Teaching is still considered to require or reward qualities we consider inherently feminine.
The male teacher, even a community college teacher like me, is still a topic of consternation for a lot of people. While I may not gather the same kinds of dismissals faced by a male nurse, there are still plenty of assumptions about teaching as inherently feminine business, assumptions confounded by our troublesome ideas about gender.
There’s harm in these assumptions, especially for the large percentage of boys who seem to learn better, or at least differently, from men. A lot of them meet few male teachers, especially in the early years, because there just aren’t as many as we’d like. If we’re to attract more men to the teaching profession—it is still a noble profession, as important as ever—we might do well to change some of these attitudes.
Here’s stuff I hear all the time:
It must be great to be around so many young and single women every day.
This is absurd.
First of all, I don’t feel I’m “around” more single women than anyone else. Yes, they’re in the environment. But there’s a big difference between the relationships I have with students as opposed to colleagues.
Students come and go. I have between 120-148 every semester, and I lose over half of them by the midterm because most, women and men, are unprepared for college classes.
In a college, the full-time faculty have enormous power, and fellow faculty members can make your life hell with far greater ease and effect than could any administrator or student. Most of my colleagues are older than I am; at age 40, I’m one of the youngest full time faculty members on campus. I’m much closer and reveal much more of myself to colleagues—like my office mate, a woman—than I do to students.
I have been surrounded by young and single women since I declared an English major. But I have met them in a variety of settings—a good friend of mine is in a theater company, for example, and we hang out quite often. I used to work with young and single front desk girls while employed at a hotel. But there was nothing inherently “great” about being “around” them. Young single women do not have some magical or intrinsic capacity to spread joy or pleasure simply by coming to work. Some of them were delightful coworkers. Some of them made my life hell. Most of them did their jobs, chatted during break hours and then got on with their personal business.
It must be really stressful to be around (tempted by) so many young single women.
I’m a happily married man with two children. I do not go to work looking to get laid every day. To assume that I do, that it’s on my mind at every turn, is unfortunate and offensive.
These assumptions also do something to my profession that I simply can’t get my head around. Teaching is a job. It is not an expression of zealotry or a program of daily trysts. Students bring me legitimate problems. At our community college, many of them face challenging domestic situations, are grappling with trauma, and part of my job as a writing teacher requires helping some of them deal with psychological obstacles that interfere with their capacity to learn. It causes me much more stress to know a student’s parents are putting her down for seeking education than it does to see her in cherry-bomb lipstick.
My daily routine goes something like this: I look at my schedule, prioritize a series of tasks, get through them as efficiently and conscientiously as I can and return home to my wife and children. The favorite part of my day, and there is rarely an exception, is when I get to play with my kids. One of the reasons I became a teacher was because the flexible schedule allows me to be an involved father. I wanted this long before I knew whom I’d marry.
What causes me stress?
Bills. My wife’s dissatisfaction with something. The conflict in Ukraine. Science deniers. The assumption that I’m a walking boner.
It must be great to be a role model for all those young men.
This one isn’t really annoying. I am a role model, at least to some students. But I don’t believe women teachers I work with ever face the suggestion that they are role models first and thought provocateurs second.
When we talk about getting men involved in education, we generally have this idea that they’d be “good role models” for the young people, and this is especially true in primary school. It belittles the male teacher’s primary role, which is to prepare young minds for future tasks, dilemmas and decisions. If all we want from men is to have them model behavior for young people, we need not train them in pedagogy. It’s enough to just have them around and “acting good”. A custodian who comes to work on time and treats people with respect will suffice.
I don’t think of myself primarily as a role model, not for a class of students who are 18 and older. I see myself as a person whose job it is to throw a metaphorical brick through their heads, wake them up to the realities of the contemporary labor market and the social problems they’ll face as workers and citizens. If you took my class and began a tirade about role models or gender roles, you could expect to be asked to explain what a “model” is, and who determines what roles we play and why. My job is to provoke students to think, not to model behavior.
There’s a paradox here. If my job were to model behavior, and I were successful, I’d have a lot of students, men and women alike, asking crazy questions like “Why can’t we remember the future?” and they would have read the late works of Dostoevsky. But that virtually never happens, and for a simple reason. Most of the people who take my classes are not interested in me as a role model. They want to know what they need to do to get a C, and the majority are pissed to learn the answer:
Don’t worry. I can pick up the tab.
The only people who know how much money I make are my wife, my accountant, the Human Resources office at the college, my insurance agent, the IRS, various creditors and a nosey bartender in Vilnius, Lithuania. The joy you might feel when you sit next to me and “know” you make more money may very well be misguided.
Teachers themselves are at least partially to blame for their impoverished image. Do they earn too little? Some of them. How and why we should raise teachers’ salaries is a discussion for another article. Right now I’d like to say it’s rude to assume I can’t buy a tuna fish sandwich for lunch.
Of course, if you make the offer, don’t assume I’ll fight out of pride or conceit. If you want to buy my tuna sandwich, I’ll always accept your charity, even if it’s passive aggressive. But I’ll shake my head later. I own a house outright and collect rent from an income property; my stock portfolio is up over 30% since last year and, as a full-time and tenured English prof, the only way I can lose my job is if the college were to shut down.
However, out of gratitude, I have always accepted gifts. Tuna. Bagels. Blackhawks tickets.
Don’t you wish you could put your talent to greater use?
Women teachers get this, too. It sounds like a compliment. You’re really more talented than you give yourself credit for. But it’s also presumptuous. Clearly, “great use” is something other than teaching, and the person asking the question has some hierarchy in mind, one they feel is correct.
There are other jobs I feel I could do. After ten years of community college teaching, however, I no longer have any illusions: I’m working for the man. Textbook publishers, test designers, politicians, banks, contractors and lawyers benefit and profit from the work I do. So do the petrochemical and computer industries, agri-business, energy and media companies. After all, we have to get around, get online, eat, power up and gather news.
Given my inability to extract myself from all this, the argument goes, I should put myself in a place where I’m earning more money while performing some more valuable task. Because the flipside isn’t true: I’m neither changing the world nor affecting most students in any direct way.
I hope you don’t expect me to disagree. I do wish I could put my talent to greater use. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who knows what’s going on in our globalized economy, especially somebody whose phenomenal talent is matched or surpassed by astronomic wealth, should want the same thing.
Photo by Peter Harrison
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
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