It began early this summer during a camping trip. Catalyzed by a fleeting thought that crossed my mind while participating in a park ranger-led activity. The thought unfolded into a summer side project investigating the presence of men as early childhood educators outside of early childhood education (ECE) classrooms (two to five-years-old) and ultimately, this blog post.
My children and I were in the middle of an enjoyable park ranger-led activity on the formation of rocks when I noticed that something that few would care to entertain. The park ranger was a young man. His engagement with the children and families was extraordinarily enthusiastic and responsive. The participants laughed and engaged in all of his activities except one young boy who preferred to climb on fence posts and wander into areas that were marked as restricted. The caregiver of the child was hopelessly pleading with him to stay off the posts and out of the restricted areas with nothing more than a glance from the child. Several minutes into the activity the park ranger walked up to the child, got down on his knees, looked the child directly in the eyes and kindly told the child what was expected. He then offered the child the opportunity to help him hold his “yardstick of earth’s history.”
As a former early childhood educator and teacher educator, I was stunned by this park ranger’s ability to apply practices that many college-educated early childhood professionals cannot effectively implement. He made an individualized connection with the child based on a quick assessment of the situation. I was immediately struck with two questions that I have had to answer many times over the years.
- Why aren’t their more men who teach in ECE classrooms?
- What can the field of ECE do to recruit more men to be classroom teachers?
Then I considered a new question that I had never asked.
- Do men who are interested in teaching young children choose other venues other than classrooms to work in?
The question stuck with me throughout the summer as we went on to participate in activities at museums, parks, recreation centers, libraries and community events. What I discovered confirmed my suspicions.
Background, methods, and findings
About 2.3% of early childhood care providers/teachers are identified as men. Considering most of the activities we participated in were designed for children 3 to eight-years-old, when I began my documentation, I wasn’t expecting to find more than 5 to 10% participation from men as professionals working with the children.
Many of the locations included activities led by a seasonal/part-time employee or trained volunteer. During many of these activities, I stood back, listening and observing while children explored with their five senses. My data collection was basic: I noted the presented gender identity of the adult(s) leading the learning activities. Because there was nothing official about this side project and I was not comfortable asking strangers their gender identity, I kept my definition of gender binary (man/woman).
I observed 53 summer program leaders. The locations included museums, public pools, libraries, local, state and national parks, nature centers and community centers. The only restriction was that they need to be directly engaged with the children for an extended period. A lifeguard or information center employee did not count. On the other hand, a tour guide or facilitator of a story time did count. My final tally was 12 men and 41 women. Disproportionate? Yes, but more proportionate than career early childhood educators. About 23% of the employees were men.
Back to the questions
My side project created revised answers to the two questions that I regularly heard.
- Where are the men? The presence of constant social messages of masculinity and femininity discourages men from taking active roles in young children’s lives, particularly welcoming a career in ECE.
- What can the field do? There is little promise for an immediate shift in policies and practices that change social norms for gender roles in our society, but there is no question that the field of ECE can promote the importance of play and science in classrooms and programs. The field can establish the expectation that men must have the same responsibilities as everyone other early childhood professional and they should not be assumed to check their masculinity at the door.
The preliminary answer to my third question was accompanied by more questions than answers. It appears that men find other venues other than classrooms to work with young children, but why? Why is the apparent gender representation in summer programs more balanced than in school year programs? Does this have any implications for the potential learning outcomes of children? Could the field of ECE benefit from promoting ECE as a career that is more about science and play?
The findings from the project, are by no means empirical, but there are a few novel conclusions that could guide future formal research. The project suggests that summer programs fly under the radar of the social norm of femininity in ECE. This could be attributed to the activities in summer programs. Most activities tend to allow men to preserve their sense of masculinity by participating in athletic play and science.
A call for action
My position is that we, as a field need to focus on getting the most qualified and dedicated professionals, not professionals who do not look and carry the demeanor of a stereotypical “nurturing mother.” In almost all of the cases, the men I observed this summer were passionate about their work. They interacted with children and adults with exceptional care, respect, responsiveness, and humility. That is what children need in their lives and early childhood programs need in classrooms. The field of ECE must strive to encourage the normalization of masculinity and flexibility of gender expression in classrooms and programs. ECE programs are always in search of the best of the best professionals. Perhaps gathering ideas from summer programs will draw a collection of candidates who currently feel their traits, skills, and abilities are unwanted.
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