The connection between falling male teacher numbers and fear of student contact

Published
24 August 2017

Over the last three decades, the number of male primary school teachers across Australia has been decreasing.  According to new research conducted by Dr Vaughan Cruickshank of the University of Tasmania, there has been a decrease in male teachers, from 30.24% in 1983 to 18.26% in 2016, which is an overall drop of 12% of all male primary school teacher numbers.  In addition, Dr Cruickshank also found that two thirds of male primary school teachers fear physical contact with students, as they are concerned they will be accused of inappropriate behaviour.  This has led some male teachers to leave classroom doors open and arrange desks to minimise tight spaces and incidental contact with students.  In this article we discuss Dr Cruickshank's findings and the connection between the decline and fear of contact.

The recent research

Dr Cruickshank’s research surveyed 53 male Tasmanian primary school teachers.  His research is aimed at addressing the gap in gender representation through identification of practical coping strategies that male primary school teachers can use while focussing on how to retain male teachers in the teaching profession. Of the male teachers surveyed, 70% were concerned about their masculine role in schools, such as being expected to move furniture, coach sports teams and act as father figures. Dr Cruickshank said younger male teachers were especially fearful of false accusations being made against them.  For more information about the impact of false or vexatious claims, please refer to our previous School Governance article.

Also identified in Dr Cruickshank’s research was the percentage by which male primary school teachers in Australia has decreased in recent decades. Education authorities have responded to this finding with recruitment-focused initiatives, such as scholarships and quota systems.

Despite such positive initiatives, it is less clear how schools can address behavioural concerns. Dr Cruickshank stated that the biggest challenges male primary school teachers face are:

  • uncertainty about physical contact with students;
  • an increased workload due to expectations to take on masculine roles; and
  • social isolation caused by difficulties in developing positive professional relationships with colleagues.

Coping strategies are important

Dr Cruickshank says that if “male primary teachers have more effective coping strategies they might be able to deal better with these challenges, and consequently persist in the profession.”

In Dr Cruickshank’s research, several participants detailed several coping strategies and supports that enabled them to deal with these challenges and persist with teaching.  Some men described how they dealt with their fear and uncertainty about physical contact by utilising strict no-contact policies for their own self-protection.  They used humour and played sport with students at break times to build relationships with their students in ways that did not involve the physical strategies employed by their female colleagues.

Other strategies used by male teachers surveyed were:

  • setting up their classrooms to minimise incidental physical contact
  • never being one-on-one with students; and
  • moving to a public location to talk with students.

Many male teachers surveyed said they were happy to give an upset child a hug, but they were fearful of other people perceiving the contact as inappropriate and making a career-ending accusation.  The research extends to whether those men would have the same physical contact with their female colleagues.  Of the ones who were prepared to have physical contact with their female colleagues, they were generally older, more experienced and had worked in their schools for many years.

Teaching has intensified

Over the last 30 years, teaching has become a lot more complex.  Around Australia, child protection legislation and student duty of care requirements have created an extra layer of legal complexity by which teachers and schools are required to abide.  In Dr Cruickshank’s research, the male teachers surveyed also raised the concerns of higher workloads than their female counterparts and being expected to perform roles such as behaviour management, manual labour, sports coaching and responsibility for subjects such as science and ICT.

To cope with the increased expectations, male teachers surveyed used certain mechanisms to ensure that they 'got around to doing everything in a day'. The mechanisms they employed included recycling lessons from previous years to use their time more effectively and cope when additional behavioural issues arose.  They also sought the help of groundsmen to assist with manual labour tasks.

Craig D'cruz, National Education Consultant at CompliSpace said 'I commenced secondary school teaching in 1983 - the same year that Dr Cruikshank commenced his study data. I recall in the sciences, as a student teacher, we had a fairly equal blend of male and female student teachers with a slightly positive male imbalance in the physical sciences. Fast forward to the 1990s when my two sons were in primary school - they only had one male teacher up to Year 6. The demise of male teachers in primary schools is not new. Many of those that opt for teaching as a career gravitate towards secondary teaching- usually because they have a subject specific undergraduate degree.  Until we breakdown current fears and social stigmas associated with being a male primary school teacher, it will be the children who will miss out on having positive male role models and we may increase the possibility of them developing a belief that males are not capable of being nurturing and caring.'

Isolation

Participants in Dr Cruickshank’s research said they generally got on well with their female counterparts.  However, the male teachers surveyed felt socially isolated because they did not have many colleagues, particularly male ones, with the same interests. Men coped by using strategies such as being proactive in identifying common interests for conversation topics, developing positive professional relationships with trusted female colleagues they could rely on for support and pursuing out-of-school hobbies such as clubs and sport.  The men surveyed also described self-isolating behaviours such as reading the paper and going back to their office to do work.

We know the problem, but what is the solution?

It is not as simple as just as saying, 'hire more male teachers.'  Schools and education authorities should promote the teaching profession as a career opportunity for young men.  In Western Australia, there is a program called Males in Primary which was started to raise awareness of primary teaching for young men.  The program promotes the importance of male role models and a career path for young men.  The former WA Education Minister for Education, Peter Collier, accepted that he was disappointed that young men were not taking up teaching, but that it was not surprising when they could earn significantly more for driving mining trucks.

School culture must change so that male teachers do not feel so isolated and afraid to carry out normal teaching activities, and create a culture which is inclusive. Dr Cruickshank states that male teachers are required so students understand the value of a positive male role model.

To minimise the fear of deterring men from being teachers, schools should ensure that they have clear policies, procedures and training in place to address acceptable conduct, behaviours and professional boundaries between staff and students. Having policies, procedures and training in these specific areas is a progressive step towards male primary teachers understanding what is expected of them as a teacher and to gain confidence in their role so they remain within the profession.

William Kelly

William is a Legal Research Coordinator at CompliSpace. He assists with drafting and reviewing policies and procedures, as directed, for CompliSpace clients as well as writing regular articles for the School Governance blog. William is a lawyer and an officer of the Supreme Court of Victoria.