The Press
June 30 2003

Male teachers fear contact with young children - research

Men are avoiding teaching in primary schools because they fear contact with children exposes them to allegations of sexual abuse, according to new research.

Men make up only 13.6 per cent of classroom teachers in primary schools. Educators say more are needed to combat boys' under-achievement, and have called for targeted scholarships to boost their numbers.

But Christchurch College of Education research shows scholarships may not be enough to override men's anxiety about physical contact with children - and thereby suspicion of sexual abuse.

Lecturer Penni Cushman conducted focus groups with 17 male primary teachers last year after a survey of 1000 Year 13 students found physical contact with children was their greatest concern about primary teaching.

She found male teachers' anxiety about avoiding contact with children, which was exacerbated by the view that men who taught at junior levels were, at best, "unusual" and at worst potential threats to children, led to pressure and stress.

"It is little wonder that men choose not to teach," Ms Cushman said.

Ministry of Education figures show men are taking up primary teaching at a much slower rate than women. From 2002 to 2003, the intake rate for men was 12.5 per cent, compared with 17 per cent for women.

Ms Cushman said the issue of touching - along with issues around status, salary, and working in a predominantly female environment - was a major deterrent for men.

"It was the one thing I really thought about most when I decided to go teaching," one said. "I don't act naturally when someone's crying or they want to sit next to me on the couch. I just say 'well, you can't'."

Another teacher described male teachers putting cameras in their classrooms for their own security because they were so paranoid about the issue.

Most of the teachers spoken to in Ms Cushman's research avoided contact with children even when they needed help, and were distressed about not being able to act naturally around children.

Canterbury Primary Principals' Association spokeswoman and
Paparoa Street School principal Sue Ashworth said the issue of touching was a "real problem" if it was putting men off teaching, and wider debate was needed to address it.

More men were needed in primary schools to achieve a balance with female teachers and provide role models for children raised in solo mother households, she said.

"We don't want them going into secondary teaching because they feel they can't be around and in contact with young kids."

David Bycroft, principal of Heaton Intermediate, said parents should be concerned that men avoided contact with children because it was "unnatural".

"There is a spring reflex. You do jump back instantly if you accidentally bump into a child. That does give a message that it is a complete no-no.

"I guess in time that will affect society if it continues." he said.

On his first teaching practice, trainee teacher Simon Burke felt uneasy about touching children and dissuaded them from hugging him.

"Five-year-olds and six-year-olds just wrap themselves around you, but I didn't feel confident reciprocating."

Auckland University research, none of the 25 male teachers interviewed were comfortable about physical contact with schoolchildren.

That research is being used by the primary teachers' union, the New Zealand Educational Institute, as it reviews its physical conduct code of practice. The code, which says any physical contact with pupils presents a risk of being viewed as assault, has been criticised as too restrictive.