Primary school teaching is one of the few professions in Scotland where men are in the minority: as of 2019 only 11% of primary teachers were men, although they occupied a slightly higher proportion of management positions (15%). I was interested in how this “role reversal” has an impact on the lives of male primary school teachers, both in terms of their experiences within the classroom as well as how society views them more generally, so I set up an interview with an old school friend who’s been working as a primary teacher for the last couple of years at a school in the north of Glasgow. We’d stayed in pretty close contact since school and from the stories he’d tell after knocking back a few drinks on a Friday night, I’d developed the impression that his role at the school was heavily influenced by his gender and, furthermore, that “toxic masculinity” was an ever-present issue within the classroom.
When I ask him if he’s been treated differently because he’s a man, he tells me that is undoubtedly the case. From his probation year onwards he’s only ever been assigned to uppers (teacher slang for the older years) and this has almost exclusively been the case for the other men who went through teacher training college with him. The primary reason for this discrimination, he theorises, is a sexist interpretation of teaching styles which automatically assumes men are authoritative disciplinarians while women are kind and “mothering”. As much as he disagrees with these assumptions, he also can’t deny that he prefers teaching the uppers – “they’ve got better chat and they’ll engage more with the subjects you’re teaching them” – and therefore he actually benefits from the bias within the system.
I’ve never really seen his inner disciplinarian; in fact I’d consider him to be one of my more easy-going friends, so I ask whether he thinks he’s actually more effective at commanding respect from pupils than female colleagues. He tells me that management at the school have often commended him for being able to build a rapport with the “heidbangers”, and while he’d like to attribute this success to his teaching abilities and engagement with pupils outside the classroom– he coaches the school football team – he has to admit that there is also, unfortunately, an established bias in many male pupils’ heads which simply makes it easier for a man to “control” them.
As an example of this, he tells me about a boy who’d given his female teacher “hell” the previous year, calling her a “moany bitch” whenever she tried to discipline him, but had never once spoken back since he’d moved into his class, despite the fact he was disciplined for the same offences in the same manner. It’s possible that John* is just a better, more likable teacher – he has a commendably idealistic attitude towards teaching, regularly spending his own money on individualised teaching tools for his pupils and happily putting hours of unpaid labour into marking homework and preparing lessons – but he insists that his gender plays a role when it comes to dealing with aggressive or disruptive male pupils. On that point, he confirms the general perception that it is typically boys who present the most behaviour-related problems, although he has also had a handful of violent girls in his classes – he estimates the ratio over his teaching career is roughly 5:1.
I ask him if he thinks he can be a positive male role model for these children and he replies that, despite his best efforts, he believes life outside the classroom will always have a much larger impact on pupils’ views and values than anything he tries to teach them. Uppers at his school get a weekly class on challenging common stereotypes and prejudices; however the fact they are shrewd enough to give the “right” answers in these watered-down ethics lessons, does not mean any real headway is being made with challenging deeply rooted stereotypes. Following one of these lessons, he tells me a pupil very bluntly asked him “why do gay guys talk with whiney voices and walk around like girls”, to which he replied “they don’t; that’s a stereotype”, only to get the response “nah, but they do.” This pretty much sums up just how intractable some of these views are, even amongst children.
But, he stresses, a bit like how the term “gay” was tossed around as an insult in our lower years of high school, some of these attitudes are simply manifestations of immaturity. It’s more worrying when adults say these types of things and, regrettably, he has been on the receiving end of a number of discriminatory remarks, linked to his choice of profession. It’s often just little things, he says, like the eyebrow that’s raised when he says he’s a primary teacher, often accompanied by the question: why not secondary teaching? However sometimes it’s even more blatant than this: a fellow student in a tutorial group at university once told him that primary teaching is a profession that’s “meant for women”, because it relies on having “maternal instincts”.
John says “part of the problem is everybody has an opinion on primary teaching because everybody’s been to primary school, but it’s an oversimplification to reduce it to ‘essentially childcare’, and even if that’s all it was, there’s no reason why men shouldn’t occupy these roles.” It’s unlikely societal attitudes will change much while the gender imbalance in teaching staff is so significant. The catch-22 is: these same attitudes prevent men from entering the profession in the first place.
*name changed to preserve anonymity.
[Tommy Pia – he/him]