This past year has really helped me to explore my nurturing and empathetic side. I am so grateful for this! I have struggled in the past with forming those meaningful connections with students and I discovered that it was something in me that needed to change. I needed to be more brave, more vulnerable, more empathetic, and have a more genuine understanding of exactly why I want to be a teacher. I care and that’s okay. Children need to know that they have my full support and their well being is my priority. During my experience in kindergarten, how can I be a more nurturing and supportive teacher?
And that is not an easy question to answer. As an aspiring teacher, and especially as a male working with primary schoolchildren in today’s political climate, I am ever mindful of my personal interactions with the kids. I cannot help but always feel a sense of apprehension when I’m near the children… especially the youngest ones who are very touchy. I’m hoping that fear will slowly subside as I observe and learn about proper interactions from experts and mentors in the field. And after a few weeks in Kindergarten now… it is. There are some fantastic primary educators in my current school to learn from. But again… they are all female and, in the generation we live in, I think it’s inevitably going to be a different experience for a male primary teacher.
A Google search for "male primary teacher" will quickly reveal the often unspoken hesitancy that many male teachers have about teaching primary school children. Put simply, generations of fear mongering and some isolated cases have fabricated a mistrust and suspicion that have permeated the public psyche. Although it is slowly eroding, I believe there is still a strong stigma of mistrust placed upon male primary teachers.
There is a growing consensus that more male primary teachers are needed and that this will help to reduce gender stereotypes around the profession. Providing younger children with positive male role models and breaking down these gender stereotypes is important. Male primary teachers can show children that boys are versatile too - we can cry and laugh, knit sweaters, bake cookies, and also play football. I feel that there is an imbalance between efforts to get more females into STEM-related fields, as opposed to efforts to get more males into caregiver and empathetic roles. So long as this ideology of suspicion remains, I fear there will continue to be a shortage of males accepting primary school teaching positions. One allegation of misconduct, no matter the outcome, could destroy a male teacher's professional and personal life very quickly.
One of the lingering issues I have is, where do you draw the line on personal space, and at what point does that interfere with the teacher “being in the moment” and really listening to the child and showing compassion for them? It’s important to be mindful of personal space, but at what point does that interfere with responsiveness to student needs and, by keeping distance, unwillingly harm the relationship and the student’s sense of self-worth?
Touch is an important part of human connection, especially for the younger children who are still transitioning to school and being away from their caregivers. For instance, it broke my heart this week when a little girl in Kindergarten simply started to snuggle up to my arm, frowned and then said “sorry, I forgot about personal space.” Building trusting relationships with students at this age is difficult when we enforce this too stringently. From my observation, it is not much of an issue for female teachers. Is it society in general these days, is it something unique to male elementary teachers, or is it just something I need to work through? It's something that bears thinking about further. And it my belief that answers can be found by putting relationships first and building a strong extended classroom climate based on restorative practices and principles.
Ultimately, I believe that male primary teachers need to ask themselves, "How relational is my pedagogy?" Am I actually building healthy positive relationships with my students and their families, my colleagues and my extended educational community? Effective relationships build upon trust, understanding and true belonging. The Relationships First Implementation Guide envisions a holistic, whole-school approach that respects the inherent worthiness of all people. Central to healthy relationships is the need to belong and be our authentic selves. Creating "an ethos guided by the values of respect, dignity, and mutual concern," this approach "nurtures relational school cultures" and can help us to understand one another in more meaningful and genuine ways (Vaandering, 2018, 5). Are we measuring male primary school teachers against our own implicit biases and societal expectations, or are we truly honouring them as inherently valuable members of the whole school community?
In a school that has adopted a relational culture that is actively nurtured through a strong RF-RJE framework, there is a more authentic and trusting relationship between all members of the school and community. Parents and caregivers are active contributing members and have meaningful relationships with their child's teachers. There is less opportunity for mistrust and misunderstandings, as efforts are constantly made to build meaningful relationships through perspective taking and collaborative problem solving. Through restorative practices, when harm or conflict does occur, there are established frameworks that can facilitate transparency, repair harm, resolve conflict, and respect the dignity of all members.
In the Relationship Window, a responsive learning community should be one based upon high support and high expectations (Vaandering, 2018). Some male primary teachers may feel some sense of loneliness in a female-dominated field. By building relationships in a balanced, reciprocal fashion, these teachers will feel a greater sense of belonging and respect. By honouring the authentic self and teacher motivations, I believe there is a greater opportunity for breaking down gender stereotypes in the profession, as well as means of repairing harm and transforming conflict.
Classroom circles are also a means of establishing mutual respect of personal space. By understanding the nuances of human interaction, children can begin to be more mindful of their physical actions and their impacts on others. By providing a safe space to be vulnerable and build sustainable relationships, children can better understand how to respect the personal dignity of their peers and adults alike. When they feel that the teacher does truly understand them, there is a meaningful connection there that is not reliant on touch to sustain.
I believe that creating an ideological framework informed by RF-RJE principles can help change unfair societal attitudes of suspicion and mistrust that, although not often discussed, are still a major factor in recruitment of male primary school teachers. Creating welcoming spaces that are free from judgement and provide a cultural ethos of mutual respect and understanding can help everyone understand our motivations and mistakes, and establish strong norms and values that can help build positive and trusting relationships. Honouring before measuring. In a RF-RJE community and school culture, there is no solitary man. For he belongs.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and supported by the RF-RJE vision and mandate. The author has been working in the education field for over 20 years, including curriculum development and ESL instruction. He is pursuing his third post-secondary degree in STEM Education and is currently serving as a preservice teacher with Kindergarten.
Vaandering, Dorothy and Deenaree Walker. Relationships First Implementation Guide: A Holistic, Whole-School, Responsive Approach. 2018.
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