment Relations Act prevent discrimination (including positive discrimination) in employment, and this is a good thing. A teacher should be employed because they are the right person for the job, and not because of their gender.
However, it is also true that children’s learning settings should ideally reflect the society and communities they live in. This involves ECE services fully embracing different genders, cultures, languages and worldviews, evidenced both in curriculum delivery and in staff recruitment.
Here at Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood New Zealand we are proud to be contributing qualified male ECE teachers to the education workforce. Between 2012 and 2017, on average men comprised nearly 4% of the graduates from our teacher education programmes. This year 5% of our ECE teaching students are male. And while we view this as a positive, we know that more needs to be done.
We asked some of the male students from our Bachelor of Teaching (ECE) and Graduate Diploma programmes what attracted them to study to become ECE teachers.
Many of our male students came initially to early learning at the suggestion of family members and friends. Some were already working as volunteers or unqualified teachers at early learning centres before enrolling in our teacher education programmes. Those experiences offered a helpful preview of what the job of ECE teacher entails, and gave them confidence that ECE teaching is the job for them.
As part of studying with Te Rito Maioha, our teaching students work at least 12 hours per week in a teacher-led education and care centre. This means they can earn while they study and apply their new knowledge as they acquire it.
Without exception, our students told us that working with children and contributing to their learning is both fun and rewarding. The variety of the work and the children’s innate humour and joy at discovering the world around them offer a very positive environment to be in on a daily basis.
They see many advantages to ECE services to having men on staff, including good role-modelling for the tamariki as they see men and women working cooperatively, sharing the duties of education and care. Men also bring a different energy and different perspectives and pedagogies, which provide positive and playful environments for the children, and give parents more options when discussing their children’s education and care.
Our students are well aware of the negative attitudes of some to the idea of men teaching at ECE centres, including that ECE is “women’s work”, and that men who work in ECE are either “soft” or “weirdos”. Some note the invisibility of ECE teaching as a career for men, when they were exploring future paths at their high schools.
Mind-sets like these – whether at a personal or systemic level – are harmful and unjustified, and really quite confronting for an education sector whose curriculum encourages belonging, equitable opportunities and fairness.
Happily, our male students feel well supported by their early learning services, lecturers, family and whānau, and are pursuing their careers in ECE teaching with gusto. However, the government and ECE sector leaders need to do more to encourage greater numbers of men to enter the ECE teaching profession, by working to correct prevailing negative social perceptions and to address ECE teachers’ currently low remuneration.
The government’s education workforce strategy, which will be developed later this year, presents an opportunity to address this issue. I see it fitting well into one of the strategy’s five key focus areas, namely to attract, recruit and retain a diverse and high-quality workforce.
We must normalise ECE teaching as a valid, viable and valuable career for both men and women, including pay parity and equity as a qualified and registered teacher with teachers from the compulsory sector – after all a teacher, is a teacher is a teacher!
As one of our male students put it, “I never think about working with my colleagues as a male-female thing, and that’s the way I believe we want it!”