Friday, April 4, 2014

D: Dude! You're a.......Dude!????

For most of my teaching career, I have taught in the Primary grades (children aged 5-8) of the Ontario, Canada Public School System.  This makes me unique.  In most elementary schools, women fill the vast majority of the available teaching positions.  In fact, the ratio of female teachers to male is, on average, 10:1.  Throughout my 26 year career I have, almost always, been the first "boy" teacher that each of my students has encountered.  For many others, I am, also, the first "nice" man they have met, too.

All of this brings with it an enormous sense of responsibility.  It is a responsibility that was brought home to me from the very first day I ever set foot in a classroom full of real, live students as their teacher.

I was attending Althouse Teacher's College at the University of Western Ontario. We were sent out on teaching placements in real classrooms so that we could acquire experience under the watchful eyes of seasoned classroom teachers.  My very first placement was in a Kindergarten classroom at Chippewa Public School in London, Ontario.  The students were aged 3-5 years old.  I was, without any doubt, the first man they had ever sat in front of.

To ease me into my placement, my first task was to lead the children in the singing of that classic children's song, The Wheels on the Bus.   How hard could that be?   The teacher gathered the children together on the carpet area. She proceeded with the opening exercises, including the daily calendar, attendance and an update of the classroom weather chart.  Then, it was time for me to sit in the "big chair" and help the children sing the song of the day. So, I sat there and smiled.  The children smiled back, a little uncertain.  I explained that we were going to sing and what the song was. They smiled back, a little uncertain.  I said, "1,  2,  3........" and then began to belt out the opening words of the song.  I was expecting the kids to automatically join me and start to sing but, instead,  those students immediately in front of me recoiled and moved backward. I saw this movement out of the corner of my eye and it unnerved me.......and, the wipers hadn't even gone "swish, swish, swish" yet!

In that moment, I had been transformed from being a teacher to, being a "male" teacher.  The deeper voice that leapt out of my mouth was overpowering, in comparison to the sugary-sweet voice of their  familiar, Grandmother-like teacher.  I had scared the kids without even trying.  I had scared them because I was a man...........a man trying to sing, The Wheels on the Bus.

As the poet once said, "Don't let your baggage define your travels."  Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to have gender stereotypes cloud perceptions. For male teachers like myself, one of the most common misconceptions occurs in the minds of students who lack positive male role models at home.  I teach in a low income housing development. Many of the students have fathers who suffer from addictions of one sort or another, are in jail for violent crimes (such a domestic abuse, uttering threats, assault and battery, etc.) or else, their fathers have left the home altogether.  I wrote about this environment for an earlier writing prompt from the Trifecta Writing Challenge. It went a little like this:

Waving at the Stars

I hate the Superbowl and the World Series and any other night that gives my Dad a reason to drink.

If his team wins, he drinks to celebrate.
If his team loses, he gets angry and drinks to feel better.
When Dad drinks too much, my Mom gets hit.....a lot!
No matter who wins the game, my Mom always loses.

I hate my Dad.

He never really hit me that much.
Before he gets to me, he usually uses up his anger hitting Mom.
After he hits her, he always feels bad and says, "I love you" to her.
His words are hollow and won't fix her heart.
I love my Mom.
Her heart is strong though.
It must be to hold all the love that she says she has for me.

Some nights, while Dad watches the game on TV, my Mom and me lay on blankets in the backyard.

We stare into the night sky and look at the stars.
There are stars everywhere!
Some stars are big and others are small but they all twinkle.
Diamonds in our sky.
Mom says that on some stars, there might be a Mommy and her special boy on a blanket in their yard, looking out into their starry night.
Maybe the little space boy is waving at us right now.
We'd better wave back, just in case.
So we wave at the stars, my Mom and me.

"Goddammn fuckin' refs!" Dad screams from the living room. A glass breaks.

Mom kisses me.

She brushes away the hair from my forehead.
She asks me to count the stars that twinkle and shine so bright.
To count, and keep counting until I run out of numbers or the sky out of stars.
She hugs me tight and holds me close.
I can feel her heart beating fast and strong.

"Promise me you'll keep counting until I come back."

I promise.

She goes inside.

I wave at the stars.


I am not that man, ever!  More importantly, I don't want my students to see that man when they look at me with eyes forever altered by what they've seen at such a young age.  I am a man and one of the most important roles I can play in the lives of the students I teach is to show them what a good, decent man can be like.  For that is who their teacher is; a gentleman, an honest man, a peace-loving man, a man of principle and integrity.   
It is important for the girls in my classroom to know that there are men out there who treat their partners with respect, who encourage them to pursue their own dreams and who settle differences of opinions with words, not fists. Men, for whom the words, I love you,  come from the heart and mean forever and for always, not "I'm sorry" or "I'll change".
It is important for the boys in the classroom to know that there are men out there who don't equate a woman's value to their body parts but rather, that they respect women as equal partners in Life. It is equally important to have the boys see how I use my strength to protect and lead others, not to bully and make them feel small.  

Being a man should be a virtue and, in my classroom, it is.   At least, that is my intent every day we gather together as a school family.

What was your experience like with your first male teacher?  What he creepy or was he dull?  Was he inspiring or intimidating?  Was he memorable at all?  Please feel free to let me know what you think in the comments section below.  Thanks for reading.  :)

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