A recent study from the University of Tasmania has focused on the gender-related challenges faced by male primary teachers and the coping strategies they use to deal with them.
Findings revealed that the biggest challenges faced by participants were fear and uncertainty surrounding making physical contact with their students, an increased workload due to expectations to take on “masculine” roles within their schools, and social isolation caused by difficulties in developing positive professional relationships with their teaching colleagues.
Participants in this study detailed numerous coping strategies and supports that enabled them to deal with these challenges and persist in the profession.
Some male primary teachers deal with their fear and uncertainty surrounding physical contact by employing a strict no contact policy, and even defer students who are injured or need comfort to their female colleagues and other students.
They can also use humour and play sport with students at lunch time to build relationships with young students in ways that do not require the physical contact strategies used by their female colleagues.
Other strategies include never being one on one with students, moving to a public location to talk with students, and setting up their classrooms to minimise incidental contact.
Those men who were prepared to challenge gender stereotypes by making the same physical contact as their female colleagues (e.g., hugging an upset child) were generally older, more experienced and had worked at their school for an extended period, which had allowed them to develop trust and rapport within the school community.
Interestingly, many men indicated that it was not the physical contact itself that was the issue, it was a fear of other people viewing the contact as inappropriate for a man and consequently making a career ending accusation.
Double standards about what physical contact is appropriate for different genders and media sensationalising of inappropriate behaviour by male teachers (and much less coverage when accusations are later proved false) were discussed by many participants in relation to this challenge.
The workload of all teachers has increased in recent decades due to an intensification of the profession.
Despite this intensification affecting all teachers, previous research has noted male primary teachers’ perceptions of high workloads than their female colleagues because of expectations to perform roles such as behaviour management, manual labour, sports coaching, and being responsible for subjects such as science and ICT.
Participants reported they were expected to perform these roles, and seemed to have accepted this as a part of their job.
Men primarily employed strategies designed to use their time more effectively (such as arriving at school early and recycling lesson from previous years) so that they could cope when additional behaviour issues arose.
They also sought help from other men working at the school (such as the groundsman to help with manual labour), and strong support from school leaders was also very important in relation to this challenge.
Participants stated that they generally got on well with their female colleagues but struggled with not having many colleagues with common interests, particularly male. This was particularly evident in the staffroom at break times.
Men coped with this challenge by using strategies such as being proactive in identifying common interests, identifying trusted female colleagues they could rely on for support, and pursuing out of school hobbies such as sport where they could interact with more men and “balance” their female dominated work environment.
Men also described self-isolating behaviours such as reading the paper and going back to their office to do work.
As participants described how they dealt with the major gender related challenges they faced, a number of common themes emerged.
These themes included the influence of traditional constructions of masculinity, schools perpetuating these societal constructions, and the importance of having strong support from teaching colleagues and school leaders.
These factors all need to be considered if more men are to be retained in the primary teaching profession.
Dr Vaughan Cruickshank is a Course Coordinator of Health and Physical Education, Maths/Science at the University of Tasmania’s Faculty of Education.