The school year may just be over but in amongst the holiday plans and vacation care bookings parents are also thinking about the big issue for the year ahead.  What class will my child be in and most importantly who will be their teacher?

It’s understandable that many families have an emotional investment in the choice of teacher for their child’s class. The right teacher/student connection can make a huge difference to a pupil’s learning engagement.

While the personality mix is important should the teacher’s gender also be a factor?  Some families believe that it should and express a strong preference for a male teacher.

The fact is, for these families most Australian state primary schools have a significant gender imbalance in their teaching staff.  The vast majority of teachers are women, and while their abilities’ are not being called into question, some parents feel their children (particularly boys) would benefit from a greater interaction with male teachers.

The number of men teaching at primary school level has been in decline over the last 30 years. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 1980 men accounted for 28% of all full-time equivalent teaching staff. In 2012 they represented only 19%.

Abbotsford Primary School in Sydney’s Inner West has only two male teachers out of a staff of 19.  The school recently received so many demands for children to be placed with a male teacher it issued a notice to parents stating it would impossible to meet all the requests.

A dearth of men entering primary education is not just an issue in Australia.  In the UK, a quarter of all state schools are taught entirely by women with men accounting for a mere 12% of the primary school workforce.  In the US the situation is much the same with men accounting for less than 3% of preschool and kindergarten teachers and 18% of elementary and middle school.

The reasons for men’s low participation in primary school tuition are complex and varied.  Many men still shoulder the responsibility as primary wage earner (or anticipate they will do so in the future) and the pay rates offered by a career in teaching may be much lower than those available in the corporate sphere.

Negative perceptions around primary education are also a factor. The view that primary educators are inferior to their high school counterparts, or that teaching young children is primarily a woman’s domain can act as a deterrent. Add to this heightened public awareness around inappropriate contact with children and it’s no wonder men are showing increasing reluctance to opt for teaching as a career.

Whilst the issues surrounding men’s aversion to primary school teaching are important, does the absence of male teachers mean our children’s educational development is suffering?

In 2006 Thomas S. Dee (associate professor in the Department of Economics at Swarthmore College in the US) wrote a paper in support of single sex schools and tuition. According to his research, “girls have better educational outcomes when taught by women, and boys are better off when taught by men.”

However, a more recent study undertaken in 2012 at the University of Amsterdam suggests the opposite.  Findings from their study of over 2,000 primary school students and teachers, “challenge society’s presumption that male teachers have better relationships with boys than women teachers.”

Learning outcomes for children may not improve with the addition of more male teachers, but there are still compelling reasons for redressing the gender imbalance in our schools.  Male teachers at primary level show children that teaching is a viable career for both boys and girls.  Boys may also grow to understand that men have greater empathy for their learning and social development which could inspire confidence and greater classroom engagement.

While a good teacher is a good teacher, regardless of gender, it’s hard to see how pupils would fail to benefit from a concerted effort to bring more male teachers into our primary schools.  At the very least, equitable representation is how we show our children that learning and teaching is important, not just for one section of the community but for everyone.