RSA board member Chris Fotinopoulos urges our finest, gifted men to enter teaching. "Our boys need you more than ever."
When we hurt our boys, we hurt our men. And it is a hurt that is felt by all. The fallout from the Royal Commission into Institutionalised Responses to Child Sexual Abuse makes depressing reading for all Australians, and especially for those who dedicate their lives to making a positive difference to the lives of children. But we must not allow accounts of male abuse in schools to erode our trust in men.
One way of preserving this trust is to recognise the positive influence that men have had on boys, and appreciate the unique role that male teachers play in transforming young boys into fine, decent and caring men. Undoubtedly women play a valuable part in the education of boys, as do men in the education of girls, but the point of this article is to highlight the need for more good men in schools.
It was after reading a British survey commissioned by the Training and Development Agency for Schools stating that boys are more likely to turn to male teachers for help, guidance and assistance that prompted me to consider the male teacher's role in the nurturing of boys. I became particularly interested in the question after a mother of three teenage boys recently said, "Well, boys certainly don't open up to their dad", adding, "even if they wanted to, many boys can't because there's no dad to turn to."
The survey found almost half of the men questioned said that a male teacher has been a fundamental role model in their life. It also revealed that male teachers were more approachable, and that boys were more likely to turn to them about bullying and problems with schoolwork. Significantly, 29 per cent said they went to a male teacher with problems at home, and 24 per cent were more likely to ask them questions about puberty.
Based on my teaching experience, there is a greater likelihood that boys will open up to teachers who know, understand and have good relationships with them. This is supported by a report by ACER in 2015 that identifies the maintenance of relationships in school as paramount. The report says that not only does collaboration and continuity ensure a subject is taught successfully, it also places the teacher in the position to guide, advise and model positive behaviour over the course of a students' life.
The sad reality is that the declining rate of male teachers in Australian schools is distancing men from boys at a time when boys need them the most. As research conducted by ACER on The Teacher Workforce in Australia (2015) found, the proportion of male teachers in secondary school is in decline, with the gender imbalance being more pronounced in the English classroom, where only one third of English teachers are men.
The English classroom presents a real opportunity for male teachers to bond with boys and impress upon them the values central to meaningful relationships. As Keith Oatley, Professor Emeritus at Toronto University, reported in his findings and review of other studies in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, empathy and an understanding of other people's point of view are best learnt through narrative fiction and the age-old tradition of storytelling. And who best to introduce students to great works of fiction and stories than their English teacher.
As an English teacher for more than two decades, I can't think of a better way of instilling a deep understanding empathy, compassion, justice and respect than through stories and conversation. And I am convinced that great books can, with the help of the teacher, encourage boys to understand what it's like to be a victim of injustice, cruelty, deceit and violence.
It does, however, require patience, persistence, dedication and time. The rise of the 'casual' and contract teachers does not help. When we devalue our teachers in such a way, we devalue relationships. I recently came across a book edited by student Grace Halphen, Letter to My Teenage Self, which compiles 50 responses from high profile personalities and celebrities.
Although the advice is insightful and useful, we need to depend less on celebrities and personalities – who are essentially strangers – offering solutions to life's problem, and place greater trust in our teachers; especially the male teacher's role in helping boys deal with issues of violence, aggression and bullying. I may be elevating the male teacher to lofty heights, but this is precisely where they need to be if we are to address the hurt that men continue to cause today.
So what would I tell my younger self? Nothing much more than what my English teacher told me before I left school. I remember the kind Mr Doyle calling me aside and telling me that I was becoming a fine young man. As a troubled boy, I knew I had a long way to go, as I still do today, but his words meant everything to me because they came from a man who knew and understood me well. It is for this reason I urge our finest and gifted men to enter teaching. Our boys need you more than ever.