More Male Teachers in Schools, Better Educational Results for Boys? Not So Fast!
The argument goes something like this…
The preponderance of female teachers in schools, particularly at the elementary school level, may very well have deleterious impact on the education of boys, particularly in areas such as reading and literacy skills. Boys, as the logic goes, need the presence of same sex educators in order to achieve; their very presence provides boys with a same gender impact that will help them in their studies and provide academic role models.
This thinking has led many school districts, around the world, to launch often expensive campaigns to recruit men into the field of education. However, extensive research and data collection on this subject suggest that there is no positive impact of having more male teachers in school, on any child.
In a broad ranging study done in 2006, “with a sample of 146,315 elementary school students from 21 countries found that boys did not benefit from having male teachers (although an explanation was not offered) in two countries (Austria and Romania), girls benefited from having female teachers.”* (See Source Below).
So what’s the crisis? Why the push to have more men working in schools and does it make a difference?
And, what I came to inuit and which is backed up by serious research is that the expectations, based on gender, that teachers have of their students is the relevant and important factor in whether a child will be successful in a whole range of academic subjects.
When I was a principal in a fairly large K-8 school, I have to admit that I was under the aura of this thinking: that somehow if I were to hire more (in this case ANY) male teachers into the elementary school, it would benefit the students, particularly the boys. I bought into the entire idea that they would behave better, they would relate better and their education would be better. And, I can say I was absolutely wrong. It was not only some form of naive aspirational thinking, but underneath was a cultivated bias that I had to come to terms within myself that was a deep part of a much larger issue in education.
This bias was based on a lurking set of thoughts that education was becoming “imbalanced” or overly feminized because our field was so dominated by women. As I look back on it, it is hard to imagine a more absurd and silly way to think about what is in the best interest of all children. And, what I came to inuit and which is backed up by serious research is that the expectations, based on gender, that teachers have of their students is the relevant and important factor in whether a child will be successful in a whole range of academic subjects.
I have written about this question of teacher expectations previously (Turning Your Classroom in a Chrysalis) based on the groundbreaking work by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in the 1960s. And, a new study from researchers in New Zealand seems to confirm their findings and take its conclusions to a new level of understanding.
For boys, in other words, having male teachers was a detriment, but having female teachers wasn’t much better.
In the researchers’ study in New Zealand, while controlling for factors such as ethnicity and economic status, what they measured was teacher expectations toward student learning and capability and then applied gender to measure outcomes. What was clear was that when looking at male teachers and their attitudes toward boys, they held lower expectations for their students in both literacy and mathematics, regardless of gender, with the lowest expectations being applied to boys’ capacities in reading. But guess what? Most women teachers held the same beliefs toward their male students. Female teachers at least held higher expectations for their female students as all around learners.** For boys, in other words, having male teachers was a detriment, but having female teachers wasn’t much better.
Teachers just do not hold in high regard or hold much optimism for boys achieving critical and important literacy skills. And the data is there to prove it. More and more males are not only dropping out of schooling at all levels early (see chart below), but they are also entering our societies more and more functionally illiterate.
Perhaps one approach would be to take all of those resources and funding that are being used to somehow restore some unsubstantiated and useless gender balance to the profession of education and start educating the educators about their biases toward students. Have teachers explore, whether male or female, why they are expecting a lower level of performance from boys and not necessarily girls. Begin by tossing out all of the also unsubstantiated and harmful, defeatist and deterministic biological arguments (i.e “boys develop later” “boys just can’t sit still long enough to write” “boys just don’t like to read”) that get in the way of approaching all students with a growth mindset regarding their learning.
Every child deserves to walk into school with adults around them who hold them in high regard as learners, regardless of gender. That attitude shift by adults requires that teachers see themselves as significant others capable of influencing learning outcomes with high expectations and attitudes for everyone, even before those students walk into school.
*Watson, Penelope W. St. J, C. M. Rubie-Davis, K. Meissel, E. R. Peterson, A. Flint, L. Garret and L. McDonald. 2019. “Teacher gender, and expectation of reading achievement in New Zealand elementary school students:essentially a barrier”? Gender and Education 31 (8) 1000-1019.