As a substitute teacher, you’d expect I get to wear a few different hats and teach students of all ages. Indeed. But at the teaching placement company I work for, these hats and age-ranges extend a little further than you might think—further than I thought when I started working for them, further than one school thought as they were surprised when I showed up as the sub. It turned out it wasn’t just K-12 institutions that my company provided substitutes for.
It was also Pre-K.
Since starting in September, I’ve worked at a handful of day cares, childcare centers, and preschools without much fuss. (I was asked to change a diaper once—my second ever.) But usually, I’m just “the guy” in a place full of adult women and children. I like being a novelty, because the children liked having me around to crawl on and so forth.
I’ve learned, however, that masculinity in childcare isn’t always just a novelty.
I arrived at the suburban Minneapolis childcare center this cool, fall morning. The middle-aged female director welcomed me at the door and showed me to the class of toddlers I’d be helping for the day. Entering the room, I saw the usual: a playroom with plastic, colorful toys, little tables in another area with tiny chairs surrounding them where the children ate, and the bathroom area had these mini-toilets which I’m always almost tempted to call “cute”. There, I met the young female teacher who began introducing me to the routine for the day.
Soon after, I met the other toddler teacher: a 40-ish African-American man. Hmm, another guy, I thought. In the seven schools I’d worked at previously, I hadn’t met a single male employee. And the men I did meet in elementary schools were stereotypically soft-spoken, easy-going guys. But more than just being male, this guy was 6′ 3″, ~200 pounds, and wore Timberland-style boots, loose jeans and shirt, and a straight-brimmed baseball hat cocked to the side. If I was going to be “the guy”, I wasn’t to be the Alpha. You don’t see this everyday.
But the kids did.
Being a man wasn’t a novelty here. And he worked as naturally with the children as any other childcare worker I’d ever seen—and as effectively, too, in his own way. The kids loved and respected him. I asked him how long he’d been doing this.
“A long time, Brandon”, he said.
He worked at another center years before this one and had been here several years as well. I was impressed, because childcare isn’t a field where many men—and even fewer African American men, I’m guessing—find a home. I also wondered what has maybe tickled your curiosity while reading this: if suburban moms are turned off sending their kids to a place with him as a teacher. Apparently not. Enrollment is good, and they’ve been in business for 10 years.
Other centers aren’t so used to seeing men. Recently I was called to a childcare center in a black community in northern Minneapolis. When I got there, I rang the buzzer and a 30-something woman came to the door. She didn’t open it, but spoke through the glass to see what I wanted.
“I’m the substitute,” I said loud enough to be heard through the door. “I’m here to replace Heather.”
She cracked the door open. “They sent you?! You know it’s toddlers, don’t ya?”
I’ve probably had at least a dozen shifts with toddlers, but her question even got me to think I was maybe in the wrong place.
“My work told me it was for Pre-K,” I said back.
She looked at me and opened the door. As she did so, she half-incredulously declared back to the office she came from, “They sent a man!”
I walked into the nice, new building feeling a tad unwanted and found Heather in her class. By now all but three of the 15 3- to 4-year-olds were napping. I took Heather’s place sitting next to the few remaining restless youngsters and rubbed their backs until they, too, closed their eyes. From then on it was business as usual. After nap was potty, then snack, then playtime.
Here, I got to witness the young men play up to, and break, male stereotypes. First, I watched some of the boys join the girls in pulling pretty, lacy skirts from the play wardrobe around their waists. Some even added to the look by wearing backpack-like, strap-on butterfly wings. Apparently these little men hadn’t gotten the social memo not to do this kind of thing. I wasn’t about to give it to them. I put on a pair of butterfly wings myself.
Then we started to play with the stuffed animals. Sitting down next to the children, I found a large, brown teddy bear that had a hole on the back of its head for your hand to puppeteer its mouth. Kids don’t need spectacular ventriloquy to be enamored with the live, talking bear. But this fascination with their new friend, for some reason, also brought out the beast in some of the boys. As soon as I said “Hello, I’m you friend, Mr. Bear”, a couple boys let their masculine urge to conquer get the better of them, and they beat and squished its head. When this happens, it’s not so good that the kids forget it’s me making the bear talk because they also forget it’s my hand they are seizing and punching.
As soon as I stopped moving the bear around, the boys let up. But as soon as I got it talking again, they were smothering the life out of it. I don’t know why they wanted to attack it so much–violently, too. Here, I learned that boys sometimes do what’s expected of boys and that they’ll sometimes do what’s not expected.
Overall, I’ve learned that by being in the field, men are doing things not expected of them. (I don’t blame the lady for questioning my arrival to their center. Her experience probably tells her men aren’t good with kids. And I, myself, believe that most women are better than most men with kids.) But God bless the exceptions. Because more than just a novelty, men can play a hugely beneficial role in the field as shown above with the toddler teacher in suburbia, and also shown from my time at a childcare center in the inner city.
During outdoor playtime, I picked up and comforted a two year old boy who was bawling and distraught over a toy. This wasn’t a terrible-twos tantrum—this little guy was really troubled. With him in my arms I bounced lightly, patted his back, and told him everything was okay. When he quieted down, I set him back on the ground. The rest of the day he called me “Daddy”.
In these cases, it isn’t just acceptable or even just beneficial that a man was working in childcare. It was needed as this boy (I’d find out) and many others like him are without good men in their lives.