Pretoria - In South Africa, one in five teachers in the foundation phase - roughly from ages 6 to 9 - is male. This is consistent with a global trend that sees men being more likely to teach adolescents than young children.
A lack of male teachers for young children has become the focus of a growing body of research internationally. Typically, this research has examined the experiences of male educators and explanations for their absence.
This work has appeared amid a global gender-equity movement and adjacent to calls for greater female representation in the fields of science, technology, engineering, maths and in senior managerial positions.
In South Africa, research focusing on male teachers has emerged alongside recent calls to increase the involvement of men in the lives of young children. About 43% of children under the age of 5 live without a biological father.
In recent research, we explored how masculinity is constructed and perceived by female and male teachers in the early years of schooling. To better understand why few men teach in the early years of schooling, we investigated the experiences of male teachers and how they were perceived by their female colleagues.
In doing so, we came to better understand why men might avoid this work, but also the reasons why schools should include both female and male teachers.
For men to choose to work as teachers of children in the early years of schooling, they must first overcome gender barriers.
For example, gender expectations and stereotypes strongly influence why men shy away from teaching, with it viewed as “women’s work” and associated with the care and nurturing of young children. Consequently, men who teach young children may have their masculinity questioned or scrutinised, and not be seen as “real men”.
Our research found that there were conflicting accounts of men’s roles. Some female teachers welcomed men, and others strongly condemned associations between men and young children.
Those that thought that men were important in children’s lives connected men with stereotypical male roles. They reported an expectation that male teachers should display traditional masculine traits, and be “sportsmen” and “disciplinarians”.
In a recent announcement, President, Cyril Ramaphosa, described the rates of violence against women and children as being similar to a country at war. As gender scholars, we are greatly concerned about how existing gendered perceptions about men may affect perceptions of male teachers too, particularly if men are uniformly positioned as bad. The fact is that male teachers can provide a source of hope. Men are not a single group of perpetrators and some care for children deeply.
In our recent collaboration with researchers in Australia, and focusing on a shortage of male teachers in both countries, we identified additional reasons why teacher gender diversity is important for children, for classrooms, for schools, and for society.
For young children, male teachers can contribute to their gender knowledge. This may be particularly important for some children allowing them to observe men who are non-violent and whose interactions with women are positive.
Much remains to be done in creating a diverse workforce, one which recognises men and women outside of gender stereotypes. But in South Africa there is little policy imperative in addressing the missing men in the early years of schooling.
Bhana is professor, gender and childhood sexuality, UKZN; Kevin F McGrath, affiliated research scientist, Department of Education Research, Macquarie University; Van Bergen, associate professor in educational psychology and associate dean, learning and teaching, Macquarie University; Shaaista Moosa, post-doctoral research fellow, UKZN.