Of MIECE* and Men
* Men in Early Childhood Educationby Ron Holmes
I have been working in the early childhood field for the past 11 years ("Early childhood" meaningkindergarten/pre-school and day care/child care for children between 0-5 years). This has included allday child careservices for young children with disabilitiesregional support roles for early childhoodworkersteaching of early childhood students in TAFE andcurrentlyas a consultant assisting workersto include children from non-English speaking backgrounds.
So how did I get into this fieldand why? WellI sort of fell into voluntary work after high schoolwith young disabled childrenwhich led to work in other early childhood settingsand eventually to a 2year TAFE course as a Mothercraft Nurse (I knowI know)which is the accepted qualification fortrainedchild care workers in Victoria.
And why? To be honestI think there were two things that kept me in the trade after that firststart:
(i) there's a fuzzyindescribable feeling you get when you allow yourself to be "with" children;
(ii) my ego couldn't resist the almost unqualified praise and acceptance received from most of myfemale co-workers. And all I had to do for it was play with children!
Of courseanyone who has had a good look at an early childhood setting will know there is a lotmore to it than just playingand I can't say that this initial idea of mine sustained me for long. As forthe second pointhoweverI must say that I got a great deal of support and encouragement from co-workers; certainly more than I suspect most women get in male- dominated work environments. As towhether this was due to my skills with childrenor to the fact that those women had such lowexpectations of men with childrenI don't know - maybe a little of both. I suppose you eventually getto the point where you trust your own perception of how well you are doingregardless of what otherpeople tell you.
Sowhat's it like working with young children? Wellfor starterseach age group presents verydifferent challengesand I think that all workers will have a preference for older or younger children. (Inmost centreschildren are divided into groups of between 5 and 20 children according to age: 0-22-33-5. Some centres have "family groupings"where children are cared for across the range of agesand this is an increasingly popular trend.)
Personallymy favourite time was with a group of under two year olds. This was my first positionout of College as a qualified Mothercraft Nurseand what a group it was. A challenging mix of blissfulbut demanding babiesdetermined almost walkersand look-at-me-I'm-so-grown-up toddlers. If anygroup was going to make or break me as a fully-fledged early childhood professionalthis was it.In this particular centrethe "babies" room was a no-go zone for any staff member who valuedtheir sanity. NowI knew a challenge when it stared me in the faceso I determined not only to takeon the babies roombut to actually enjoy it. I was joined by two other foolish staff who were similarlyoptimistic about their chancesand together we gave it our best shot.
For most children under twogroup care is often quite stressful and traumaticas it comes at justabout the same time that they are learning there is life away from their mother's breast/bottle (and areusually dead against participating in it!). And it doesn't matter how kindcaringpatientwarmlovingand accepting you arethey don't want to know you. Consequentlya lot of our time was taken up inthe first 3-4 months of that year trying to divert the children's attention away from the fact that theymissed their parents. Of course we soothed themwe acknowledged that they were very sad;howeverbeyond thatit was our main task to show the children that there were a lot of greatexperiences just waiting for them to join in.
And eventually they did find great enjoyment being at the centreand we had the best of timestogether. It would take pages for me to describe exactly what we did on a daily basis; suffice to saythat that group taught me more about what children need from adults than all my study could ever do.My most valuable learning took place lying on the flooreye to eye with the children and sharing theirLilliputian view of the world (try it some timeand you'll understand why children often have adifferent slant on events).
As a manbeing with children has also taught me to break down the pretence upon which our livesare built (at least in public). Foras Steve Biddulph says...we have just learned to pretend. Much ofwhat men do is an outer showkept up for protection.I suppose this is also part of being an adultbeing "grown up". Howeverit doesn't sit well with what the early childhood profession sees as beingbest practice for early childhood staff: being completely open to meet children's needsemotionallypsychologically and physically. (Incidentallyit also doesn't sit well with the children.)
For exampleit is difficult to summon up a "grown up" persona when a local politician is on ababy-kissing expeditionand you are elbow deep in a trough of red finger paint (they always want toshake the nearest man's handbecause they think you must be in charge). Ormore commonlywhenparents arrive after a hard day's work in a high-flying executive jobto find you playing peek-a-boounder the cots with their loved one. For a long timeit was hard for me not to jump updust myself offand come back to the "real" world. (I wonder how the children felt about my abrupt neglect of ourgame.)
Of coursethere are those people who profess that they feel more at home being with childrenthan adults; that children accept you as you are and don't give you bullshit. While this is a mix of truthand clicheit is certainly not a valid reason for working with young children. Early childhood staff mustbe able to straddle the twin responsibilities of providing a quality program for a group of childrenandrelating with parentsother staff and associated service providers to maintain the smooth operation ofthe service. The times when early childhood services were seen as babysitting are gone; the childrenneed more than thatand the staff deserve more credit for their effort.
The history of men working in this area is almost non-existent. While there has been more vocalsupport for the idea in the past ten years or sothe actual number of men working in centres (inMelbourneat least) has either stayed the same or actually decreased! We may speculate on theprobable reasons for this:
Increased attention given to child sexual abusealthough actually quite rare in early childhood settingsserve to reinforce the prejudiced views of someand scare off men who may have been considering acareer in early childhood;
The above may also influence employerswho may previously have had positive (or at least neutral)views about employing men. This is particularly true of the owner/operators of private child carecentreswho are acutely aware of the sensitivities of the parent users of the service;
While people (read: women) are actively encouraged to enter fields of study and work once consideredoff-limits to themthe field of early childhood for men is a conspicuous exception in government andcommunity initiatives;
While the issue of gender equity for children in early childhood settings is quite frequently discussed inearly childhood journals and conferencesone major gender INequityamongst the staff themselvesisrarely part of such discussions;
In light of the ever-increasing emphasis on personal wealthto many young men the attainment ofmaterial goods and generally 'getting ahead' in life (at least financially)early childhood work may notbe worthy of consideration ;
One writer on the subject from the U.S.A. has said: "while directors lament the lack of men in childcaremany believe that men do not have a nurturing instinct". Sowhile many employers may professto want men working in their centresthey may not employ them according to their own standards ofwhat a child care worker needs;
Some U.S. centres have protected themselves from claims of child abuse by installing elaborate videosurveillance systems throughout the centreand/or do not allow male staff to change nappies andtoilet train toddlers. Would this encourage YOU to take up a position in such a centre?
Men who pass through all of the above barriers will also have to bear the curiositysuspicion andridicule of familyfriendsco-workers and parents of children. You can forget about just "fitting in".Whenever I bring up the subject of male staff in a circle of early childhood colleaguesI always getsolemn nods of agreement. I used to agree with such people when they saidI wish we had moremenor "Why don't more men apply for jobs/enrol for courses?" I know now that those commentsonly allow us to abrogate our own responsibility within the field and the general community to discussopenly profess our opinion and actively advocate for more men in early childhood settings.
My part in this has been relatively small to datehowever in 1995 at a conference on gender equityin early childhood I presented a workshop on men in early childhood. I was surprised and pleased atthe level of interest and enthusiasm from participants both male and female. This allayed my initial fear:that I would need to do all the talking and agitating. Far from it; I actually had a hard time controllingthe rush of debate!
The discussion also ranged beyond my expectations in terms of issues addressed. In addition tomy planned outline covering the history of...current writingsreasons for...and what differentgroups within the field can dospontaneous issues arose such as popular myths about men in earlychildhoodsexual harassment of male workershomosexualityand the pigeonholing of men intoparticular roles within an early childhood setting. We could have continued on for hoursand probablywill in another setting. I was certainly boosted by the excitement generated at this landmark meetingand feel even more committed to doing what I can. (I just won't be so nice about it any more!) Won'tyou join me?
INTERESTED?If anybody would like to know more about this topicwants copiesof relevant articles or just wants some support in working in theearly childhood fieldI can help. I would particularly like tohear from anybody in Victoria who would like to attend adiscussion group on the subject - men and women - either as a one-off or on an ongoing basis. Contact me by mail at the addressbelowor feel free to call 9am - 5pm Monday - Friday.
RON HOLMES4 Ann Street
THE NOT SO GOOD NEWS:Although no Australian statistics existI would confidently estimate that lessthan 4 % of all early childhood workers are men (i.e. less than 1 in every 25workers).
Wages for early childhood workers fall below the national average (even fortrained workers)so for those who provide the main source of income for afamilytimes will be tight.
Some employers still have difficulty accepting that some men want to work withchildrenor that they could have a 'nurturing instinct' (whatever that is!).
Others harbour fears about men's motives for wanting to be with young childrenand consider they would be taking a risk in employing a man. This may be merelya reflection of the wider community's feelings.
Some men may be made to feel that they cannot act in the same manner as theirfemale co-workersin situations such as changing nappiesbeing alone withchildren or displaying affection towards them.
Some men may encounter sexist attitudes while working in centressuch as beingexpected to climb ladders to retrieve ballschange light bulbscarry heavyobjects and even take on the role of stern disciplinarian with the children.
Men rarely work alongside other men in early childhood settingsand havelittle scope to talk to other men about the joys and frustrations of workingwith young children.
THE GOOD NEWS:There are more people in the early childhood field actively pushing for moremen in early childhood services all the timeand chances are you will meet themalong the wayto give you encouragement and advice when you need it.
The early childhood field is growing at an amazing paceand will continue todo so for many years to come. The demand for new staff is currently exceedingsupplyso the time is fight to be looking for an early childhood job.
There is a considerable amount of variety within the early childhood fieldinterms of different age groupings (usually 0-22-3 and 3-5)levels ofqualification (from completely untrained to degree level and in between)andindividual differences between centres. Most centres also employ a cookwho mayhave varying degrees of contact with the children. In discussions I have hadwith other male early childhood workersthe reception from female co-workers ismost frequently positivefriendlycuriouswelcoming and enthusiastic. Asimilar response could also be expected from parentsthough sometimes tingedwith caution. One of the key criteria for an effective early childhood worker isthe ability to show warmth and genuine affection towards children.
What other line of work includes touchinghuggingdancingsingingplaying and laughing in its job description?
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