Boys Aren’t Excelling in Schools. Would More Male Role Models in Early...

Diversity and Equity

Boys Aren’t Excelling in Schools. Would More Male Role Models in Early Learning Help?

By Daniel Mollenkamp     Feb 14, 2024

Boys Aren’t Excelling in Schools. Would More Male Role Models in Early Learning Help?

Zachary Jackson thinks a lot about what his students may be learning from him in class. For some of his first graders in Atlanta, that goes beyond the actual academic lessons. They are also practicing how to be a man.

For Jackson, the question of how to model manhood is an obsession, something he thinks about all the time.

He’s worked with kids since 2018 through Wings for Kids, a nonprofit that operates after-school programs in Georgia and South Carolina. He’s taught music, drawing on his experiences in music production. And since the beginning of this school year, he’s taught first grade in Fulton County Schools, in northern Georgia.

“I feel like the reason why I still work with kids now is because of their hearts. They’re so pure,” Jackson says.

He wants to instill drive into his students. “Me myself, I have crazy drive to succeed,” he says, adding that he pushes his students to excel through basketball tournaments and clubs.

Jackson takes particular pains to make sure his male students are “selfless,” learning to care for others and to be there for each other. That can rely on chivalric-sounding notions, like having boys pick up folders when a girl drops them. But a large part of it is the push for excellence, something Jackson thinks has to be embodied for male students in particular.

So far, the school seems appreciative, aware of the fact that his students love him, Jackson says. Still, sometimes Jackson, a relatively new teacher, worries that he’s pushing students too hard, he says. But then he reassures himself that he’s one of the few men “going hard” for them.

This approach sounds old-fashioned, with its emphasis on social pieties. It’s not the style all male teachers would model in trying to demonstrate masculinity for young boys. But it’s a sign that at least more men are starting to pay attention to the fact that many boys aren’t performing well in school even as there are few men — especially men of color teaching younger grades — in American schools.

Let’s Hear It for the Boys

Lately, as educational outcomes for women have improved, men’s performance has not kept pace. Low college enrollment rates for men have also drawn attention to men’s struggles.

But it’s not just academically that men are barely treading water. The education profession feels more female than ever. In 2021, the latest publicly available data, 79.5 percent of teachers in Georgia, where Jackson teaches, were female, according to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, though the incoming teacher population included slightly more men. That tracked with national figures, which showed that roughly 23 percent of teachers were male in the 2020 to 2021 school year.

It can even be astonishing to find men who want to teach.

In his work to create programs that can lead young people to jobs in early childhood development, David Thomas says he was surprised at how many men were interested. Thomas is vice president of strategic initiatives and community engagement at the Community College of Philadelphia, and he connects K-12 students to college opportunities that help them earn associate degrees or industry credentials and secure jobs as paraprofessionals.

It’s unusual these days to see young men, particularly from communities of color, interested in teaching young kids, Thomas says, but he recently helped three high schoolers get jobs at KenCrest West Philadelphia Early Learning Center, a before- and after-school care program.

Entering education as a profession at all is sometimes a tough sell. Part of the problem is that teaching doesn’t always look like a viable occupation, Thomas says. Many of the families he works with perceive careers in education as underpaid, undervalued and disrespected, and it’s difficult to convince students to enter the profession, especially if they’d have to take out student loans to earn teaching degrees and have no family wealth, he says.

But there’s an additional problem.

Many of these students had traumatic experiences in the under-resourced schools they attended, Thomas says. A disproportionately high number of boys of color get labeled early on by schools as behaviorally or emotionally challenged for nothing more than acting in developmentally appropriate ways, he adds.

In some families, there are generations of bad experiences tracing back to the same schools. This can make families more reluctant to push their children, particularly young men, toward education. “Why would they want to go back to that?” Thomas asks.

That all prompts men to look for careers elsewhere.

While they often value learning, these men don't see much value in the traditional K-12 educational system, Thomas says. So they're not even considering it, he says. Attracting more men to education may require showing them that becoming a teacher would give them the ability to prevent what they’ve experienced from happening to others, he adds.

Rethinking Masculinity

But other perceptions are also keeping some groups of men out of the early learning profession, some argue.

When national conversations about gender have moved past the binary of femininity versus masculinity — or have focused on the “toxicity” of masculinity — it can feel out of place to bring it into the forefront. Once widely considered “women’s work” — and historically passed off on unpaid or even enslaved women — caregiving continues to be swayed by gender stereotypes. One ironic consequence is that men are still perceived as less competent child care workers than women, keeping the field decisively female.

What’s that mean for early childhood education?

There are so few Black men in early childhood education in part because of stereotypes that hold these men are insensitive, and not nurturers, says Curtis Valentine, one of the founders of Real Men Teach, a campaign that seeks to help schools recruit and retain male educators.

Valentine estimates that the group has partnered with about 30 educational institutions around the country, mostly connecting male educators with opportunities and highlighting the work of skilled educators, including in early childhood education. The project grew out of Valentine’s own sense that male educators are underappreciated and that, because there are relatively few of them, they can lose themselves in other people’s projections of what it means to be both a teacher and a man.

Overall, the work has underscored his belief that a lot more men would want to become teachers if they didn’t feel like they have to sacrifice themselves in the process.

“My one fear is that we're recruiting men into these spaces. And in some cases, their co-workers, particularly women, are unconsciously still protecting this antiquated view of what masculinity is onto them,” Valentine says. That could prolong the caricatures, rather than giving men an opportunity to express themselves — through the way they wear their hair, through their fingernails, to their clothing, to how they look — in the classroom.

Inviting the whole person into teaching, particularly for male and gender-nonconforming students, requires giving them the space to be authentically themselves, Valentine says. That has a benefit that will carry over to the work and the students, he adds.

Social Graces

For Jackson, the teacher from Fulton County, part of his mission is to make sure students are socially refined. It’s something that his own father impressed upon him. When Jackson was growing up, he says his father wouldn’t allow him to use slang. So he makes sure that the students understand those social nuances too:

“You can’t say ‘what?’ if a teacher is calling your name.”

“It’s not ‘yeah, yeah,’ or ‘nah.’ It’s ‘No, sir,’ or ‘Yes, ma’am.’”

Jackson carries the weight of his influence around day to day.

“I feel for the young boys,” he says. “I have a lot of eyes on me, especially the young men who look up to me. I have to lead by example. And I have to show them the way so they can do the same when they are in my position.”

Will this ultimately nudge these students in the right direction?

It’s something Jackson thinks about all the time: How to help develop students into well-mannered, thoughtful and selfless men.

After all, he adds: “Isn't that a man that the world needs?”

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