Julie Gillis remembers a teacher who changed her son’s life.
I have an 11-year-old son who is in public school here in Austin, Texas. He’s had a variety of wonderful teachers throughout the years, but it wasn’t until his 5th grade year that he had a male teacher. Now, the PE and music teachers are male, but those classes are called “specials” and happen once a day, not as a full day experience.
My eldest has never really been a “natural” student. By that I mean, he’s brilliant, creative, and engaged but he’s not the sit in a chair and regurgitate information kind of kid. Heck, I don’t think most kids are truly that way, but he especially is the type to prefer to experience knowledge, run about, and most importantly engage in play as a way to learn.
If he could take class while up in a tree, I think he’d make all A’s. As it stood, he made C’s and often had issues sitting still.
I felt, for a long time, that most of his teachers didn’t know quite what to do with him. All of them were good teachers—that was clear—but I often felt his natural energy wasn’t being focused in a way that could help him learn, help him feel the most truly him.
Fifth grade rolled around and when we went to Back To School night, he was very nervous. He wanted Mr. Anderson* and he was truly worried he’d not get him. As luck would have it, he was in Anderson’s class, and he looked about as thrilled as I’d ever seen him. My husband and I drew great sighs of relief and looked forward to seeing how the year would go.
The months went by and his grades improved. Mr. Anderson was a great teacher, first of all, but he had a strong-yet-gentle nature that really influenced my son. Mr. Anderson focused on science, something my son was passionate about. Throughout the year, my young man was allowed and encouraged to explore science in all kinds of ways. His confidence grew, and he wound up being a leader in the class in ways I had not necessarily expected him to be.
I will happily admit (as a woman, as a mother, as a feminist/humanist/equalist) that not only was it because Mr. Anderson was a great teacher, but Mr. Anderson was a man. Having a man as a teacher was great for my son. Hell, I’ve shouted it to everyone I know! He was a role model in ways that a female teacher couldn’t be, and frankly I didn’t always understand why at first, but I can see it now. Energy. Point of view. Someone who looked like him (in a way, or I mean clumsily, he could see growing up into a man like Mr. Anderson). A mirror.
I think we all seek mirrors to help us see where we are, who we are, and who we want to become. A good teacher is a guide and instructor, but in certain cases, they can provide a mirror for us as we grow. I think children need a wide variety of mirrors—all ages, sexes, races and orientations—and we need that variety so that children can find the mirror that suits them best. I’d prefer to see students get more of a choice, more of that variety in school rather than see only one race or gender represented. Here’s why.
1) Personal: Chemistry is important. It’s important for young men and women to have role models that they can relate to.
2) Systemic equity: If a boy grows to see or have only women as teachers, is it likely that boy will want to become a teacher himself? Or will he assume it’s a profession “for women”? It’s a subtle influence, but it’s real. When I write about systemic or institutionalized sexism, that’s what I’m getting at. Not a conspiracy to make all teachers be one gender, but a pattern of choices and influence that becomes second nature and common place.
3) Global respect for the trustworthiness of men: I’ve gotten this pervasive sense that men aren’t safe to be in the classroom. I’ve seen very, very few male daycare workers or male elementary school teachers, and it bothers me. I think it’s due to what many of our commenters might call fear-based feminism, but I’m as likely to believe it’s due to increasing costs of litigation and liability insurance. People in institutions just aren’t as willing to place their trust in men around children, and I think it’s damn wrong. Anyone can be abusive, anyone can be cruel, and our children need all care providers scrutinized for safety’s sake.
(Heck, even female daycare workers are trained out of hugging kids or letting them sit on laps. I do believe that sexual abuse happens, but I don’t think we should eliminate healthy touch and affection from our kids’ educational experiences.)
Finally, men can offer children something women don’t have to offer: masculinity. And they can offer it in a wide variety of ways. From a bookish science teacher, to a tough coach, to a sensitive music teacher, all these types and models of masculinity are important for boys (and girls) to see. I am by no means a gender essentialist, but I do think that there are differences in how genders are expressed and that children can relate to those differences and benefit from them.
Men should not be made to feel like they are on the outside of an educational system. There shouldn’t be suspicion connected to men who want to work with kids. Men’s energy and passion should be honored, and their service as a teacher should be considered a valuable gift.
I don’t want a world of only one gender. I want a world with a variety. I want a world in which children can grow up trusting men and women (and genders not so specific). I want my children to find role models that can give them the mirror in which to see greatness in themselves.
Men can provide that, and it’s vital that they do. I have nothing but respect and love for Mr. Anderson (I’d clone him if I could!), and I’m so thankful that my son was able to be his student for a year. He’s grown immeasurably, and I think much of that was because of his teacher.
*Pseudonyms were used.