There are some common misconceptions about why we should be concerned about the shortage of male teachers in Australian primary schools. New research suggests the reasons more males are needed in the teaching profession are different to what many think.
In the new paper, The Plight of the Male Teacher: An Interdisciplinary and Multileveled Theoretical Framework for Researching a Shortage of Male Teachers, Dr Kevin McGrath of Macquarie University and fellow researchers from Australia and South Africa identify multiple reasons about why the shortage of male teachers in primary schools is concerning.
They discuss the issue on the child level, the classroom level, the organisational level and on a societal level.
In order to address the shortage of male teachers in Australian primary schools, they says it’s important to first explain that many reasons given to pursue a more gender balanced teacher workforce miss the point.
Having more male teachers is unlikely to directly improve boys’ results, they say, as “research indicates that teacher gender has no direct effect on students’ academic outcomes.” Instead, “quality teaching and positive relations based on gender sensitivity are more important than a teacher’s own gender.”
Next, they criticise the idea that male teachers should serve as father figures for children from same-sex partnerships or single parents. The paper states, “There exists scant evidence that ‘fatherless’ children require compensatory male teachers.” To add, it says, “There is no evidence that children from loving same sex families suffer any adverse psychological outcomes.” The researchers also emphasise that imposing this role on teachers would be unrealistic and unhealthy for both the teachers and children.
The researchers argue that the shortage of male teachers is an issue. In their paper, they explain that having male teachers around widens the range of gender models available to children, helping them develop a better sense of their own identity: “Although female teachers alone can model both ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ traits, children’s gender knowledge is extended when they observe men also demonstrating these traits.”
The researchers note that it is not necessary for students to have male teachers as role models per se, but that contact with a range of men at school “may be particularly beneficial for students who do not have access to positive and diverse male gender representations in other contexts. With rising concerns about how witnessing domestic violence affects children’s behavioural and emotional wellbeing, for example, the presence of men in schools may allow children to see men who are caring and non-violent, and whose interactions with women are positive.”
Dr McGrath and his fellow researchers also say that having both male and female teachers may contribute to positive classroom dynamics. They say, “At the classroom level, the influence of teacher gender manifests in relationships, the classroom climate, and attitudes and beliefs.
“For example, female teachers tend to report closer relationships with girls, whereas, male teachers report similarly close relationships with boy and girls. Male teachers are more likely than female teachers to view boys as being academically capable, and may also be more forgiving of boys when they act out or engage in rough and tumble play.”
In their previous research, they say, “Australian girls in sixth grade expressed a need for more male teachers to understand how to interact with men outside of their families, while boys claimed that male teachers understood them better than did female teachers. Notably, both boys and girls reported that it was easier to relate to a teacher of the same gender.”
With this in mind, the researchers suggest it would be worth investigating whether having male teachers could help boys feel a greater sense of belonging at school, whereas presently, “boys tend to report lower school belonging than do girls.”
On a societal level, the researchers say it is valuable to increase the proportion of male teachers, as it challenges harmful stereotypes, and supports men’s involvement in the lives of young children. It provides an opportunity for men to “embody caring and nurturing traits and to normalise the participation of men in children’s lives.”
At the same time, says Dr McGrath, this places male teachers up against many stereotypical ideas about masculinity. Men who challenge these ideas in their choices are at risk of being “depicted as abnormal.” This effect is exaggerated for male teachers in the workplace, since their minority status often places them in the spotlight.
This may be especially difficult for men who are homosexual, says Dr McGrath, due to stereotypes which depict them as “feminised” regardless of their individual qualities, and slurs that falsely link homosexuality with paedophilia.
“Encouraging diverse groups of men to work as school teachers may promote the acceptance of alternative masculinities while legitimising the role of men in children’s lives,” write the researchers.
The researchers add that to overcome the male teacher shortage and reap the benefits for children, teachers and society, further research on the shortage is important – but support is also needed from policymakers. “To increase men’s participation in the profession, in both Australia and South Africa, powerful intervention and support is needed from those who hold political power.”