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Primary schools are losing more and more male teachers, so how can we retain them?

Men often leave teaching because of the gender-related challenges they face. shutterstock

The percentage of male primary school teachers in Australia has decreased in recent decades, from 30.24% in 1983 to 18.26% in 2016. Education authorities have responded to this with recruitment-focused initiatives, such as scholarships and quota systems.

But the continuing decline suggests more attention needs to be given to retaining those already in the profession.

Why the decline?

Men often leave teaching because of the gender-related challenges they face.

My PhD research has found the biggest challenges male primary school teachers face are:

  • uncertainty about physical contact with students;

  • an increased workload due to expectations to take on masculine roles; and

  • social isolation caused by difficulties in developing positive professional relationships with colleagues.

If male primary teachers have more effective coping strategies they might be able to deal better with these challenges, and consequently persist in the profession.

What are some coping strategies?

Participants in this study detailed several coping strategies and supports that enabled them to deal with these challenges and persist with teaching.

Some men described how they dealt with their fear and uncertainty about physical contact by employing a strict no-contact policy for their own self-protection. They used humour and playing sport with students at break times to build relationships with their students in ways that did not involve the physical contact strategies that their female colleagues used.

Other strategies they described included:

  • setting up their classrooms to minimise incidental physical contact;

  • never being one-on-one with students; and

  • moving to a public location to talk with students.

Many indicated they were happy to give an upset child a hug. However, they were fearful of other people perceiving the contact as inappropriate and making a career-ending accusation.

Those men who were prepared to make the same physical contact as their female colleagues were generally older, more experienced and had worked in their schools for many years. This had allowed them to develop trust and rapport within their school community.

Several participants discussed the gendered double standards on physical contact. They noted the media sensationalising of inappropriate behaviour by male teachers, with much less attention when accusations were later proved false.

Teaching has intensified

Although the substantial intensification of workload in recent decades has affected all teachers, previous research has noted that male primary school teachers report higher workloads than their female colleagues. This is because of expectations to perform roles such as behaviour management, manual labour, sports coaching, and being responsible for subjects such as science and ICT.

Participants reported they were expected to perform these roles, and seemed to have accepted this as a part of their job.

Men primarily employed strategies such as arriving early at school and recycling lessons from previous years to use their time more effectively, and cope when additional behaviour issues arose. They also sought help from other men working at the school, such as the groundsman to help with manual labour.

Many said strong support from their principal was a vital component of their ability to cope with this challenge.

Participants said they generally got on well with their female colleagues. But they felt socially isolated because they did not have many colleagues, particularly male ones, with common interests. This isolation was particularly evident in the staff room at break times.

Men coped with this challenge by using strategies such as being proactive in identifying common interests for conversation topics, developing positive professional relationships with trusted female colleagues they could rely on for support, and pursuing out-of-school hobbies such as clubs and sport. There they could interact with more men and “balance” their female-dominated work environment.

Men also described self-isolating behaviours such as reading the paper and going back to their office to do work.

Several themes emerged as participants described their strategies for dealing with these gender-related challenges. These included the influence of traditional constructions of how men should and shouldn’t act, schools perpetuating these societal constructions, and the importance of having strong support from colleagues and school leaders.

These factors all need to be considered if more men are to be retained in teaching.

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