Men as Elementary Teachers

Questioning Assumptions About Male Teachers

By Janice Wallace, Department of Educational Policy Studies, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta

A Power Point presentation of this paper is also available.

My doctoral research focused on gender equity policy and factors that prevent women from seeking administrative positions in educational organizations. As I collected data, I frequently heard the comment that, if policy were to be developed to promote equitable access to administrative positions for women, equity policy should also be developed to ensure that more men seeks positions as elementary teachers. The inference was that the same power relationships existed in both instances. However, Martino and Berrill (2003) point out that masculinity and femininity are intertwined differently “into the daily management and organization of … schools” (p. 101). While much of the research on women seeking administrative positions demonstrates that dominant male norms discourage many women, Skelton’s (2003) work in the United Kingdom demonstrates that men are reluctant to seek teaching positions in the elementary grades because doing so raises questions about their masculinity. In other words, dominant male norms act as an inhibitor for both men and women who seek non-traditional organizational roles.

Governments offer several rationales for recruiting more men into the elementary grades. The first is a response to the perceived feminization of schools and the presumption that this situation has had a negative effect on boys’ learning. For example, American educational psychologist, Leonard Sax, was quoted in the National Post as saying that “schools, especially elementary schools, have become feminized” and that boys are not succeeding because schools “are run largely by women and according to women’s rules” (“Let Boys Be Boys,” March 4, 2003, p.1, cited in Greig, 2003, p. 39). Media accounts of “disadvantaged” and “failing” boys have focused the public’s attention on these issues and have brought political pressure to bear on educational systems. The result is a call to re-masculinize schools so that they are more “boy-friendly.” One of the primary strategies suggested is to attract more men to teaching, especially in the elementary grades.

Coulter and McNay (1995), however, argue that “studies designed to support these ideas provide little support.” Instead, “boys who have male teachers do not have fewer problems in school and are not better adjusted than other boys” (p. 13). Their conclusion is supported by Ashley (2003) whose research in the United Kingdom reveals that peers rather than teachers (whether male or female) are the dominant role models for boys. Furthermore, suggesting that we need more male teachers assumes that all male teachers behave identically. In reality, the masculinity that a male teacher brings to the classroom is unique to that individual. The strategy of attracting more males to elementary education also assumes that there is a gender gap that needs to be narrowed. This gender gap, in turn, is premised on a traditional idea of masculinity that dismisses those who are gay or trans-gendered as “wimpish” and therefore non-masculine (Connell, 1989). Males considering teaching positions that have traditionally been occupied by females face a variety of stereotypic ideas such as the notion that only women should take care of young children and that men who want to work with children must have homosexual tendencies. Male elementary teachers often compensate by assuming a hyper-masculinized persona (Connell, 1989; Francis & Skelton, 2001) or by moving to teaching positions at the junior or senior high school level (Ferguson, 2000). Both choices have implications for school systems and for faculties of education.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion surrounding the dwindling number of men in education, especially in the elementary grades, has focused on simplistic solutions that ignore how ideas of masculinity and femininity affect economic, political, and social realities. For example, in its report Narrowing the Gender Gap: Attracting Men to Teaching (2004), the Ontario College of Teachers recommends two solutions: (1) embarking on a province-wide marketing plan and (2) offering incentives to males who enter faculties of education. Both solutions have been attempted before and have largely failed.

The Gender Equity Subcommittee of the ATA’s Diversity, Equity and Human Rights (DEHR) Committee (of which I am a member) has been studying the academic and professional literature on the declining participation of males in elementary grades and the continuing under-representation of female teachers in math, the sciences, technology and history. The research reveals that there are a complex set of interrelated economic, social and political factors that come into play when males and females consider embarking on education as a career. Unless policymakers take these factors into account, many of the initiatives that have been proposed to encourage males to become teachers are doomed to fail.

Following the literature review, I undertook a two-stage research project designed to identify the factors that influence males and females in deciding whether or not to embark on a teaching career in Alberta. The first stage consisted of administering a survey to a group of beginning teachers attending an ATA conference in the fall of 2005. The second stage, still underway, involves interviewing individual teachers, organizing focus groups and undertaking a qualitative analysis of the responses. I am now in a position to compare and contrast the findings that emerged from the initial survey with the results of similar research conducted by (among others) Mills, Martino & Lingard (2004) and Carrington (2002). I am also in a position to question many of the assumptions about male teachers that currently inform education policy and practice.


Bernard, J-L, Hill, D., Falter, P., 7 Wilson, W.D. (2004). Narrowing the Gender Gap: Attracting Men to Teaching. Toronto, ON: Ontario College of Teachers.

Carrington, B. (2002). “A Quintessentially Feminine Domain? Student Teachers’ Constructions of Primary Teaching as a Career.” Educational Studies, 28(3), 287-303.

Connell, R. W. (1989). “Coll Guys, Swots, and Wimps: The Interplay of Masculinity and Education.” Oxford Review of Education, 15, 291-303.

Coulter, R. & McNay, M. (1995). “Are More Men in Elementary Schools Necessary?” The Canadian School Executive, 14, 13-17.

Ferguson, A. (2000). Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinities. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Francis, B. & Skelton, C. (2001). “Men Teachers and the Construction of Heterosexual Masculinity in the Classroom.” Sex Education, 1(1), 9-21.

Greig, C. (2003). “Masculinities, Reading, and the ‘Boy Problem’: A critique of Ontario Policies.” Journal of Educational Administration and Foundations, 17(1), 33-56.

Martino, W. & Berrill, D. (2003). “Boys, Schools and Masculinities: Interrogating the ‘Right’ Way to Educate Boys.” Educational Review, 55(2), 99-117.

Mills, M., Martino, W., & Lingard, B. (2004). “Attracting, Recruiting, and Retaining Male Teachers: Policy Issues in the Male Teacher Debate.” British Journal of Sociology of Education, 25(3), 355-369.

Skelton, C. (2003). “Male Primary Teachers and Perceptions of Masculinity.” Educational Review, 55(2), 195-209.