According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, in 2014, a mere 2.8% of preschool and kindergarten teachers were men. As you scan the grid, the percentage of male teachers increases in elementary and middle school (19.1%), and peaks in high school (43%). Although he is aware of the statistics, Jeffrey Norton sees nothing unusual about being a male teacher in a kinder- garten classroom.
“When I began at Rouses Point six years ago,” Norton explained, “there were male first grade, physical education and music teachers, a male librarian, and a male principal. There was also another male kindergarten teacher for many years who only recently retired.” When it comes to creating trusting bonds that foster a safe learning environment, Norton said, “I feel it goes two ways. Some kids connect with me immediately, others are shy and reserved. I think this is how it usually goes—regard- less of the teacher’s gender.”
Norton has found, however, that being male in a district where a significant number of students do not have a day-to-day male presence in their lives can be an advantage. “Some kids seem to take a male presence more seriously. While I can be firm, and expect a lot of independence, I try to balance that with positive expressions that show I care. I show them it is OK for men to be gentle and show feelings while still being strong and getting a job done.”
Do his students arrive with gender bias? “Sometimes we have conversations about why pink is not just a ‘girl’ color, but in general, they’re so innocent. They don’t worry about what boys and girls are ‘supposed’ to do. The best conversations we have are about what they want to be when they grow up. Their choices range from the very practical to the fantastic, but none of them is focused on gender. In general, my lessons are about building good people. Anything character-based is a huge focus. This is what neutralizes gender bias.”
In addition to teaching kindergarten, Norton works with older students by coaching JV Basketball and Varsity Baseball. He referees high-school soccer games, and is advisor to Rouses Point Elementary school’s fourth and fifth grade Kiwanis, a club that organizes community service projects such as the Big Change Roundup. “It’s an interesting balance,” said Norton. “I get to see kids of all ages—it gives me a great perspective. I can see their whole personal development. It helps me avoid the tunnel vision that can come from working with one age group.”
When it comes to creating trusting bonds that foster a safe learning environment, Norton said, “I feel it goes two ways. Some kids connect with me immediately, others are shy and reserved. I think this is how it usually goes—regardless of the teacher’s gender.”
FOLLOWING ARE EXCERPTS FROM SB’S INTERVIEW WITH JEFF NORTON:
Favorite thing about the job: The emotional, social and academic growth you see in the students from day one to graduation. It is awesome to see how their charac- ter develops and independence increases throughout the school year. Now that I am in my sixth year in this district, my first group of kindergarten students are strong, confident fifth graders!
Biggest influence: Working at the YMCA, and later, Camp Jericho. I was a Biology major at SUNY Plattsburgh when one of my best buddies convinced me to apply for a job in the Before and After Care Program. The experiences I had working with young children helped me decide to get a Master’s degree in Early Childhood education. I continue to spend summers at Camp Jericho, and will be going into my eleventh season this year. (Norton is also going into his eighth year with the NCCS Outdoor Education program based at Camp Overlook, a 4-H camp in Mountain View, NY.)
Best advice: Communicate with parents. If they know their kids are #1 with you, they will support and reinforce, at home, what their children are doing in the classroom. The students and I invite the family into the educational process by hosting family oriented events such as Family Fun Night, a Harvest Dinner and a winter picnic.
Most interesting moment on the job: Three years ago, I found myself short of help on Family Fun Night. “I cancelled baseball practice and told the team they had to volunteer. I had a bunch of high-school boys running the games, a “pretty cool experience” they said. The elementary students treated them like rock stars. It went so well, the team has been asking me for the last two years to go back!