In Australia, fewer than 3% of carer and teacher roles in the early childhood education and care sector are held by men – a diversity issue shared by many countries worldwide.
Studies show men comprise just 4% of the early childhood education and care workforce in OECD countries, exacerbating worsening teacher shortages.
To tackle this issue, several experts from the University of South Australia are calling for a national childhood workforce strategy to ensure greater access to a gender diverse early childhood workforce where young children have opportunities to experience rich relationships with male educators, and the day-to-day interactions between men, women, and non-binary educators that they might otherwise miss out on.
The call is part of the newly launched Mindaroo Thrive by Five Dad’s Alliance Action Plan for the Early Years, which aims to support fathers to take a more active role in their children’s lives.
“Increasing numbers of male Early Childhood Educators in childcare, preschool, and junior primary educational settings will support the need for a more diverse education and care workforce,” Dr Martyn Mills-Bayne, a Senior Lecturer at UniSA’s Education Futures, told The Educator.
“The Australian Institute for Teaching in Schools and Leadership highlighted a need for cultural and gender diversity in leadership, with the aim of increasing female leaders in schools and centres.”
‘You can’t be what you can’t see’
Dr Mills-Bayne said increased diversity of early childhood educators provides all children with access to a wider range of adults who can reflect the unique gender and culture of Australia’s “superdiverse” schools and centres.
“You can’t be what you can’t see, and many young boys do not see men in education and care roles in formal education until upper primary school or even high school, so seeing the ‘role model’ of a caring man early in children’s education experience [Brownhill, 2015] is an important step,” he said.
“Children benefit from having male educators because when they form close relationships with male educators and see men and women interacting positively it can help disrupt early gender stereotypes in children’s early experiences.”
Dr Mills-Bayne said the available research suggests that male educators tend to demonstrate more feminised behaviours in the female dominated early years workforce, pointing to a study by van Polenan and others that was published in 2017.
“In some countries such as China, male educators entering early childhood centres are expected to portray more traditional masculine attributes like toughness and stoicism [Xu, Schweisfurth, & Read, 2022],” he said.
“Male educators are complex human beings like any professional, and each man brings a mix of unique traits and skills that add diversity to the early learning environment.”
Dr Mills-Bayne said the other benefit of having more male educators in the early years is that it benefits the workforce through more diverse teaching teams, and an increase in potential educators to help fill the ongoing workforce shortages across all education sectors.
How principals can help
Dr Mills-Bayne noted some possible workforce strategies that principals and directors can employ to encourage more male educators into teaching teams.
“These include adding a statement that ‘male educators are welcome and supported in this service’ to centre materials, or welcoming packages for parents,” he said.
“Adding ‘male educators are encouraged to apply’ to any advertised education and care positions may help men to feel that a centre or school values gender diversity in their teaching teams.”
Dr Mills-Bayne said the Federal Government’s National Teacher Workforce Action Plan provides some helpful priority areas that could be used to incorporate Action 5 of the Thrive by Five Dad’s Action Plan.
“The ‘Be That Teacher’ national campaign is a platform where principals and directors could submit positive stories that highlight male early childhood educators working in their centres and schools,” he said.
“The University of South Australia’s MENtor Program for Males in Early Childhood Education [Mills-Bayne, 2013] provides pre-service teachers studying in ITE with support, guidance, and potential networks with graduates and educators in the workforce. This platform can be promoted and shared in schools and centres to connect isolated male educators.”
A positive impact on student outcomes
Dr Mills-Bayne said Goodstart Early Learning is a good example of an early childhood education and care service that has recognised the value of male educators in their centres, with positive interactions between children and male educators a daily occurrence, as well as increased engagement from fathers.
“In my own experience as a male teacher in preschool centres and foundation classrooms in the North and North-East suburbs of Adelaide I have worked in teaching teams with female colleagues and have observed several children,” he said.
“Often boys with neurodiverse learning styles, will respond more positively to instructions and questions from me, perhaps due a more direct teaching pedagogy and the lower timbre of my voice.”
Years later, Dr Mills-Bayne has spoken to parents who have stated that having a male teacher in the early years of schooling was such a positive experience for their children.
“Tristan Page – an experienced early childhood educator of over 20 years – has described how his more traditional [perceived] masculinity has been valued in his education and care of young children and has helped him connect to young children’s interests and passions that align with his own,” he said.
“Getting more positive stories of the way that male early childhood educators have had positive impacts on children’s health, learning, and wellbeing is a key goal for the Thrive by Five Dad’s Action Plan.”
‘Radical shift’ needed
Looking ahead, Dr Mills-Bayne said The Mindaroo Thrive by Five Dad’s Action Plan aims to change the status-quo through a five-point plan to “supercharge” fathers’ contributions to the early years and help ensure all children can reach their full potential.
“Action Five calls for a national early childhood workforce strategy that encourages male participation,” he said.
“To increase the current number of male educators from about 3-4% in the early years – including childcare and preschool settings, and about 20% in primary school – we need a radical shift in the way we encourage men into study and career pathways in Early Childhood Education.”