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My experience as a male early childhood educator [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we are honored to have TJ Borile, RECE join us to discuss his journey as a male entering the early childhood education field. TJ has been an educator for 8 years. Prior to that, in the corporate world, he felt like he was working with a group of adults acting similarly to children, managing a lot of interpersonal issues and because of this, he decided to make a career change to education. He wanted to make an impact and ensure that children grow up feeling, confident, healthy, and happy. The second he joined the field, he knew he had made the right decision.

As soon as he started college, everyone kept saying how nice it was to have a male presence. He always asked why and no one could articulate it. Over time he figured out the benefit is that there are families that do not have a male presence in their lives and it became apparent early on how that was desired by children. That is a huge benefit and reason as to why there should be more males in this field. As well, without even knowing it, his female room partners were modeling how to positively interact with different genders and letting children see this point of view.

Entering the field, TJ was aware of the stigma he would be attached to. He developed strategies so that it does not become an issue. Before parents had a chance to question it, he was counter-acting it by trying to build a relationship with them.

If a child approached me for a hug, there was always a beat of ‘is this okay’, ‘is anyone watching’, ‘how do I make sure this does not get a negative perception’? It got a bit exhausting.

TJ’s point of view as an educator stems from social-emotional growth and health. Before children can learn how to count or do science experiments, they need to have a level of confidence and feel like they are cared for.

TJ’s recommended resources

Embrace Race

Podcast episode transcript

T.J. BORILE:

I feel like, without the foundation of healthy socio-emotional growth, before children can learn how to count or do fractions or do science experiments, I feel like they need to have a level of confidence and feel like they’ve been cared for. So, that’s the part that really excites me.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

T.J., welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

BORILE:

Thank you, I’m looking forward to it. Thanks for inviting me!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, glad to have you. For our listeners today, we have with us T.J. Borile. He is a registered early-childhood educator right here with us in Toronto, in Canada. And we’re looking forward to chatting with T.J. about his experience as a mal, and early-childhood educator, which is unfortunately not that common. So, T.J., let’s start off learning a bit about you and how and why you chose to become an early-childhood educator.

BORILE:

Yes. So, I am fairly new to the sector. A lot of your previous podcast guests I noticed have been in the sector for a lot of time. I entered it only about seven or eight years ago. Prior to doing this, I was doing some corporate training for a company here in Canada and doing regional management. And the short story is, I felt like I was working with a group of adults acting like children. And so one day I just said to myself, “Let’s take it back to the basics and work with children instead.” So, that’s the short story.

And the longer version is that, as I was working with these – and I don’t mean to disparage the people I work with, they’re all very wonderful people – but I did notice that a lot of managing them involved, as opposed to managing them professionally, it involved managing them interpersonally so their conflicts, their dating life, their finances, it got really a lot more in-depth that I intended to do. And I’ll say that maybe that was my error because I could have set better boundaries as a manager, etc.

But one thing that turned the tide for me and to kind of turned on the light bulb was that I read something that, in a heated conversation or in a state of conflict, try speaking to other people as you would speaking to a child. And I tried that and it worked wonders. So, that kind of turned the tides. And I thought, “Okay, well, if there’s a group of people here who have to be spoken to like children in order to get them to work productively and have better relationships with one another, something got lost as these people grew up.” As we grew up, because I include myself. And people have a tough time with just being a human being these days.

And so I kind of thought, “Okay, well, if there’s a way that I can circumvent this process for future generations, maybe that’s something I should look into doing. I’m doing it anyway and maybe I can do it in a more impactful scale with a larger focus on help ensuring that children, people grow up feeling confident and healthy and happy and kind. And maybe we won’t be in the situation where you’re dealing with adults with unresolved issues and having it manifest in various ways.”

So, that’s kind of where the trajectory took me. And then my husband suggested wanting to look into working with children. And then so I went back to school and then that’s what I did. And I haven’t looked back since. So, as soon as I started, it felt like the right thing to do, which I think is a huge indication of your purpose in life and what you’re meant to do in this world. It just felt like the right thing to do upon starting.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

That’s actually super interesting because I know we talk a lot on the Podcast about when it comes to children’s learning and development in relationships, it all starts with the adults and the educators that they’re with and the other adults in their life. And we’re often drawing parallels on the Preschool Podcast about, “Hey, this is great for children, but adults could really benefit from these things, as well.” So, it’s so interesting that you kind of made that reflection and decided to join the world of early-childhood education.

So, having kind of gone that route, do you feel like some of your interactions and relationships with adults has changed? Or you have a different perception of that, now that you’ve spent a few years in early-childhood education?

BORILE:

Yeah, it’s funny that you bring that up, as well, because I guess in my head I thought that working with children and adults who work with children would somehow miraculously solve all my professional problems. But the adults I work with also suffer from the inability to express themselves emotionally with things rooted from early childhood. So, it’s something that I feel like we’re all faced with. And thankfully, I’m in a place where me, myself and my counterparts have a recognition for that. And so we continually talk to each other as if we would talk to the children, which I think is lovely. And it has translated to how I speak to my parents and how I speak to my partner.

I think a large piece of it is compassion because as a preschool teacher, you have to have a large capacity to be a compassionate individual because you are taking care of children who don’t know how to, who don’t have a means to kind of express themselves or be their full human cells. So, I approach everything with a level of compassion. And I think that’s translated to the adults in my life, as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, cool, very cool. And so because this is like a more uncommon path from being in one field for some time and then deciding to go to school and get into early-childhood education, what did some folks in your life say about that? Whether that’s peers or colleagues or friends, what was the reaction from folks in your life?

BORILE:

It was a mixed bag, certainly. I think on a personal and human level, people thought it made sense because I guess I have a caring disposition; I’m a nurturing individual; I have a lot of empathy. So, I feel like, on that level, it made sense. But professionally, a lot of people, they had questions. I’d be taking a significant pay cut. I was on a professional trajectory that mirrored what we’re kind of meant to do in life. And so people were confused as to why I was kind of, in their words, not mine, taking a step back.

So, a lot of the pushback came from that, as opposed to something more personal. I remember my boss at the time, because the catalyst for me leaving the industry I was in was when I got a promotion and I thought, “I can’t do this anymore. Like, wow, this is wow.” And so my boss was definitely trying to get me to stay and spoke of it in a lot of more financial and more financial points of view and more, I guess, professional points of view.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s interesting. I’m not surprised to hear you were taking a pay cut by coming into early-childhood education. Certainly that’s not why most of the folks I speak with join the field. So, kudos to you for making the jump. So, now let’s transition to your life as an early-childhood educator. Does it come up, like with parents, with children, that you’re a male and well over 90% of folks in the field are female?

BORILE:

Yeah, it comes up externally and probably some sort of internal processing on their part, as well. Even throughout college, when I went back to school, everyone kept saying, “It’s so nice to have a male presence. It’s so nice to have a male voice.” I think someone said to me, “It’s nice to have a deeper voice in the classroom.” And I was always curious as to why. I thought, “Why is it such a nice thing?” Not for my own egotistical analysis, I was just curious because it’s nice to hear these things, but let’s figure out why so then maybe we can attract more males into the sector, make it a desirable, professional path for them.

But it was interesting to me how no one could really articulate why. Everyone just kept saying, spoke very intangibly about it: “It’s just so nice to have you around. It’s just so nice to hear their voices.” It wasn’t till later on till I figured out for myself that the benefits of having males in the classroom is there are families who don’t have a male presence in their lives. And it became apparent early on how much that was desired by the children because of how they interacted with me and how they approached me.

A common ground that I found when the children approached me with such vigorous energy is that they didn’t have male figures in their lives. So, I thought that’s a huge benefit as to why there should be more males into the sector. Also, another instance I can remember is when the light bulb went off in my head. So, my room partners are mostly female. And without even knowing it, you’re modeling a way for genders to interact in a healthy way. Just because I learned that there are some children in the classroom with a history of abuse in their families. So I thought, “We’re doing great things here. Just by both of us interacting of different genders, interacting in a way that’s productive and healthy and kind, we’re modeling another point of view for these children to see. So, I thought that was a huge benefit.

And with regard to parents’ reaction, I think entering the field, I was aware of the stigma that would be attached with it. And so I developed many strategies to counteract that so that it doesn’t become an issue. So, before parents even had a chance to think, “What is this male person, this male-presenting person doing in my child’s classroom?” I was already counteracting that by building relationships with them.

I would approach them probably so annoyingly in my early years, in my first couple, because I just really wanted to to let them know that, “I’m aware of the stigma, I’m aware of the history of harm that some males have caused children. I need you to know that I am not that person. And we’re going to figure that out if we have a healthy relationship between ourselves.”

So, I was very adamant in forming relationships with the parents, asking about their jobs, learning their names, learning their hobbies. And it was nice that everyone kind of came from the same neighborhood. So, we already had that common ground. So, I definitely utilized that. So yeah, thankfully, it hasn’t been an issue from my personal experience. But I do know that for some of my peers, there have been issues with them changing diapers or just people who with trepidation when it comes to having a male in the classroom.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s interesting, though, and a great approach, where you realize the stigma existed in so you really leaned into the relationships, is what it sounds like, to just really make sure that the parents could get to know you as quickly and as deeply as possible.

BORILE:

Yeah, I will say it was exhausting to a certain degree because, regardless of the relationship they built with the parents, there’s still I guess an awareness of it. So, I remember if a child would approach me for a hug or something a bit more caring and nurturing, there is always that… you take a bit of a beat to go, “Wait a minute, is this going to be okay? Is anyone watching me? How do I do this so that it doesn’t result in any sort of negative perception,” especially because you’ve built such a strong relationship with the parents already.

So, while I’m glad that I think it was to my benefit to have developed that strategy, to continually do it got a bit exhausting. You want a certain bit of freedom as you work and as you play with the children. But I think the overt awareness of it, it did end up draining me for a while.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yea, I could see how that could be draining. And challenging because, like you said, you just kind of want to be yourself. And sometimes part of caring is you’re obviously working very close physically with children in various ways. And so yeah, that’s an interesting point of view, coming from somebody who has gone through that. Do you find that you have built relationships or proactively reached out or had other folks reach out to you who are males in early-childhood education, in the area or otherwise?

BORILE:

Yes. So, just very recently, actually, there was a University of Guelph study. There is a professor there that was doing, I think, a paper on males in the early-childhood field. And so that was a wonderful opportunity to kind of get some people together, to share some experiences and points of view and just kind of give each other some support. It was virtually done. It was males from all across, I think, Canada. But it was just nice to be in community with folks who faced different challenges. On an anecdotal level, I think there was the general sense of a level of understanding among us, regardless of what we faced. So yes, that’s been really nice.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. What’s exciting you most about remote education right now? What’s on your mind? What are you learning about? What are you having fun with when it comes to what you’re doing in early ed [childhood education]?

BORILE:

Great question. So, my point of view as an educator stems from socio-emotional growth and health of children. That’s why I love the preschool environment and the preschool age group because I feel like, without the foundation of healthy socio-emotional growth, before children learn how to count or do fractions or do science experiments, I feel like they need to have a level of confidence and feel like they’ve been cared for. So, that’s the part that really excites me.

More specifically, in some of the centers I’ve worked, because of the state of the world, there’s been a lot of conversation about – more open conversation, I will say – about race and gender and gender expression. And a lot of my counterparts, I guess, have expressed discomfort in talking about this topic in the preschool environment. Whereas I think it’s great, I think it’s fantastic. My point of view is that it’s a part of the children’s world so it should be discussed and taken care of. And so that’s what’s exciting.

I know that I have experienced pushback, certainly. But even the pushback, I’m just happy that it’s in conversation. Because if someone expresses pushback, it’s an opportunity to talk about it and to articulate why it’s important and to hopefully, if not change someone’s mind, at least find some middle ground so that we are doing these children a service. They are going to be citizens of the world and we have to expose them to what that might mean or what they’ll be exposed to.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and if you’re advocating for progressive change there’s always going to be some level of pushback and challenge. But that’s part of the process. And certainly moving things in the right direction, in terms of having those open conversations, is important. So, kudos for you for taking that on. And in certainly we’ve talked a lot about socio-emotional development on the Preschool Podcast. And for all the things that are happening, what I find so fascinating is I feel like we’re still really just scratching the surface of understanding that and what’s possible there in those early years.

BORILE:

Absolutely. I think it’s because the system that we were raised in is just so prevalent and so prominent. So, it’s hard to make that shift. And I had to learn pretty quickly that it’s not something that’s going to change, maybe not even in my lifetime. But again, it’s about those small pushes and small nudges to a direction that I think is favorable for a large part of the population.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, awesome. T.J., can you share any professional development resources with our audience that you think are worth them checking out?

BORILE:

One of my favorite resources is, it’s a website and a YouTube channel called Embrace Race. It’s a channel that is led by a multiracial family. And they about how to approach and include race in preschool classrooms and development. But what I like about it is that there’s a female and a male presenting host. And they really touch into the gentleness that I think male educators have the capacity for.

And it’s a gender issue that isn’t really addressed. So, as a male educator, you tend to get relegated to doing sports and outdoor activities and all of those things. But we’re in this field for a reason. And there is a softness and a gentleness that I feel like we should be able to explore and have the capacity for and a nurturing disposition to share with the children.

And because on the website, because it’s a mom and dad, they do have the dynamic. And you can see how the dad and any male figures they might have as a guest really showcase that caring, nurturing disposition without even really saying it. So, that’s one of the reasons why I really enjoy that YouTube channel / website.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Very cool, thanks for sharing that. And T.J., if our listeners would like to get in touch with you or learn more about what you’re up to, where can they go to get in touch with you?

BORILE:

Yeah, so I have an Instagram account called @StorytimeWithTheGoobers. IIt’s where, in the past, I’ve read stories. It was during the pandemic. So, with the fact that children were not in classrooms, I just kind of read stories online so that people could enjoy some of that. Then it became a place to have some discourse about early childhood development in general.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wonderful. Well, there you have it. T.J., thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today. Great to learn a little bit more about you and look forward to staying in touch with you. And thanks again for joining us on the Preschool Podcast!

BORILE:

Thank you, Ron. I appreciate it!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

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