Men Are an Essential Part of Our Field’s Future

November 4, 2022

Published by ChildCare Exchange Magazine on November 4, 2022

Written by Calvin E. Moore, Jr., Ph.D.

The early childhood education field tends to be no man’s land. Nationwide, a meager 2.2 percent of ECE and kindergarten teachers are men, and 44 percent of them leave the field within five years (Men Teach, 2019; Will, 2018). Roadblocks to men teaching young children include rigid ideas about gender roles, perceptions of ECE as a low-prestige job, lack of benefits and a living wage, and the suspicions of families and colleagues who question why men would want to teach young children. In addition, the glass escalator tends to put men on the fast track to advancement when they enter predominantly female fields. So, men in ECE often move up into administration, though they leave their hearts in the classroom and remain teachers at their core (Shpancer, 2019). 

Identity and Isolation

The pressures that push men out of ECE also include a feeling of isolation. Just ask Chad Nunamaker, an educator in Ohio.

“When I look back on my career,” he says, “I realize that it has been rare for me to work with other men, because there are so few of them in the field”  (Nunamaker, 2020). 

I know exactly how Chad feels, as a former teacher who still values the precious connections I made in the classroom. My experiences there also led me to study why some men stay in ECE, despite the forces that push most of them out (Moore, 2013). When I started working at a Head Start center, I was the only man, and parents were looking at me sideways. It made me feel unwelcome and alone. 

The parents were reflecting stubborn social norms that restrict the careers considered normal for men. For example, a 2020 Netflix series “I’m Sorry” features a male kindergarten teacher and a female comedy writer who snarks that the teacher is likely a predator or pervert. Then in a plot twist, the teacher turns out to be a competent, caring professional, and the writer’s suspicions look silly. It is an outcome that echoes a 2002 episode from “Friends” in which Rachel and Ross interview a male nanny for their baby. They hire him, but not before a spat. When Rachel says, “He’s smart, he’s qualified, give me one good reason why we shouldn’t try him out,” Ross responds, “Because it’s weird.” Yet at the episode’s end, the nanny has far surpassed Ross’s expectations (Cole, Plaisir, & Reich-Shapiro, 2020).

“We Do Not Hire Men”

So, popular culture may be changing here and there, including in commercials that show dads making breakfast or doing laundry. And these ads have come closer to mirroring real life since the start of COVID-19, says Ed Green, president of a consulting firm for the early learning profession.

“In the news, they are talking more about roles men are playing at home that they may not have played before. With the stay-at-home orders and increase in remote work, more men have picked up child care duties. And there is a link between concepts of fatherhood and work.” 

That makes a difference now because COVID-19 has led to a severe shortage of early childhood teachers. Many educators have taken jobs that offer better hours and wages. Centers have closed, and frantic parents are searching for the child care they need, to return to work.

“At this moment in time,” Green says, “there may be more opportunity and support for men to get involved in the early childhood field.” Indeed, they could help relieve the ongoing child care crisis.

Yet there is lingering mistrust of male child care workers, since many people still think the early childhood classroom is no place for men. But “nowadays, real men change diapers and care for kids,” says Kitt Cox, director of Birth to Three Family Center in Ipswich, Massachusetts, for over 10 years. “As the oldest of four brothers, there was no question that I would be changing diapers,” he recalls.

But widely held beliefs that women are more nurturing than men stood in Kitt’s way at the start of his career. He noted, “I have been told straight to my face that ‘we do not hire men’” (K. Cox, personal interview, June 2019). 

The Benefits of Different Perspectives

We should welcome men into the ECE field, so our youngest learners can interact with a gender-balanced workforce. There is wide recognition that male teachers serve as role models for boys, may relate to them better than women do, and are more at ease joining in the roughhouse play many boys enjoy. For example, I was once in an early childhood classroom with a female teacher when two boys began to fight. My colleague wanted to break them up right away, while I wanted to guide the boys in calmly settling their spat. It was a successful approach that showed me the pluses of having different perspectives, including a male one, in the classroom.

The presence of male educators makes a positive impact on both boys and girls, by allowing them to build ties with men outside the family, which supports later success, in college and work (McGrath & Sinclair, 2019). 

“As young children come into their identities, it is important for them to be in settings where they see that both men and women have an important role to play in nurturing and educating young children,” says Kirsten Cole, a researcher at Borough of Manhattan Community College. “This modeling ultimately helps the child have a better understanding of their own identity” (Plaisir, 2019). 

Making ECE Appealing to Men

Many young men are also seeking their own sense of identity during the high school years. They are searching for a path in life and exploring their options. So, it is a good time to introduce them to ECE. Administrators and teachers in career and technical education programs can encourage them, by talking about men in positive ways and putting up displays that depict men in caring roles. They should make young men aware that teaching can be a gateway to careers in advocacy and policy, with the potential to help children nationwide. They should also examine their own gender biases, try to use gender-neutral language when speaking with students, and provide more chances for young men to learn what it is like to be a preschool teacher (Zhang, 2017). 

We should make ECE more appealing to men, as Paige Hassel is doing in Memphis, where she is the CTE department chair and ECE teacher at Bolton High School.

“I hate the stereotype that men who want to work with young children are weird,” she says, “so I try to attract both males and females to my program. I stand in the hall and interact with students between classes, so they get to know me and my program. I bring toddlers from our on-site preschool to different classes and show students what we are doing. We plant things in our school garden with the agricultural science students, sing Christmas carols and go trick or treating around the school. When it is time for our preschool graduation, the kids put on little caps and gowns and parade throughout the classrooms” (Council for Professional Recognition, 2020). 

Hassel’s determined campaign—and her adorable toddlers—sound hard to resist, and she has enlisted about a dozen male students in her program.

“The children seem to gravitate towards these young men,” she says, “and they are wonderful with the kids”  (Council for Professional Recognition, 2020).  They also have the skills to work effectively with young learners because Hassel’s program gives students the chance to earn their Child Development Associate® credential, based on 120 hours of coursework and 480 hours of experience with children (Council for Professional Recognition, 2021). The CDA® provides rising teachers with practical skills, so they’re well prepared on day one in the classroom. That makes it an ideal way to inoculate young men from the factors that prevent them from persisting in the ECE field.

The CDA Helps Men Stay

I know that the CDA made a difference for me when I faced those quizzical looks at Head Start. If a parent or teacher questioned whether I belonged, I could insist that I did, because I had the right skills. And based on my experience, I have led the council in publishing the CDA® Handbook for High School: A Guide to Advocacy and Implementation. It provides administrators and teachers with a detailed plan for launching or sustaining a CDA program in their district or school.

The high school CDA is a great way to bring more young men into the early childhood field, because men tend to like action-based learning. “The CDA is very hands on,” says Bryan Nelson, director of MenTeach, a nonprofit devoted to boosting the number of men in education. He earned the credential before going on to college and grad school, so he shows how the CDA promotes continued professional growth. “It appeals to many men by providing a clean step-by-step process for getting the skills they need, and that makes it an incredible career ladder” (Washington & Yarkony, 2019). 

“The CDA was everything for me,” says Buddy Rhodes, school leader at Kiddie Country Learning Center in Burke, Virginia. “I have known I had a love of teaching since I was in high school and helped out in my mother’s third-grade classroom,” Rhodes recalls. He also knew he needed skills if he was to succeed in his chosen field. “The CDA gave me the confidence to gain my college degree and advance my career. Without the CDA, I do not think I would be where I am today”  (Mohamed, 2021). 

The seeds of Rhodes’ current career took root when he worked with children in high school. And that is true for many other men in ECE. One of them is Kamren Rollins, interim CEO at Sunshine Learning Center in Washington, D.C. “The earlier men get connected to ECE the better,” Rollins says. “I fell in love with ECE in high school while working as an assistant teacher.”

In addition, earning a CDA is much less expensive than getting a college degree. “It is almost impossible to pay back college loans,” says Patrick Frueh, a technical assistance specialist at Action for Children in Columbus, Ohio. “The CDA, on the other hand, offers a cost-effective way to get the skills you need, and the greater return on investment might encourage more men to get into the field” (Washington & Yarkony, 2019). 

Reaching Critical Mass

When recruiting male teachers, ECE programs should think in terms of critical mass. Recruiting one man can be an achievement, but a single man is likely to feel quite alone. Recruiting two or three men can reduce the isolation, but these few men may still seem like unicorns in the ECE field (Cunningham & Watson, 2002). To achieve gender balance, we need more male-centered settings like one where I once worked. A man ran it, and they had a male center director and a male teacher or assistant teacher in every room. I think they also had a male bus driver and male family advocate. In a sense, they had reached critical mass.

As we draw more men to the field, we should also work to ensure they can grow in their profession. Earning a CDA is a stepping stone to advancement, according to Jarrell Harris, a young teacher in Steger, Illinois. He earned his CDA, and having the credential enhanced his career.

“When I began working at a day care,” he says, “I was in a room where they had all the three- to five-year-old children grouped together. On my recommendation, they made a separate room for the five-year-old kids, where I could address their needs even better. By 2017, I had become a lead teacher and earned my associate degree in education” (Council for Professional Recognition, 2020). 

Harris now has his own preschool program, Empowering Young Lives, and we need more success stories like his. Men who lead centers can play a key role in building the critical mass needed to reach gender balance. But maintaining that balance can be an issue if ECE administrators do not also have the will to meet men’s needs or take advantage of ways to help men grow in their profession: providing mentoring, setting up support groups and choosing curricula that are inclusive of men.

Still, these measures will only go so far without public funding to provide ECE teachers with benefits and pay on par with primary and secondary school teachers. Most ECE teachers do not even receive health insurance, and they tend to earn a median hourly wage of $10.31—and many cannot survive without public assistance (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). These low wages are, of course, disturbing for all ECE teachers. But they are more daunting for men, who are still the primary earners in two-thirds of U.S. families (Parker & Stepler, 2017). 

Advocates for Advancing ECE

The downsides of the early childhood profession may not deter men who are committed to teaching young children—and they could serve as forceful advocates for the field. Men don’t mind asking for what they need, as I saw during my years as a center director, and they will join their voices with those of the many women who now demand change. So, increasing the number of men may help lead to long-term improvements in the ECE workplace. 

We can widen the pipeline for men in ECE by reaching them early in our nation’s high school programs. ECE instructors should encourage young men to attend their programs, like Paige Hassel does at Bolton High. Male teachers should take deliberate steps to serve as role models and mentors for their male students. Guidance counselors should provide them with information on the ECE field, since young men may not consider teaching children as a career unless it is pointed out to them. Recruitment materials should depict men as teachers and address their questions and concerns (Cunningham & Watson, 2002).  

Stress and Strikes

One of the big issues for men, as we have seen, is the low pay in ECE, but COVID-19 may change that. As ECE centers shut their doors in recent years, the news increasingly called child care “essential” for the economy and working parents (Chicago Tribune, 2022). The long pandemic has also stressed teachers out and led them to take boldly to the streets with their demands.

This April, Maine child care workers joined Governor Janet Mills and a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the statehouse in Augusta to support a bill that would boost wages in the field (Miller, 2022). Educators in Minneapolis, Sonoma County, California, and Chicago have gone on strike in recent months for higher wages, better benefits and smaller classes.

“The pressure on teachers is so formidable with regards to COVID-19 that their tempers are much more frayed,” says economist Stephanie Seguino. “It would not surprise me if we see more strikes because teachers have reached their limit” (Nittle, 2022). 

Teachers at all levels from pre-K through high school have long suffered from the impact of old ideas about women’s work. “The data are very clear that the larger the percentage of women in a professional occupation, the lower is the salary,” Seguino explains. “Many presume the skills women have in occupations like teaching or child care or nursing are innate, and we do not really need to compensate them for that. It is gender stereotyping that is holding down wages.” Given this, having more men in education could boost wages for the whole profession (Nittle, 2022). 

Seizing the Moment in ECE

There is growing public recognition that we should encourage more men to enter the early learning field. In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers provided $1 million in COVID-19 relief funds to the Literacy Lab and Leading Men Fellowship, both Milwaukee programs that provide young men of color with training, mentoring and stipends to prepare for a career in ECE. When Evers visited the program in April 2022, he called it a meaningful day.

“Here we have an opportunity,” he said, “not only to help little kids with their reading skills and their literacy skills, but at the same time bring more representation to those who are educating our children” (Quirmbach, 2022). 

The funding will allow Leading Men to double in size next year, providing hundreds more Wisconsin children with a fellow in their classroom. We must seize the moment to promote programs like this, according to seasoned ECE consultant Ed Green.

“It is a perfect time to focus more on the role men can play in ECE, because of all the workforce development issues we are facing with the pandemic. COVID-19 caught us by surprise, and now we need to think about what the new normal will look like when the pandemic has passed.”

It is time to reimagine our field and find new ways to give families the services they need. One promising way is to draw on a pool of untapped talent: our men. Early childhood centers should partner with high school CDA programs to reach more young men, and they should review their recruitment plans. It is time for centers to be more direct in their job ads and explicitly say, “We encourage men to apply for these positions.” This might attract men who’ve never considered teaching young children before and convince men who have quit the field to come back. 

One of them is Jeremy Walton, who left the classroom to work in IT before the Leading Men program lured him back to ECE. Now he feels like he is where he belongs, as he tells the rising teachers he mentors.

“Being masculine does not always mean having a hard exterior, being devoid of emotion,” he says. “We can be nurturing, caring, compassionate, and protective”—as early childhood programs and parents need to see (Martinez, 2021). “Realizing that men can listen to a child, hug a child, and cry with a child would be extremely helpful,” agrees Virginia educator Buddy Rhodes. And the ones who will benefit most are young learners. 

The efforts we make to meet men’s needs will enhance the entire ECE field. Having diverse role models of both genders is vital for our youngest children. And both men and women would be better off if the field provided fair benefits and pay. Recruiting and retaining men will take work and require investment, but it holds the promise of rewards. That especially matters now as the child care field strives to recover from the impact of COVID-19. So, we must enlist more men in ECE—and ensure that they stay.


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Author Bio

Calvin E. Moore, Jr., Ph.D., was appointed CEO of the Council for Professional Recognition in May 2020. He is the Council’s first CEO to hold its early education credential, the CDA®, and a former member of the Council’s governing board. Moore learned the value of early care and education when he participated in Head Start as a child. He also has vast professional Head Start experience, having served in large and small, urban and rural, center-based and family child care-based programs, as well as programs focused mainly on Hispanic families. Throughout his career, Moore has held senior roles directing complex federal and state departments that improve outcomes for underserved children and families. Most recently, Moore was the regional program manager in Atlanta for the Office of Head Start within the Administration for Children and Families for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. His responsibilities included providing oversight, monitoring, training and technical assistance to over 350 Head Start and Early Head Start grantees with a portfolio of over $1.6 billion. 

He is the author of “The Thinking Book Curriculum: For Early Childhood Professionals,” “Men Do Stay: Recruiting and Retaining Qualified Male Early Childhood Teachers,” and many other books. Moore has received a literary award from AIM and New Light Ministries for his book “Agape Declarations,” the Maria Otto Award for Leadership from the National Family Child Care Association and the Billy McCain, Sr., Memorial Award from the Alabama Head Start Association.

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