January 15, 2024, by Rupert Knight
How can we support male primary teachers?
At a time of intense focus on a ‘crisis’ of teacher recruitment and retention, Esther Fulton considers why the proportion of males in primary teaching remains stubbornly low and how we might respond.
It is well documented that there is a lack of male primary teachers worldwide. For all ITE providers across the UK, the recruitment of male primary teachers can fluctuate, but without fail the numbers are always lower than female teachers. The motivation for going into primary teaching appears to have no gender difference as it will always attract people with similar values regarding working with children.
What is the current position regarding male primary teachers?
According to the latest School Workforce data from the DfE, the teaching workforce of England is still predominantly female. In 2022/23, 14% of the nursery and primary workforce were male with the headcount being 213,822 female nursery and primary teachers and 34,818 males. However, female teachers are less likely to be in leadership positions – though this does appear to be reducing over time. This highlights the fact that even though fewer males enter the profession they seem to progress more easily into leadership roles. This could be seen as one of the attractions for males: that they are more likely to work their way up the career ladder more regularly than female colleagues.
It is not always easy to find the data linked to male recruitment to see whether we are losing them within their training years, or whether the retention of males is lower than females when they are fully qualified, but it is an issue that the government has had to consider nevertheless. When the Department of Education (DfE) was questioned in 2022 about increasing the levels of recruiting male school teachers, the response was that ‘the Department’s recruitment campaigns are targeted at audiences of students, recent graduates, and potential career changers, regardless of their identity or background.’ The DfE did not specify how it was focusing on recruiting male teachers specifically.
Why don’t men go into teaching?
In the book Men and the Classroom by Sheelagh Drudy and colleagues (2005) it has been found that male school leavers do see teaching as a possible career option with the long holidays, working with children and job satisfaction considered to be the positives, with negatives as misbehaving students, long hours, low pay and stress. However, through a short survey of my own with male beginning teachers, it was clear that the motivation for going into the profession was to make a difference, to have an impact of children’s lives and to have a fulfilling career. When it came to discussing the negatives of teaching, no-one talked about the low pay or the fact that they were entering a female dominated field.
However, as Christine Skelton (2009) expresses in her research, it appears that there is still much stigma about the role of a primary school teacher and how working with children is associated with being feminine and related to ‘womanhood’. One explanation for the rejection of primary teaching for males is ‘the interrelationship between (hegemonic) gender and (hetero) sexuality’. Therefore, a male showing interest in primary teaching could be seen as a ‘female-male’ i.e. not a ‘real man’. Men can worry about being around young children in case they are viewed as having a sexual agenda. Some men are more worried about being physical with young children than women are. Male teachers can also resent being allocated the ‘male roles’ within school e.g. PE lead, disciplinarian etc. and often just want to be treated the same as the female teachers. Many male teachers find it challenging to meet these expectations which reinforce gender stereotypes, as they may not align with their own teaching philosophy or values. Skelton goes on to say that having both male and female teachers does contribute to children’s gender knowledge and that it is important to have all gender role models. The presence of a male teacher may be particularly important for some children as they can observe males who are non-violent and who positively interact with women. They can also see the male teacher role as something to aspire to. It is widely accepted that the teaching profession should reflect wider society more fully and therefore the need for males in the school environment is important.
Research also shows that there is still a stigma around young men going into primary teaching and often they receive a negative response when they discuss the fact that they want to or are in primary teaching. Teacher identity is a complicated concept, where professional, situated, and personal identities all overlap, as explained in this earlier post in our series. These identities are reliant on the relationships with others and are dependent on multiple contexts (social, cultural, political and historical). The professional context a male teacher works in can have a huge impact on their identity as well as the role they play in their personal life. In Tor Foster and Elizabeth Newman’s (2005) research, men appeared to suffer from ‘identity bruising’ linked to the knockbacks they got when discussing their job. These can come in many forms from different groups of people: parents, friends, partners and colleagues. These ‘bruisings’ stem from the beliefs that primary teaching is an ‘unsuitable’ job for a man, mainly because it lacks status or because men can be a ‘danger’ to children. So, with this stigma, it is understandable that some men will not view teaching as an appropriate career choice. As mentioned before, we need a more balanced workforce to represent society. As Foster and Newman put it, primary schools need good teachers of both sexes who ‘have a strong image of self as a teacher’ (p.353)
What can ITE providers do to retain male teachers?
It is one thing attracting men to teaching in the first place, but another to retain them on their teacher training course. Although the survey with our own male beginning teachers did not highlight any issues regarding how they felt they were treated on the course, other research by Christine Szwed from 2010 has shown that for many men it is a ‘shock’ when they embark on a teacher training course as they do not have realistic expectations. This is sometimes due to the lack of prior classroom experience compared to females. Many males on a training course will seek out the company of other males as they value the importance of being attached to the support of the same gender.
The responses from our own beginning male teachers highlighted some elements that supported them. For example:
having a male mentor on placement;
treating beginning teachers on the course of all genders equally;
having purposeful discussions about the issue when needed.
Therefore, ITE providers do need to consider the grouping of males on their course as well as the types of schools they are placed in. Ideally, male beginning teachers should be allocated school placements where they can witness good male primary teachers in action and not be placed in an all-female environment. However, we do need to be explicit with beginning teachers about the communities they are entering, especially the gender regimes within primary schools. Our role as teacher educators is to ensure that our beginning teachers have opportunities to explore different educational contexts and understand the ends, purposes and values of the teacher role in order for them to reflect on their own teacher identities.
Primary teaching is still an attractive career choice for men but getting more of them to become teachers may require a change in the way we promote the role and how we support them during their initial teaching training. There have been many changes in society regarding gender roles and equality and we know that although it is slow, changes are happening within the workplace. As one of our own beginning male teachers stated about why they had chosen to go into primary teaching ‘It is a fulfilling career and a personal challenge’. We need to celebrate and respect male teachers and encourage schools to represent society more by having a more balanced workforce. This all starts with how we train beginning teachers on all ITE course. Addressing gender role stereotypes, grouping them with other males, allocating them schools with male teachers, providing male mentors and supporting them to understand a female-dominated context could be the way forward.
Drudy, S., Martin, M., O’Flynn, J., & Woods, M. (2005). Men and the Classroom. Taylor & Francis.
Foster, T., & Newman, E. (2005). Just a knock back? Identity bruising on the route to becoming a male primary school teacher. Teachers and teaching, 11(4), 341-358.
Skelton, C. (2009). Failing to get men into primary teaching: A feminist critique. Journal of Education Policy, 24(1), 39-54.
Szwed, C. (2010). Gender balance in primary initial teacher education: Some current perspectives. Journal of education for teaching, 36(3), 303-317.
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