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The Call to Discipline: The Double Bind of Men in Early Education

For years as a principal of an early childhood through 8th grade school, the prize was always attempting to hire men into the elementary school program. I thought, ‘if only I could just hire a male educator to work with younger children, it could change the gender equation.' Boys would benefit from having a certain type of masculine modeling in the classroom, at recess, in the halls...even in the bathrooms. Young girls would experience male adults whose professional decisions and desires went against standard stereotypes. When I asked a veteran teacher at the school who had been there for many years if there had ever been a male in the elementary school, she answered, “yeah, it was pretty cool. He was here for about 18 months and then left to sell real estate.” 

There is a particular bind to being a male educator in early childhood and elementary school education. Males are often the ones who are viewed as the warehouses for the students (particularly other males) who struggle with behavioral issues. By extension, they are not viewed as primarily capable of being nurturers of children which ultimately extends and reinforces gender stereotypes for our students.

And the other side of this double bind for men seeking careers in elementary level education? They are often perceived as probable perverts and child molestors and, heaven forbid, homosexuals. Because, of course, what kind of a “real” or “well-adjusted” man would want to work educating young children? 

While male teachers talk about wanting to be in environments where women’s ways of knowing and being are primary, the reality is that a biased and narrow minded culture pushes back hard on such desires.

Men who go into early childhood and elementary education experience bias specifically related to gender, often with conflicting messages. Male students who struggle with behavioral issues are often placed into these male teachers’ classrooms under the assumption that they need a “male presence” in order to get through their days. The assumption is that males teachers are the real deliverers of tough discipline where the female teachers are the nurturing and warm ones, capable of the soft touch. Male teachers communicate great resentment at having being placed in this role. They often report going into the field of education exactly because they were attracted to providing this nurturing role for their students as were their female colleagues. The other side of this narrative is within the disturbing profiling that men who go into the field of early childhood or elementary education must be gay (often perceived as problematic by parents) and the overlapping construct that they must also be pedophiles.  Steve, an elementary teacher, put it this way:

“Had I not been married and begun teaching, there would be questions...when I started teaching, I carefully placed a picture of my wife on my desk.  What difference does it make? When I was single and interning, the parents came to check me out. I think what they’re afraid of is that I’m gay…[and] that if someone is gay, they’re a molester.”(* See Source Below)

Steve’s “credentials” are questioned, even his morality, because of the common understanding that what makes an elementary school teacher great are the “feminine” attributes such as nurturing, warm, loving, not if they can teach a child how to read well.  While male teachers talk about wanting to be in environments where women’s ways of knowing and being are primary, the reality is that a biased and narrow minded culture pushes back hard on such desires. The question of professional qualifications takes a back seat to having to establish himself against cultural norms and assumptions where there is no room for varying definitions of masculinity.

After finally having found a male to teach in our 4th grade program (85% of teachers in elementary school education are female), the main question that parents asked me was basically, “what is he doing here?” The implication was that this person must have chosen this job as a type of concession or that he had failed at the more typically male professions (whatever those are). When I asked these parents what they thought about me being in education, there again, their answer seemed to me part of the problem. “Well, you’re the principal. You run the place.”  

*King, James R. (2000) The Problem(s) of Men in Early Education. In Lesko, N (Ed.). Masculinities at School. (p.21) Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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