A Scarce Resource

Story by Jennifer McFee and Illustrations by Matt Kehler

In today’s elementary schools they’re a rare breed. In some Manitoba schools they don’t even exist.

But for male teachers who take up the challenge, gains outweigh any losses.

Teachers like David Mandzuk, currently dean of the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba, who spent the first 20 years of his career as an elementary school teacher.

“In the mid ‘70s, I had been a swimming instructor for the city for many years. I taught all age groups and I enjoyed working with young kids. I felt very comfortable in that setting,” he said.

“Then I realized at that time there was quite a concern that not enough young boys had positive role models in elementary school. And I realized that since I was comfortable in that setting, I might play a role.”

Based on his own experience, and thinking back to his own positive role models, Mandzuk encourages other men to consider teaching in an elementary school setting.

“There are a lot of needy kids in our schools. A lot of kids don’t come from very enriched backgrounds who need positive role models, boys in particular,” he said.

“Of course, whether they’re male or female, the ultimate goal is to have the most effective people in front of students — people who really acknowledge individual kids for who they are and see them as individual learners.”

Currently, only about 10 per cent of elementary school teachers are male. The gender ratio starts to become more evenly split in middle school and is most balanced in high school.

“Rightly or wrongly, I think females are sometimes seen as more nurturing than males. One could argue that we socialize females to be that way. Of course, that’s not always the case and there are plenty of examples of males who are very good nurturers,” Mandzuk says.
“I wonder if there are fewer males who see themselves as playing that kind of nurturing role that is so important in the early years. If they have trouble imagining that, it’s likely due to the fact that we don’t really socialize them to be nurturers.”

Like Mandzuk, Paul Olson’s career as an elementary school teacher spans about two decades. He is also known for the eight years he spent at The Manitoba Teachers’ Society as an elected leader, including four years as president. Most recently, he has been teaching Grade 4 at Ecole Rivière-Rouge.

“I didn’t start out interested in elementary school. I was interested in high school music. And then, as happens in university, I was doing different courses and I ended up moving into the elementary stream — and I ended up liking it,” he said.

“My degree is actually in secondary education, and I did that in my first year of teaching. Then a position opened up in Grade 6 French immersion and I’ve never looked back.”

Over the years, he found that most elementary schools usually have only two or three males on staff, at most.

At his current school, which serves approximately 400 students, the only male instructors are Olson and one of the two phys-ed teachers.

Although he’s not certain why there is such a discrepancy, he offers a few theories.

“When you’re looking at holistic child development in North America, and indeed in much of the world, patriarchy basically relegates that to women’s work. So there certainly is a strong cultural bias toward this being work done by women professionals,” he said.

“Part of it is gender role stereotypes and part of it is also a prestige thing. It’s incorrectly viewed by some that you need more education or training to do high school teaching.”

Although Olson never planned to become an elementary school teacher, he now calls it the best job in the world.

“The fact that I’m a small minority in an almost entirely female environment is one of the best things that ever happened to me. It’s wonderful. I’m a white, hetero, cis-gender, grey-haired, suburban Canadian male. I check every single privilege box that exists in the known world,” he said.

“If I want to get any grasp of what the broader society looks like, it’s probably best if I am put in a situation to get other perspectives on the world, on the classroom, on childcare. It’s been a wonderful education for me as an activist and as a union leader to understand other realities. It’s really been exciting.”

At the same time, he acknowledges that he still benefits from privileges, even as a minuscule minority.

“I’m a minority mathematically speaking, but in terms of being respected and having my voice heard and all those things that real minorities never get, I do get them,” he said.

“I’ve worked with great people my whole career, I’m listened to and my voice is valued. I couldn’t find discrimination if I went looking for it.”

He also realizes that men who teach in elementary schools might be one of the only male role models in the lives of some students.

“I have random children walking up to me that I’ve never spoken to in their lives. They are coming up to me in the hallways for a hug and it feels really great,” he said. “This might be someone who hugs everybody — or it might be someone who just misses her dad or who maybe has never had a dad. There are sometimes deeper messages.”

Similar to Olson, Swaran Singh took a roundabout route to become an elementary school teacher.

“The interesting thing is I thought I was going to be a high school math teacher. But then I had a practicum in a Grade 1 and 2 classroom. It was interesting to me to see how the teacher interacted and how keen the kids were to be learning. I could see the difference that the teacher was making,” said Singh, who now teaches Grade 1 and 2 French immersion at École Garden Grove.

“That was a turning point. I never did end up going into a high school classroom or doing a high school practicum from there.”
In his experience, he has also found that the vast majority of teachers he works with are women.

“There are so few male teachers that boys might get the idea from early on that this is a scenario for females. Maybe it’s also a societal thing. When you watch TV or movies, it seems like boys are geared towards macho things. An elementary teacher doesn’t come into mind,” he said.

“When I first graduated, I was subbing in a kindergarten class and one of the first things out of the kids’ mouths was ‘It’s a man!’ From early on, they already have this idea or image that a man is not what you typically see in kindergarten.”

But for Singh, he believes he has discovered the ideal career path.

“It’s been a very fulfilling professional choice. I get the opportunity to express myself. It allows me to make a connection with people. It’s helped me in all facets of life, such as when I’m interacting with my own kids, my friends’ children, my nieces and nephews, and even learning how to deal with adults,” he said.

“There’s never a dull moment and you do have a certain amount of autonomy where you can choose what you want to do. You have the content of what you need to teach but it’s flexible as to how you teach it. It’s been really positive for me.”

For Garrett Young, his original plan was to become a phys-ed teacher, but his preference has evolved after five years of teaching in an elementary classroom.

“I don’t think now I will ever go back to the gym,” said Young, who currently teaches Grade 4/5 at Linwood School. “I just like the classroom too much.”

Since many students have never had a male elementary teacher before, Young pays close attention to their reactions and responses.

“It’s really interesting to see personalities of students adapt and change to being in a classroom with a man. Sometimes you can really see growth in students just having a different mindset,” he said.

“But I’ve also had the opposite of that. I’ve had students who have fractured relationships with a lot of men in their life. With me being their teacher, they see me as just another guy. They’ve had a difficult perspective of men so far in life even though they’re so young, which is sad. They definitely come in with some pre-existing notions of how things might be.”

At the same time, the reactions from adults are equally varied.

“The social stigma of men in elementary teaching positions is interesting to me. People either think it’s great that I’m doing this because so many kids don’t have that consistent father-like figure in their lives or they almost dismiss it as being odd,” he said.

“Why would a young man want to spend his whole day with kids, practising tying shoes, skip-counting by 5’s, and learning how to use a paint-brush or read a book?

Well, because the few us that are male elementary teachers know it’s where we’re supposed to be.”

When he first started out, he was abundantly aware of these perceptions.

“We were taught in our university courses that unfortunately men have to be really careful, more careful than women a lot of the time. In this position, you’re emotionally involved. You’re giving out hugs and there’s this social stigma about whether that’s appropriate,” he said.

“When I was student teaching and practising, I was very cognizant of that. I was always making sure that there was another adult in the room if someone was crying and I was trying to console them. Now I’ve just become more natural with it. I’ve adopted the mentality that I’m a person in this job that’s here to care and to help these students. I really value the importance of supporting the students emotionally as well. It shouldn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman, as long as the person is taking care of the kids.”

Offering a broad perspective, Guy Dubé has taught a range of levels from Grade 1 to 12. At present, he teaches Grade 4/5 at Ecole Bonaventure.

“I was the only male teacher for a long time. I’ve been here for 10 years, and for about seven of those, I was the sole male teacher in the school. Even our custodian was female. There was nobody else but me,” he said.

“You are isolated. You’re all on your own — and you’d better be very confident in yourself and how to deal with situations with kids at a younger age.”

Communication is key to smoothing out any concerns with parents who aren’t used to the situation, he added.

“When you go to elementary, you’re usually the first male teacher for the parents and the child so they don’t know what to expect. Their child has always had a female teacher so they don’t know how to communicate with you,” he said.

“If that’s the case, I think it’s my role to communicate more with them by email, text, phone call. I find that taking the extra time, especially in September, breaks a lot of barriers.”

Using a similar approach, Dubé dedicates himself to creating bonds with his young students.

“What I find different in elementary is that establishing a relationship with the students takes more time as a male teacher. You have to be more mindful of your voice and your tone and how you approach the students,” he said.

“You want them to know that you’re nurturing and caring, just like the female teachers. That’s really important.”
At The Manitoba Teachers’ Society annual general meeting in May, Dubé introduced a resolution that tasks the provincial executive with finding ways to promote and encourage more men to enter the profession, with a view to provide a more equitable balance of men to women.

“The rationale is that there is an imbalance in female and male teachers in our profession,” he explained. “If a goal of MTS is to promote gender equality, then attention to this imbalance is required.”

The resolution received support and passed without any questions.

“In my 23 years of teaching, I’ve seen the number of male teachers dwindle. For many years, I’ve been the only male French immersion teacher in my school, and many of my fellow male English teachers in elementary are also feeling isolated. In time, this trend will grow exponentially in middle years then to high school,” he said.

“Teachers are teachers. Regardless of gender, we are all very invested and connected to our students. However, representation of gender equality is a goal in our classrooms. In order to ensure this happens, now is a time to investigate deterrents to men entering into education and encourage all individuals who want to teach to join us in this most noble profession.”

— This story was originally printed in the January-February 2019 issue of The Manitoba Teacher Magazine