Approximately 11 percent of teachers at Catholic elementary schools are male (including priests and brothers), and in a recent piece on The Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, guest contributor Mark Judge argues that this number is far too low. He writes:
“This imbalance is terrible for a Church that is still stumbling through a sex abuse crisis and fighting a secular culture that grows increasingly misogynistic…. The damage done by the abusive priests and the bishops who moved them from parish to parish has given the impression that the men who are leaders in the Catholic Church are duplicitous at best and iniquitous at worst. In order to get over this, the Church not only needs penance - she needs men in the schools who show children a model of male moral strength.”
His conclusion?: "The Catholic schools of Washington should hire me -- because I'm a man."
It’s a bit more complicated than that, as simply increasing the number of male teachers won’t heal wounds from the sex-abuse crisis, but I can certainly see value in having positive, Catholic male role models for young boys in school settings. And some have argued, not unconvincingly, that, for students growing up fatherless homes, a male teacher may be a much-needed influence.
Judge, a long-time substitute, then writes about his own struggle to find full-time work as a teacher.:
“A priest friend of mine agrees who runs a well-known parish in DC agrees [sic]. I went to see him a couple weeks ago, to ask him why I kept getting turned down for teaching jobs, and why they always seemed to go to women. He told me he himself was frustrated about it, and that I should write to the bishop. The priest and I had a man-to-man talk, as it were, which points to the other, perhaps more abstract, problem that the man shortage reveals: woman and men have a different rapport with children.”
Judge argues that men can promote a “Catholic feminism” and uses as an example his ability to more convincingly tell boys of the value of women’s basketball (“Not only is it a sport, it's a lot more interesting than men's basketball. Men's basketball has become a lot of dunking. In women's basketball there is strategy, jump-shots, thinking.”) because he is a man.
Judge’s point about the value of his influence is a difficult one to prove, but even if, in this instance, we assume he’s right, being a mentor does not necessarily qualify a person to be an educator. And when the job market for teachers is the most competitive it’s been in decades, employers must consider more than just gender. According to Valerie Strauss, who writes for another Washington Post blog, The Answer Sheet, “There is no definitive research that male students—or female students, for that matter—learn better from a particular gender.” To hire men simply because they are men would only perpetuate the very sense of superiority and entitlement among some males that Judge argues he is working to prevent. A male perspective in the classroom could be valuable for boys, but, ideally, this perspective will come from a well-qualified, emotionally mature man—one who can not only offer advice on inbound plays, but I.E.P.s as well. (I mean this as a general statement, not as a critique or criticism of Mr. Judge’s own qualifications, skills or background as an educator, about which I know only what he mentions in his essay.) I think a more productive solution than asking for a bishop’s intervention is for Judge to encourage other men to train for and pursue teaching careers. Schools will always have a hard time hiring men if so few actually apply for jobs.
Judge concludes his argument with a statement he acknowledges as incendiary:
“Kids, who any teacher will tell you are the greatest BS detectors in the world, can tell when they are being propagandized and when someone is speaking from the heart. And if it is a man to boys, the message will take more often than not. It sound terrible, it may run me out of polite society, but I think that when boys spend all day every day listening to women, they do what girls do when boys go on and on about cars or sports. They stop listening.”
I can understand why certain types of advice and life lessons will mean more to young boys if that counsel comes from a man. There’s value in that. But if I want to learn as much as possible about a topic, I want the most knowledgeable person to teach me. Male or female. By conflating a child’s desire for positive role models with a child’s desire to learn, Judge degrades both boys and girls. Sure, these desires are intertwined, but the implication that this connection permeates a child’s mind to such a degree that a young boy would rather tune out a talented, interesting female teacher than hear about the same topic from any man is extreme. Would boys really rather stop learning about a fascinating subject than listen to a well-qualified woman talk about it?
I am a woman with an interest in both cars and sports, and I am lucky enough to have parents knowledgeable about both. From my father, I've received lessons in how to change the oil on my ’93 Camry. But I don’t discuss with him whether Formula 1 racecar drivers Jenson Button or Lewis Hamilton will win the next Grand Prix. For that I give my mom a call. I listen closely to what she has to say, and I appreciate her example as a strong, confident woman. But I don’t listen because she’s a woman. I listen because she knows a heck of a lot about sports.
More than anything, elementary school-age children need well-educated, well-qualified teachers, of any gender, who are willing to care for them, protect them and make learning interesting, no matter the topic. I agree with Mr. Judge when he writes, “Catholic kids need to see men who would go to their own death rather than see harm come to a child.” But I’d argue that, if the current teachers are doing their job, the students at Catholic schools should have heard about at least one man willing to give up his own life for the sake of others. And, if the lessons are taken to heart, the children will see Him, every day, in the faces—man or woman, boy or girl—of everyone they meet.