Gentlemen, Preschool Is Calling

Sep 4, 2014
Originally published on September 4, 2014 9:06 am

Glenn Peters knew he would be in the minority when he started training to teach preschool as part of New York City's rollout of universal pre-K, the largest such initiative in the country. But he didn't realize just how rare men are in the profession until he attended a resume-building workshop for aspiring pre-K teachers.

"They couldn't find the bathroom code for the men's bathroom, so I actually had to go to the women's room while someone stood guard outside the bathroom," Peters says. "I knew at that moment that I was a bit of a unicorn."

Today is the first day of school in New York, and experts suspect that only a sliver of the city's roughly 1,000 new preschool teachers — hired to meet the demands of this expansion — are men. Nationally, barely 2 percent of early education teachers are men, according to 2012 labor statistics. While numbers aren't yet available for these latest hires in New York, education researchers in the city expect the gender breakdown to be similar.

"We have so very, very, very, very few men," says Sherry Cleary, executive director of the Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York. "The sad part of it is that young children love to be around men. They love guys, they love their strength. They love that they're fun and they feel safe and trust them."

Men can play an important role in the development of young children. And experts say male teachers are particularly important role models for boys who grow up without father figures.

Experts hope New York City's unprecedented pre-K expansion will lead more men to consider teaching small children, in spite of the field's generally low pay and its image as a traditionally female pursuit. In addition to those obstacles, men in early education (or considering it) often run into parent anxiety about their presence in the classroom.

"You can see sometimes parents would come in and say, 'What's this, this guy is going to be teaching?' " says Steven Antonelli, who has taught preschool in New York City for some 20 years. "You have to develop a relationship so that they understand and trust you and know that you're there for the benefit of their children."

In New York, there are no recruitment efforts specifically targeting men. School officials say they simply sought the highest-caliber teachers from any background. In the meantime, changing the profession's image will depend on the handful of men who are already in the classroom or who find it on their own.

"I think we're making some inroads, but we've got a long row to hoe," says Virginia Roach, dean of the Graduate School at Bank Street College of Education. "There's no parity at this point."

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It's the first day of school for kids in New York City, and that means the start of the city's ambitious shift to universal preschool. To meet demand, the city has hired roughly 1,000 additional teachers. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but as Matt Collette reports, one group likely won't be well represented.

MATT COLLETTE, BYLINE: Men. It's time for morning meeting in Glen Peters' Pre-K classroom on Manhattan's Upper West Side. It's a scene that will repeat itself for schools and community centers across the city this week.

GLEN PETERS: Can everybody's good back to - to the edge of the rug? We're all in a really perfect circle.

COLLETTE: In this classroom, Peters is Mr. Glenn, and he's one of just a handful of men teaching Pre-K anywhere in New York City.

PETERS: Make a curve so doesn't look like we're all sitting across from each other.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want to sit next to you.

PETERS: Jamie's sitting next to me. Aton's on my other side.

COLLETTE: This is his first year on the job. Peters got interested in teaching after he and his wife had a son of their own. When he saw a subway ad recruiting new Pre-K teachers, Peters decided to leave his 20-year acting career.

PETERS: I immediately saw the chance to be creative, the chance to be happy and to model happy behavior for little kids that are at the beginning of the educational process, and setting them up for success.

COLLETTE: Peters never really thought of himself as an outlier - at least not until earlier this summer, when he was at a resume-building session for prospective pre-K teachers.

PETERS: I knew I was the only man that attended it because they couldn't find the bathroom code for the men's bathroom. So I asked to go to the women's bathroom and somebody had to guard outside while I went to women's bathroom.

COLLETTE: Nationally, men make up only about 2 percent of early education teachers - a number that hasn't moved much in recent years.

SHERRY CLEARY: Oh, we have very, very, very, very few men.

COLLETTE: Sherry Cleary is the executive director of the Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York. She says this shortage is a problem because preschool students connect with male teachers in unique and important ways.

CLEARY: They love guys. They love their strength, they love that they're fun and they feel safe and trust them.

COLLETTE: Male teachers can play a particularly important role in the loves of low-income and minority boys, who often fall through the cracks as they move through school. Cleary says men stay out of the profession for a lot of reasons - with low pay and the idea that teaching young children is women's work chief among them.

CLEARY: It's hard for them to come into the field. Our society doesn't respect and honor that and so it becomes difficult.

COLLETTE: Stephen Antonelli has taught Pre-K in New York City for about 20 years. Today, he runs a Head Start center in the East Village, and he says he's run into another challenge facing male teachers - parent anxiety.

STEPHEN ANTONELLI: And you know, you can see sometimes that parents would come in and sort of say say, what's this? This guy's going to be teaching me? You have to develop a relationship with the parents so that they understand and trust you.

COLLETTE: Experts in early education agree. It's important to increase the number of men in the field, and the rollout of universal pre-k in places like New York could help. But without any proactive recruiting programs, changing the professions in his will depend on the handful of men who are already in the classroom.

PETERS: (Singing) The itsy-bitsy spider went up the water spout.

COLLETTE: For NPR News, I'm Matt Collette in New York.

PETERS: I better Google those lyrics.

GONYEA: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.