To be a man in a patriarchal society confers unjust privilege on every single man who teaches, no matter how egalitarian, counter-normative or pro-feminist their actions and persuasions. By virtue of being a biologically male primary school teacher, I am immediately ‘visible’ and different from the majority of my colleagues and this benefits me enormously (unlike the situation in which women in male-dominated professions have additional struggles). In terms of statistics, I am more likely to be promoted up, to the point of headship, and taken as a percentage of the primary teaching workforce, men are over represented at the top.
I am more likely to be ‘presumed successful’ in many ways. It is often presumed that by being a man, I will have a greater authority in the classroom. It is presumed that by being a man, I may be better able to do certain things like teach PE well, be funny and know how to reconnect a printer.
On occasion, it is presumed that I am the senior member of staff, even when I surrounded by a range of older and more experienced female colleagues. Even when the staff hierarchy had been explained, I was once addressed as though I was in charge – as if my ‘not being the decision-maker’ is merely modesty on my part. It might seem anecdotal, but nobody else is being confused for somebody more experienced and competent than they are. I am a good teacher, and I take it seriously, but when I am dressed in skinny jeans and trainers on a school trip and am aged 24, and there is somebody at the front of the line in business dress holding a clipboard, I would posit that the female teacher at the front ought to be the obvious authority figure.
Whilst this is an isolated event and a double-edged sword, which I recognise as annoying, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that this conflation of masculinity with authority does not benefit me. Despite being 21 and a trainee, I was not made to feel many of the anxieties many new female teachers have about their competency because every time I walked into the playground I was made to feel like I was doing a good thing just by turning up each day.
I don’t disagree that it is a good thing to have more men in primary schools, but I do disagree with the unspoken traits that the presence of men is expected to rectify or remedy. It is insulting to women teachers and constraining for men teachers to be told it is good to have men in schools to bring control to classrooms.
I am often told that it is good for one or other of my pupils to have a good male influence in their life, but unless the parent is craving for their child to be educated in the proximity of a bearded human with a Y chromosome, they aren’t necessarily going to find this conventional character of manhood in me. I don’t doubt that I am a good influence in the lives of my kids – I would be pretty crap as a teacher if I wasn’t – but I don’t think some random chromosomal separation in my mothers fertilised egg 25 years ago is the reason for it. (If anything I blame my dalliance on both sides of the gender divide which allows me to use my male privilege to poke a stick at the false solidity of gendered identities (which again is a luxury afforded to me by being privileged by gender)).
Primary schools, even the ones with iPads and finger print technology, carry so much historical baggage from the days when men were the ones who wielded canes and slippers from beneath mortarboards, and women were unmarried young things whose teaching was a prelude to their own inevitable pregnancies. I am asked by tired parents to ‘Have a word with _______ about his behaviour’ but not so often am I asked to ‘look after _____ because he/she/they have the sniffles’. Once the parents soon realise that I am soft as Hovis, I am asked to show care and support, but not from the offset.
In many schools, we address each other by marital status and gender, constantly. As Mr Walker, I can label all of my possessions as This Belongs To Mr Walker, safe in the knowledge that I shall be Mr Walker until I retire and hang up my teacher face. It also doesn’t reveal anything about me. To introduce oneself as Miss Walker poses questions about ones relationship status which are wholly unnecessary when teaching SPAG. We make these titles mean something by using them in our weird little schools, like a really gritty version of Are You Being Served?
Asked about me as part of a research project, one of my pupils was interviewed about his first thoughts when he found out I was his teacher in Year 2.
He said “I was like OH MY DAYS HE’S A SIR he’s gonna be all strict”
In saying this I am not excusing away my ability as a teacher. I work really hard, I like what I do, I enjoy the mental challenge of it, the ridiculous anecdotes, the laughter, I love my colleagues and the kids and the funny dynamism everybody has between them. But I am not teaching in a social vacuum.
However much I dislike patriarchy and the constraints that gender places on children and their identities, and however much I champion the subversion of gender(ed) structures, I remain a very successful profiteer from the system I dislike.
I think there is an onus on men who teach primary to take account of their privilege as men, because being part of a predominantly female workforce isn’t a token of your egalitarianism and commitment to fairness if you are unthinkingly perpetuating the harmful gender performances that exist only for so long as they are repeated, reenacted and performed.