I’m not sure how many little girls or boys get to be fire fighters when they grow up, or nurses or Batman, but my husband says that when he was five years old he knew he wanted to be a primary school teacher. It was his prep teacher who had a long lasting influence on him. When he graduated from high school J had the option of going into law or taking up what was known back then as a studentship. This latter was a government grant offered to students who wanted to be teachers. Students had to pay the grant back by working for the Education Department for three years. Teaching was not a well-paid profession then nor is it now it but J saw it as a vocation and has been at it ever since. His enthusiasm and love of his profession has never faded.
J tells an adventure story. It began in the mists of time so no one knows how it started, not even J and nobody knows what the end is (not even J). It’s a technique he uses to promote discipline, stimulate the imagination and encourage listening skills. The story stops at the crucial moment leaving children groaning at having to hang out for the next instalment. The next morning, hands clasped in front of them on the desk, sitting up straight, bright eyes shining, they wait with bated breath. Adults have been known to stop J at the zoo, in the bank or in the street to ask if he remembers them, and is he still telling that story? He is what I call a ‘my teacher’, the memorable one we all think of fondly when we look back.
I still remember my primary school teacher, Mr Clifford. I’ve written about him before. Mr Clifford said that he would stand on his head if our class did well in the maths test. In hindsight I realise that he was being facetious and that he hadn’t expected us to do well. But his offer spurred us on and Mr Clifford (once he was reminded) kept his promise. It was a sight to see. He leaned up against the blackboard, face all red and puffy, and stood on his head for some seconds. Looking back on it now, I realise he must have been only ten or twelve years older than his pupils were and wet behind the ears. He hadn’t been at it long enough to be an inspiration, but he was young enough to understand about promises. Adults were always making promises, then finding it inconvenient to keep them. Mr Clifford came through. I’ll always remember that.
What brought those memories flooding back was a video clip I saw a few days ago that showed an example of a series of advertisements to be released soon about a young woman who has become a teacher because her former teacher was such an inspiration. I haven’t seen them yet, but I predict that the advertisements we were told have been aimed at recruiting people into teaching is actually aimed at prospective women teachers. The majority of teachers in the system and the people in management jobs are women. There are no plans or programs in place aimed at stemming the decline of male teachers. Ironically, the only way to balance things out would be to recruit only men for a while, but there would need to be an application for exemptions from equal opportunity laws and possibly a bit of affirmative action. I can’t see that happening. I’ve never been a fan of affirmative action because it has meant that applicants are hired on gender rather than worth, which leaves the worthier applicant out in the cold. But I acknowledge that it was once necessary as a tool to get women into the workforce and to give them a chance at professions that were traditionally dominated by men. Now the tables are turned there should be equal opportunity for male teachers, and students.
In recent years there has been a push for girls to have female role models but it hasn’t seemed to be as necessary to provide any for boys. Boys, particularly those in single parent families without a male role model in the house need one and can benefit from male teachers.
An article in the Guardian (UK) 2009, headed ‘Jobs for the Boys’ says that [in the UK] ‘One in four primaries have no male teachers at all.’ One particular school (at the time) had 15 male teachers. It is believed that men are more likely to apply for a school that has other men in it. ‘A Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) poll carried out … [in 2008] found more than 35% of boys felt having a male primary teacher challenged them to work harder at school. Around 50% said they were more likely to have asked a male teacher for help over bullying or problems with school work.’ I can’t imagine it being too different here.
One in three high school teachers are male and one in ten men are working in primary schools. Whether or not the student population is fifty-fifty shouldn’t matter. Both genders are entitled to an equal opportunity education.
A recent article in The Australian states that ‘Teachers in NSW will be drawn from school leavers in the top ten percent in key subjects. That’s a good start but shouldn’t be limited to NSW or to high marks.
We’re much too restricted by political correctness to tell it as it is, but men and women teach differently and there’s a need for them both in a school setting.
One in four primary school students have failed to reach the standard for their age in reading. Is it the gender imbalance? Is it the curriculum or the way that teachers are overworked? Is it teacher training that’s at fault? Or is it that tertiary entry standards are low? I think that all the issues should be taken into consideration holistically rather than piecemeal. I include decent wages. We’re always saying about politicians that if you pay them peanuts you get monkeys but we’re okay with feeding teachers peanuts. In the end, if the focus is on vocation and training the rest can be sorted out.
Here’s hoping that the Department of Education and the producer of those adverts has got things right.