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News + PoliticsEducationFighting toxic masculinity for the next generation

Fighting toxic masculinity for the next generation

Teaching behind the mask: A preschool teacher resists his difficult past to change children’s futures.


Brian Crooks works at Treasure Island Development Center. Teaching Behind the Mask is a series of voices from infant, toddler, and pre-school classrooms across San Francisco. It’s a collaboration between Barbra Blender, Eliana Elias, and the remarkable early-childhood education teachers who continue to serve children and families during the pandemic.

“The child is father of the man…”

This line from the poem My Heart Leaps up, by William Wordsworth,  written in 1802, finds its way into my head often. How does it relate to me? Me… the child of a teenage single mom who battled abuses her whole life? Me… a kid who was in and out of the system for neglect and abuse? Me… a young man living on the streets of SF? Me… a man hitchhiking across the US on the fringes of society?

Me… now a 32-year-old man, an accomplished teacher with a BA in Special Education (despite my $30K debt)?  Me… choosing to teach toddlers during a pandemic?

Brian Crooks teaches pre-school on Treasure Island.

How can this line, written more than 200 years ago, help me reflect on where I came from, how I got here and where I’m going?

“The Child…”

Not surprising, from an at-risk child, I became an at-risk young adult. After traveling aimlessly through the US, I felt like I experienced PTSD when trying to rejoin society:  living unseen, trying to work my way back, floating without roots, lacking a college education. I experienced depression and had no way to picture a bright future. 

This started to change when I had the opportunity to return to school.  Through Early Childhood Education classes, I was exposed to concepts that offered me a window to my past experiences and cracked open the doors to a better future.  Concepts such as anti-bias educationand self-regulation made me look back at my own life.  I experienced intense cognitive dissonance.  I realized I had to make big adjustments: I had to get away from everything that I knew and start over. I had to remake my lifestyle and in my mindset; not easy changes to make. 

I wasn’t an emotionally balanced person. I was confrontational. I unconsciously operated under the assumption that it was better to hurt others before they hurt me.  Fortunately, I came to terms with the fact that I needed to change to make it better for the next generation.

“Is father….”

An-anti bias education approach means examining how harmful stereotypes impact children, and how educators can try to repair this damage by intentionally sending children different messages.  As I studied more about this approach, I reflected on the male role models I had and how they impacted my own development. 

My mom was always around males who exhibited toxic masculinity. I was also receiving strong messages from the media and the society at large. As a society, we teach boys and men to hide behind a mask. This mask forces boys and men to hide their emotions, to not ask for help, to be someone other than themselves. That’s why it’s toxic — because it’s all about masking emotions to put up the appearance of control and power.  Very rarely do people realize they get to sew their own masks.   

I was fortunate to have a grandfather, who, in his own way, presented me with more positive ways to walk the Earth as a male. His generation still believed that men lead their households, but they also went through the cultural revolution. My grandfather believed in building a respectful home. Even though he always had the authority, he shared his power with others. Traditional gender roles were still present, but they were often blurred. If grandpa had to cook dinner, he would cook dinner.  He was not good at cooking dinner, but if he had to, he would. And my grandma, if need be, was out there mowing the yard. There was no “the man has to do this, the woman has to do that.” It was more about teamwork and he modeled for me that the father of the household was there to make sure things were fair for everybody. 

The message I got from him was that the male role was to keep everything leveled, promote equality, show strength and provide.  He never drilled anything into my head around “this is how a man HAS to be” other than insisting on honesty, respect and hard work.

With the bright light of my grandfather in mind, my journey to confront the toxic masculinity that permeated my experiences was peppered with examples that arrived through my Early Childhood classes.  I will never forget one of the few males who was taking a class with me. When asked why he was there he said with conviction: “I just want to be the best damn father I can be.” This resonated with me because, aside from aspiring to be the best damn teacher I can be, at some point in my life I want to be a father too. During those classes, I was sure of nothing else but this:  I couldn’t be the best damn father I could be being ME and that made me want to change even more.

“Of the man….”

Aside from being a better reader of society, ECE classes also taught me that becoming the man I wanted to be also meant diving inwards.  I needed to open myself up. Being emotionally intelligent means acknowledging your own emotions and everyone else’s as well. Without practice in early childhood, this becomes harder, particularly for males.   And this is the root of my commitment: The boys that come out of my classroom are going to be able to identify and talk about their emotions.  They will be able to say what they like and what they don’t like… what hurts their feelings. They will be able to regulate those big tough emotions that will come later in life.

As I continue my journey to eliminate toxic masculinity from my life, I intentionally build teaching practices that show the children a male role model that defies the prominent stereotypes that still bombard children’s lives.  As an antidote to toxic masculinity, I am very loving towards the children. I am not afraid to tell them I love them. I give the children the vocabulary they need to access their feelings and to identify the origins of their joy, and their frustrations.   

“The child is…”

Studying the concept of self-regulation brought me to a better understanding about the importance of emotional literacy. Children need to feel that their classroom is a safe place. As a consequence, my first goal as an educator is to help every child feel happy, loved, and seen before they can even think about changing behaviors, learning letters or making friends.  Teaching under COVID has made it even more important that I make a point of not neglecting children’s emotional and physical needs. I have to stay focused on their needs.

Each day I find a way to make every child laugh.  I carefully tend to their individual needs. I know that having a strong bond with their teachers will help them learn.

Learn to love books…like Michael, who at age two learned his alphabet from joyful book readings and songs he shared with me and my co-teachers. We never sat him down to drill him on letters. That would have killed his inner drive. His was a joyful discovery, fueled by his own interest and our gentle support.

Learn to recover from separation and trauma like Maria did, arriving at school scared and tearful, needing to be spoon fed during her first week with us. For her, my co-teachers and I set up invitations to elaborate climbing areas, and I encouraged her to jump into my arms as I slowly backed away cheering: “You can do it…!”  This trust building exercise served us well, strengthened our bond and helped Maria feel safe. Now, a year later, she is one of the most boisterous and energetic kids in the classroom.

Learn to take risks and be brave, like DeShawn, who wanted to climb a three-foot ladder all by himself and yelled from the top, “Space please.”  After refusing my help, he jumped three feet down, put his hands out and braced himself during his powerful landing. In overcoming my own fears and letting him do this, I trusted his competence and I concluded: “Wow. He is learning how to catch himself when he falls.”

“The father of …”

Looking back, I had to learn to catch myself because I didn’t really have anyone consistently there to catch me. The children under my care, like DeShawn, will learn to catch themselves. I honor that. As a young child, I didn’t get that at home, but I always got it at preschool from my wonderful, warm, caring teacher. I was an abused child, a toddler with a broken leg in her classroom, yet she still did everything she could to accommodate me, make me feel welcome and safe and I carry that with me always.

At some point we’re all on our own, our caregivers might no longer be there, and we have to learn to catch ourselves, pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off. We just have to. However, I also want to be the children’s safe base, where children can return to consistently.  I want to be there for them, holding the band-aid if need be.  It’s very important to me to be that person.

“The man…”

As I look around, I see very few males teaching young children. In fact, I recently became aware of an astounding statistic: Only 2.5 percent of teachers working in early childhood classrooms and kindergartens in the US are men.

The reasons for this continue to be rooted in our sexist assumptions and in negative images brought about by toxic masculinity.

There’s an assumption that a male working with young kids must be weird, perverted, or not “manly” enough. I face implicit and explicit biases all the time. For me, it is vital that I be 100 percent visible and transparent with families.

I walk a fine line when working with female colleagues to be friendly but not overly friendly. I’m very cognizant that we exist in a male dominated society, so coming into early childhood education, which has historically been a rare haven for female leaders, I may be perceived as a threat. I work hard to counteract this perception by trying to do my job well and focusing on the children.

Rather than griping a lot about society’s problems I would rather work towards changing our society. Do we want to address the negative impact of toxic masculinity? Let’s get more males in our classrooms. Here are a few suggestions:  Aside from better wages, males might be attracted to the profession if we had access to targeted internship programs, with incentives to stay in the field.  First 5, for instance, has been airing public service ads highlighting the importance of the first 5 years of life.  Could some of those resources be targeted towards ads that highlight the impact men can have in our early learning environments?  How about emphasizing mentoring programs, designed for male teachers?  I myself had the opportunity to benefit from two female mentors, a college professor and an instructional coach.  They helped guide me professionally. They were successful in the field of ECE and I wanted to be successful too. We often talked about how to foster children’s autonomy. How to develop an honest relationship with children.  How not to treat children as cutesy little beings but to work from the assumption that children are competent.

Do we want to address the impact of low emotional IQ and the problems this causes in our society today (such as greed, and lack of empathy)?  Let’s fill our early childhood classrooms with emotionally competent teachers! Addressing these issues early on are more effective than working to rewire ourselves. I say, put money into being proactive not reactive and challenge the status quo. I know this from experience.  From having to rewire myself as a young adult.

If it wasn’t apparent how much heart early childhood teachers put into this profession before the pandemic, it should be apparent now. If it wasn’t apparent how important and needed a strong early foundation is, it should be apparent now. I hope our communities go beyond experiencing the hardships caused by the lack of childcare.  I hope there is a growing understanding that we’re not just placating children eight hours a day. We are filling the void that exists when children leave their families.  We are trained to work with emotions, and if it was not apparent before, it should be crystal clear now: People need a good emotional IQ to get through times like these. I have had to step into multiple roles, both personally and professionally, that are only possible because of my ECE training.

Concluding thoughts

The K-12 system is draining good teachers from ECE, who are attracted by better wages and retirement plans.  Even though I see how that is tragic for young children losing qualified teachers, I sometimes feel tempted to leave early childhood classrooms as well. I don’t know if I can stay in this field now that I’m in my 30s. To do so, I’d need to be earning wages comparable to k-12 public education teachers.  I need a retirement plan. I need student loan forgiveness.

But for now, I am happy I had a chance to be immersed in the ideas that are the foundation of good early childhood programs. I am happy to explore how these ideas changed my life and have the potential to change the course of the lives of the children in my care.  I continue to make sense of Woodworth’s words…  The Child is Father of the Man by imagining what I would tell my young hurt self in plain English:  “Hey Brian, there will be a time when you get to make your own choices, enjoy the good now and don’t be jaded. Try to have fun. Preserve your own childhood. Things will get better because you matter.” And, I hope those words will continue to be how my daily actions with the children will scream loud and clear: you matter.

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