Would more male teachers, or more visible minorities, translate into a better education system?
This week, the Globe and Mail reported that the Toronto District School Board, in order to ensure its teachers reflect the demographics of its student body, is giving preference in hiring to males and visible minorities, including aboriginals and francophones.
The gross majority of teachers at the TDSB are female and white. The board considers that to be a problem in a city where just less than half the student body is male, and nearly three-quarters are visible minorities.
Still, the reaction to the memo by existing teachers was not positive. "They're not willing to look at anyone who is white and female," an unnamed teacher told the Globe. "It (a job opening) should go to the person who is best for the job."
The irony here is quite thick; this is, after all, one of the only instances in which women can assume the role of the oppressed majority.
In many job classifications, it is women who are included with other minorities in the category of the disadvantaged. Programs to boost the number of women or visible minorities by giving them priority in post-secondary school admission or hiring are still considered by many to be controversial. Critics hold that view, even though by now, these practices are recognized as a legitimate, legal solution to inequality.
However, there are several factors in this story that make it different from other tales of affirmative action.
The shortage of visible-minority teachers is perhaps easy to explain. In cities such as Toronto, the increase in the sheer numbers of visible minorities has proceeded much faster than the teaching profession's ability to train and employ visible-minority teachers.
Over time, with more minorities graduating from high school and university, one would assume the face of the teaching profession would change.
The situation is much different when it comes to men. From England and the United States to Australia and Canada, there is a critical shortage of male teachers. In some jurisdictions, including some in Canada, women make up more than 80 per cent of primary school teaching ranks.
How could this have happened, you may ask? Remarkably, it appears the biggest problem is very few men seek it out as a profession.
Some believe having fewer male teachers discourages male students at an early age from seeking a career as a teacher. Others hypothesize women have come to dominate the teaching ranks, so men no longer feel welcome.
Surveys of male teachers have found many believed because of their interest in working with children, they are too often viewed as potential pedophiles. A 2010 Ontario survey of male teachers found one in six had faced allegations of "inappropriate contact with students." Others have claimed they have been sexually harassed by the female majority.
The other problem here is apart from what appears to be a lack of interest in teaching as a profession, the benefits of hiring more men are not entirely clear.
Advocates for hiring more men, for example, start with concerns about the declining academic performance of boys and dwindling numbers of young men attending and graduating post-secondary education. In the U.K., for example, girls are graduating secondary school at twice the rate of their male classmates and entering university at four times the rate of young men.
The absence of male teachers, particularly at the primary school level, is often cited as a key element in these troubling trends. Boys and girls learn differently, and there has been a growing concern many female teachers are not relating with their male students. This view is bolstered by surveys of male students, who often believe female teachers give lower grades just because they are boys.
There is a fairly broad agreement in education circles that more men and visible minorities would help some male and minority students succeed in their educational careers. However, other than surveys in which students express these preferences, incontrovertible data linking academic performance and teacher gender are not easy to come by. For that reason, and because full-time teaching jobs are very hard to come by in most communities in this country, most teachers' unions and the female majority within teaching ranks have, in general, opposed hiring quotas.
Most educators are reluctant to concede a female teacher cannot effectively teach a male student, or vice versa. They would similarly argue a white teacher, if he or she was good at what they did, could teach a child of any cultural or ethnic background. However, trends that see male students struggling to keep up with female classmates certainly raise questions, not about whether they could, but whether they are motivating all students of all gender, race or ethnicity.
A commentary on this issue posted on the website of the Alberta Teachers' Association quoted, of all things, The Karate Kid in a bid to remind us of one of the fundamental truths in education. "No such thing as a bad student," Mr. Miyagi tells his young charge Daniel Larusso in the 1984 movie. "Only bad teacher."
Perhaps more males and minority teachers would help the education system connect with student groups that are struggling. Or, perhaps this is a wake-up call for the teaching profession to figure out ways of better connecting students and teachers, regardless of gender or ethnic background.