Friday, 28 February 2014

'This is a man's world...?'

A good friend of mine recently suggested that I write a blog about my role (as the only man) in our Foundation Stage.  My immediate thought was 'how can I justify the need for more men?' and even 'how can I justify the need for me!?'

But I decided to write a piece after taking part in the #EYTalking discussion on the role of men and after hearing some of the tales of practitioners who work in the sector and some of the problems which they faced:
  • Men who work with children are often questioned about their motives - as if this is something sinister. 
  • Childcare is often seen as a female role because of the stereotypical view of raising children.  Men are often seen as not 'caring' enough to look after children.
Both of these views are expressed nationally and internationally so many parents (especially New to England parents) might feel unsure about male staff.
Other examples:

Despite these reports I still feel that we live and work in a generally accepting society, regardless of gender, age, race, sexuality or ability.  As a teacher I don't feel that I have ever been discriminated against for any of these reasons (though as a white male that doesn't say much).  Generally, I feel that I've had a very warm reception by each parent, teacher and school.  They all think its a positive having a man work with small children in their care and would "all like to see more."

Father figure: 

For many parents, having a male in a Nursery setting is akin to their child having another father figure.  With a rise in single parent families, having another adult in a child's life can bring some equilibrium to their upbringing (there has been a lot of research on the effect of having only a single parent can have on a child).  So for some families a child who may not have a dad in their life, a male member of staff 'fills in the gap' which is left, but for many others it supplements the already present father at home.
For our children, the majority of our families are two parent families still.  In fact some of our families have uncles and aunties present in the same home so if anything they have more adults in their life than they need.  The downside of this is that having many men or women in a household could perpetuate a gender stereotype.


Our children come to us with many of these stereotypes in mind.  These often emerge within their roleplay; the boys will get messy, paint and fix cars whilst the girls will clean clothes, take care of the baby and iron clothes.  This isn't to say that all children follow this pattern but many do, and we as practitioners work very hard to break this.  On any given day you often hear "but a boy can do that too.." or "a girl can do that too..."  "that's not a girl colour, anyone can use that colour.."

Its natural for children to come to Nursery wanting to role play what they see their parents doing.  In the community which we work it is often the case that boys are fascinated by their fathers (whether because they spend a lot of time, or little time) and girls are by their mothers.  They want to "be their fathers/mothers" naturally.  This closeness to each parent presents us with problems, especially around transition and separation.

When boys enter the Nursery, some of them are very close to their fathers and find it hard to separate from them if a female member of staff is trying to engage them.  My role is often to be the person to separate and to play with that boy, building up a relationship and breaking down barriers to playing with female staff and children.  Within this role is the need to challenge the stereotypes often associated with this behaviour, e.g. these boys often don't like to visit the home corner and 'cook' or do some painting or drawing.  I can show them that it is OK to do this and they can still maintain their 'masculinity' (i.e. 'be a boy') by taking part in these types of play.

This is not to say this is a gender specific routine.  More often we have girls who struggle to work with me because they spend so little time with men.

In our setting two girls who have had very little contact with their male members of family have found settling in to Nursery rather troubling.  Initially they worked with me but were very shy and couldn't form a strong relationship.  However with a female member of staff they were able to form a relationship quickly and help them settle in.  I found this quite frustrating but then I realised that I couldn't become precious about this - I just had to adjust to their need for female staff members nearby.

Different approaches to care/play:

These are is old fashioned concept that men are more masculine and engage in more 'rough and tumble' play than women.  Think of the 1960's 'drill-instructor' style PE teacher!  In the same vein is the idea that women are soft and caring because all women are motherly.  We have successfully challenged this stereotypical view in many parts of life but it often emerges as a current argument for having more men in the Early Years.  I don't agree.

In my setting there are many women who present more 'masculine' characteristics than I do.  One member of staff is very sporty and knows all about football and can play any sport you ask!  Another female loves to get dirty and messy outside.  I enjoy getting messy and I do play sports with the children but my passion is more artistic, more creative in a small scale.
If practitioners still feel that males embody the more traditional masculine characteristics then they need to engage in further CPD.  All adults should be willing to engage in rough and tumble play as well as providing a nurturing environment.  There ought to be no difference in approaches to care and practise, regardless of gender - it should be all about personality!

(But... am I ignoring the fundamental differences between men and women..?)

Relationships with fathers:

We have a lot of difficulty getting our parents to participate in our setting.  90%+ of our parents are EAL themselves and despite having a lot of bilingual staff, we still struggle to get parents to engage in positive conversations - usually they are those behaviour management ones.  One of the benefits of having different gender staff is the comfort that certain parents feel at approaching staff.  Generally female staff do not approach me unless their child is in my key worker group.  Despite being one of the teachers, many mums prefer a member of staff who speaks their language or a woman. On the other side, many of the men seek me out to when asking a question of if they have an interest in something in the setting.

I have tried to form close friendships with the dads in my class with some success.  Its a slow process but to aid this in a few weeks we are hosting a 'dads only' course on playing where we hope to give dads further skills and give them an opportunity to talk to me and other about their children (and not just what's 'gone wrong'!)


With the Co-op recently announcing plans to have a male member of staff in each of its settings, the role of men in the Early Years is once again in the spotlight.  We shouldn't all suddenly get into a pickle about this.  For years, men have been teaching in Nursery and Reception up and down the country.  Children form relationships with these men with varying levels of success, but we know that not having a male member of staff does not irreparably damage a child's development.
What we do need to do is consider our children and how many of them would benefit from having a good or different mix of adults in their setting.  Just 2% of staff working with under 5's are male.  I don't think its right to get hung up on a number but rather on what our children need.
My children and parents benefit from having a male member of staff in the Nursery.  I am one of only 2 in its 20 year history and it seems to be having a positive impact - but its important to know your children and what they need.