1 October 2007 http://www.neon.org.nz
In March this year, a Men in Early Child Care and Teaching summit brought together advocates for increasing the number of men in early childhood sector. Researcher Sarah Farquhar, of Childforum Research www.childforum.com outlined to the conference some of the arguments as to why we need more men in the workforce teaching and caring for children in these formative years.

First, she argues, society has moved on and men are now more actively engaged in caring for their children with an increasing number taking over as the main caregiver as their partners choose to work fulltime.

The absence of men in early childhood centres also means young children may be missing out on any substantial contact with male role models. For children in single parent families, that could mean they have virtually no contact with men at all.

Sarah Farquhar also argues that while the early childhood sector, like other sectors of society, stresses non-sexist behaviours, attitudes and choices of play, the composition of the workforce is failing to “practice what it teaches”.

In New Zealand’s tight labour market, it is increasingly difficult to fill positions, especially now that there have been changes requiring those working in the sector to hold approved teaching qualifications, she says. Certainly, the demand for childhood care and education looks likely to expand with latest Government initiatives to fund 20-hours-a-week free childcare or education services for all three- to four-year-olds. The demand is there from parents too. An international workplace survey by the Kelly Global Workforce Index released earlier this year found that more than half New Zealand parents would be prepared to take on more paid work if quality childcare was available.

Farquhar also blames the preponderance of women in the early childhood sector for holding back pay rates for so long, although the recent move to pay equity with the primary education sector has now pushed those rates up.

Down at the kindergarten, men involved in early childhood teaching strongly believe in the role both men and women play in educating the under-fives.

A Christchurch Head teacher, Duncan Fisher points to research that shows boys learn differently from girls – that they learn better from doing and when they can let off steam. The boisterous nature of boys’ play does not mean, he says, that they are little monsters and a male teacher may pick up on that when a woman does not.

“We can pick up what’s going on behind the play and the whys and wherefores for it. I think we understand girls’ play from an academic level but we can’t feel it to the same degree – we’re not females – and vice versa for the boys.”

As a result, he says, a male teacher might allow robust behaviour to continue a little longer than a woman colleague might.

For Tahu Loper, having both men and women on the staff is “the natural way to teach” with each bringing a different perspective to the job. He gives the example of a discussion with a female colleague about banning gun play. “I asked her what she objected to about guns and she said, ‘guns kill.’ When I was growing up we had a lot of imaginative play with guns.” He says the boys at the centre were already biting toast to shape it into guns and his argument was that there could be value in imaginative play with guns that emphasised the sport of target shooting or hunting, and even the mechanics of building guns.

What puts men off? 
Christchurch early childhood teacher, David Baxendell thinks one of the reasons more men are not attracted to a career teaching the under-fives is that it is not seen as a profession.

“That’s been a hangover from the days when the work was voluntary – a job for girls in the gap between leaving school and getting married.”

He believes developments such as the requirement that early childhood teachers must be

ully qualified will help the sector be accepted as part of the education profession rather than as “care”. But he thinks, even then, the acceptance of early childhood teaching as a profession will be slow.

“Some people really don’t understand what’s involved. [They think] it’s not a real job, you’re just playing with children. Men still don’t understand just what’s involved in the pedagogical aspect of the job because they haven’t spent time with their children or visited an early childhood centre and seen what goes on.”

Pay rates are seen as another reason why men have not been attracted to the early childhood teaching sector. David Baxendell recalls how hard it was when he began teaching more than two decades ago.

“Starting pay was not good. As a mature male and with small children and being the single income earner it was very difficult to keep the family going.” He believes, too, that had there been more men in the sector the pay rates would have improved much sooner. “Women have always got the short end of the stick in terms of pay rates and I don’t think the men in early childhood have been sufficient to drag that up.”

The literature on what men want from their occupation also suggests career progression is particularly important. For David Baxendell it was the lack of hierarchy that attracted him into the job. He wanted to teach and was not interested in doing administration so the kindergarten structure suited him perfectly since there was no chance of being pushed into teaching older age groups or into administration as he had seen happen to male teachers in primary schools.

His male friends, however, didn’t see the situation quite that way.
“Some of my friends said ‘Why do you want to do that? In five years if you were in primary training you could be a principal’. They couldn’t understand my wanting a career that was satisfying rather than bringing in big money or offering advancement in the future.”
Head teacher at Christchurch’s Rutland Street KidsFirst, Duncan Fisher believes the kindergarten system does have opportunities for those who want to progress. Within the “classroom” there is progression from teacher to head teacher, while the association has positions for education support managers and another tier of management above that. There are also opportunities for secondment to organisations such as the Education Review Office and the Ministry of Education as well as for lecturing about early childhood education.

Another hindrance, men working in the system say, is the fact that the role of men in the early childhood sector is invisible and hence unrecognised. Teacher of five years, Tahu Loper says all the photos in the training literature about early childhood teaching were of women; so were the brochures used to recruit students; and he says the same applies in the wider media, for example, nappy ads on television. “They’re not directed at fathers but they change nappies too!”

His colleague Duncan Fisher believes young men who might be interested in early childhood teaching simply don’t even know the job exists. “How many school counsellors have said in the past two-to-three years to their male students ‘have you thought of early childhood?’. I’d suggest none.” One exception, he says has been Rangi Ruru Early Childhood College in Christchurch, which photographed him for one of its career information packs.

The Christchurch area is something of an anomaly when it comes to male representation in early childhood education. Of around 200 teaching staff of the KidsFirst kindergarten association in the city, eight are men and one KidsFirst centre boasts two men on the staff. 

David Baxendell is in his 26th year of teaching at Edmonds Smith Street KidsFirst in the Christchurch suburb of Woolston – a mixed area of first-time homebuyers (many of them couples with young children) and those renting.   For David, like most of them men in this sector, early childhood teaching was not his first career. He originally ran a children’s bookshop in Christchurch and many early childhood teachers were among his clientele, including the first man in New Zealand to train as a kindergarten teacher. When David closed down the shop he spent a year at home looking after his own young children while he considered what to do next. The experiences he had during that year, including taking the children to kindergarten, decided him that teaching this age group was what he wanted to do. ”This was an age group I found really interesting……I loved the way they thought. I loved the way their minds worked. I loved that fresh attitude they have when we haven’t quite got to the ‘How was school today?’…..’alright’; ‘What did you do?’…’Nothing’. They’re still bursting with enthusiasm.”

Duncan Fisher is head teacher at Rutland Street KidsFirst in a high decile area of Christchurch of professional middle class families who have big expectations for their children and see education as important for that success.  Kindergarten teaching has long been something of a tradition in his extended family and his circle of friends. His wife is a trained kindergarten teacher, as are several family friends, along with a sister-in-law. “It’s always been there in the background”.   But Duncan turned to early childhood teaching after selling a business when he received an offer that was “too good to turn down”. “I said to my wife, ‘what do I do now?’ and she said ‘go teaching’. Duncan’s response was: “I’m too old and the wrong gender” but his wife collected the application forms and Duncan entered training in the early 1990s. He likes early childhood teaching because it is “more honest”. “We try to identify children’s strengths and dispositions and work to those strengths and dispositions rather than forcing them into an environment that’s artificial and into a curriculum area that they may show no interest in or no ability in.” And he talks of the special moments that come with early childhood teaching: “You’ll get that look on that child’s face and you think – I shouldn’t be seeing this, the parents should be here to see that look – and you realise in this job you’re privileged.”

Tahu Loper ¬ a teacher at Rutland Street KidsFirst – had a variety of jobs before he decided to pursue a career in early childhood education, including as postie and builders’ labourer. Then he spent a time as “stay-at-home” dad, in the course of which he had contact with a Parents as First Teachers adviser. The adviser suggested Tahu would make a good early childhood teacher. “I went ‘Oh, OK’.” His decision attracted some comment among his mates, some of it “quite rude”. “But I knew I was doing this job for the right reasons and I knew I was really good at it. It’s like you’ve found your calling and you can’t ask for more than that, can you.” He’s now been an early childhood teacher for five years and staunchly defends the idea that a man can’t be ‘blokey’ and care for kids. “One kid said, when he saw me teaching that I was ‘just like a dad’ and that’s what I want.”