It’s circle time in classroom four. Sixteen 5-year-olds sit on the carpet and patiently wait for the weather report. After observing Amsterdam Avenue through the large windows of the JCC in Manhattan’s nursery school, a blond girl in a pink dress announces, “It’s sunny and cloudy.” Her peers seem content with the analysis, and the girl turns to await feedback from her teacher, a 30-year-old man with short hair, a ginger beard and freckles on his arms.
“Very good,” Adam Metzger says. “There’s also a word for it: overcast.”
Once today’s schedule has been discussed (no yoga because the instructor has a baby) and the days left in the spring semester counted (it’s day 37 of 49), it’s finally snack time (a piece of banana and three crackers). Metzger, the co-head teacher, somehow manages to fold his tall frame into a tiny wooden chair as he explains the meaning of “tart” (as in taste) to two boys who discuss what they had for breakfast.
It’s a normal day here — but in many schools Metzger’s presence would be an anomaly. That’s because he’s a man. Teaching at preschools and kindergartens is among the most gender-segregated professions in the United States: 97.8% of teachers are female, according to 2013 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While no comprehensive statistics exist for Jewish institutions, they appear to mirror the national trend.
Men shun the field for many reasons. The pay isn’t great. There’s a lingering stigma associated with joining what continues to be viewed, in many quarters, as a woman’s profession. And, increasingly, male teachers fear accusations of child abuse.
At the same time, experts and educators agree that their presence is beneficial for children, co-workers and parents alike. It might even be vital for the future of Judaism.
There is evidence of a “boys’ crisis” in Judaism. A 2008 study by Brandeis University sociologists Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer found that non-Orthodox Jewish boys feel alienated from Jewish religious life. It’s Jewish women who actively participate in Jewish life and pass on that identity to the children. “What we have is a kind of reverse gender imbalance, when little boys are in liberal religious environments, [and] they might get the misimpression that religion is for females,” says Fishman.
The study also found that men and boys with the strongest Jewish identity named male, Jewish role models as a vital influence — a finding echoed by a 2012 report issued by Moving Traditions, a Jewish not-for-profit based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, that runs educational programs for teenagers. This report also highlighted the role male Jewish educators play in helping boys navigate the increasingly tricky waters of modern masculinity. Experts say that American popular culture is sending mixed messages, urging men to play a more active part at home while staying true to stereotypes of being emotionally stoic.
“I think anything that can be done to have male role models in any stage of the life cycle is positive,” says Fishman.
Men who work in early childhood settings can serve as an example — for children, colleagues and parents — of how to reconcile these seemingly contradictory aspects of masculinity. Such men are still largely considered unusual because caretaking professions have been a traditionally female domain, writes David Brody, chair of the Early Childhood Department and academic dean of the Efrata College of Education in Jerusalem, in his book “Men Who Teach Young Children: An International Perspective,” published in August 2014. Consequently, Brody, who taught in American preschools for 17 years, notes that “[w]hen men enter this world, several basic assumptions are challenged”: their identity as men, their capability for caretaking and the way they interact with children.
What happens at nursery school affects the entire family, as children bring their experiences home and talk about them with their parents and siblings. Zac Price, director of the Meyerhoff Early Childhood Education Center at the JCC of Greater Baltimore, observed: “We saw a larger engagement of fathers in the classroom than anywhere.” Referring to men in the nursery schools, he added: “There’s the theory where if you can get one of them, you can get more of them.”
Despite the benefits of their work in the classroom, male early childhood teachers say that they come up against significant prejudice. Metzger, the Manhattan JCC nursery school teacher, said that every job aptitude test suggested he should become a teacher, but he never took them seriously. Five years ago, unhappy with his job in construction management, he finally gave in and secured a position as a floating teacher at the JCC nursery school while he completed a graduate degree in special education. “When people meet me, they never believe me,” he says. Half of his friends say “Aww, so cute,” Metzger says, while others get somewhat uncomfortable, make jokes and wonder what “a guy like him” does with kids.
Metzger’s experience is common among male early childhood education professionals. When Noah Hichenberg, who is now the director of Saul and Carole Zabar Nursery School at the JCC in Manhattan, was completing his graduate degree in education, his advisor recommended he move up to elementary school instead of focusing on early childhood education. When Gary Mayes, the assistant director at the early childhood center at Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Maryland, first attended national early childhood education conferences about a decade ago, he didn’t find any bathrooms for men. And whenever Richard Abbondanzio, who taught science to 2- to 4-year-olds at the Levine Academy, a Jewish day school in Dallas, Texas, wanted to pick up a child or put her on his lap, he always asked a female teacher first.
“There’s a fear of being accused of harming children,” says Bryan Nelson, a veteran teacher and founder of MenTeach.org, a national organization that seeks to raise awareness and connect men in teaching professions. However, the statistics suggest that children are safe at nursery school. According to the 2012 report on child maltreatment from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 80% of perpetrators of child abuse and neglect are parents, while day care providers account for just 0.4%. Therefore, Nelson said, even if preschool keeps men out, “children will still be harmed in other settings.”
What makes the field even less attractive (and not just to men) is the relatively low salary. The median annual pay for preschool teachers was $27,130 in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Jewish early childhood centers, the median is more or less the same, with some variation depending on location, experience and education level. The annual salary at JCC nursery schools ranges from $18,000 to 30,000, according to Mark Horowitz, the vice president for early childhood education and family engagement at the JCC Association. Starting salaries at early childhood centers run by The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism range from $13,000 to $20,000.
“There is a misconception of what early childhood education is,” says Mayes of the early childhood center at Temple Emanuel in Kensington. “People think it’s just a lot of play and baby-sitting,” when in fact, “you’re not only a teacher, you’re a parent at the same time, and a psychologist.”
Because of these unique demands and the low pay, it is hard enough to find qualified staff. No schools seemed to be actively searching for male teachers. “When we find the right candidate, we take the right candidate. Gender has no meaning,” says Ami Petter-Lipstein, the executive director of the Jewish Montessori Society, echoing an attitude shared by many other nursery school directors.
Nonetheless, schools with male staff have found that they changed the dynamics — mostly for the better. “They tend to offer their colleagues who are women a slightly different perspective on things,” says Peggy McNamara, the chair of the general teacher education department at Bank Street College in New York, “because their life experience of growing up has been different.”
“I have a little bit of a reputation at work for doing the messier stuff,” says Benjamin Strom, 28, who teaches at the early childhood center of the Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills, California. Strom secured his first teaching job at age 13 — as a teaching assistant at Hebrew School. Like Metzger, he first tried a more typical career path, and chose architecture as his major at college — only to switch to childhood education. “People always said that I was really good and really patient with kids,” says Strom.
Nelson of MenTeach.org remembers frequently being the one teacher who would run around and engage in physical activities with the kids. All children — not just boys — benefit from this tremendously. “It would be strange to have a place where [children] learn about the world and miss a key component: men,” he says.
But how can you get more of them? There are several places to find useful examples. Nelson, who has supported several initiatives to draw more men to the profession, cites the13 million euro (roughly $17.5 million) initiative funded by the German government and the European Union to attract more men to work in “Kitas,” day cares for children aged 1 to 6. When free public child care was expanded in Germany to children aged 1 to 3 in August 2013, the country recruited men in part to help reduce the gender imbalance in the profession. The initiative led to an increase of 50% more men in participating kindergartens; in Hamburg and Berlin, 10% and 8% (respectively) of Kita teachers are now male.
It’s difficult to tell whether these efforts will be successful in the long term: As of 2013, male Kita teachers still only account for 4% of staff. And a 2010 study by the German ministry of education found that 42% of parents, directors and agency workers admit to at least occasionally considering the danger of child sexual abuse by male Kita teachers.
There is at least one place, though, where male teachers are abundant: In the world of Haredi Judaism, all teachers of boys aged 3 and older are men. “In that situation, teaching young children is a role society has defined for men,” said Brody, who is beginning a study on these melamdim, ultra-Orthodox men who teach boys. “This position is totally unique in the world.” As these teachers keep a very low profile, Brody only has anecdotal knowledge to go on thus far, but can say this much: “There is big focus on learning how to read, and not much beyond that. It’s rare for the melamdim to be interested in children’s creativity and imagination and development of social and emotional skills.”
The technique of presenting children with Jewish male role models, says Fishman, the sociologist, is something the non-Orthodox leaders, who struggle to keep boys interested in Judaism, should consider.
“Orthodox boys are socialized into thinking about Jewishness as something that’s very relevant to boys,” she says. “Putting male early childhood educators in settings where little boys learn from them could be a very effective strategy.”
Anna Goldenberg is the Forward’s arts and culture fellow. Follow her on Twitter @angoldna