Dads in the classroom (published FuturemindS, August 2005)

With fewer male teachers than ever before, dads are looking to even up the gender imbalance by going back to school. Fathers are signing up for canteen duty and helping out with lessons to meet the demand for masculine role models, particularly for male students.

Richard Fletcher of the University of Newcastle's Men and Boys program champions the trend which he feels could lead to better mental health, less criminality and increased school attendance among boys.

While male athletes, actors, and musicians are visible role models in the community, Mr Fletcher's research indicates that an emotional relationship is needed for the role model to be effective.

"I know of a school that raised money to get one of the Broncos [rugby league] players to the school to be a role model for the boys, but when they actually asked the boys about their role models, most said their father," Mr Fletcher explained.

"If the fathers are involved they [boys] have better academic outcomes and are more interested in other activities that happen at the school," he said. "The sort of involvement we are working to achieve is where they interact with children in a way that is a part of the core business of the school."

"If the dads work in the tuckshop and help with the sports carnival or come in to run an activity at lunchtime that [also] helps."

Female students also benefit from the initiatives. They enjoy the male influence in the learning environment and more settled classrooms due to improvements in the behaviour and attitudes of their male counterparts.

Mr Fletcher has also pioneered the Fathers and Schools Together (FAST) program adopted by many schools in Newcastle and the Hunter region. The scheme encourages fathers to participate in the school's literacy projects and assist with homework.

"When you see kids running to the library to meet their dads who've come to the school, you know how important it is to them," said school principal Stephen Palmer. His school, Seaham Public, has embraced the initiative with events such as Fathers' Fun Friday. The students regularly enjoy a range of activities, including obstacle courses, soccer and water balloon games, with their fathers and grandfathers.

"On our last Fathers' Fun Friday, 120 dads and granddads turned up in the afternoon - out of 160 families. That's a mighty roll-up."

"The program has been an eye opener: I used to know only the mums, now we are getting to know the dads. And we have tried very hard to make them feel welcome, to break the ice and over time set up more structured activities so that fathers not only get through the school gate but into our classrooms and have greater involvement with their children's education."

Seaham's male and female students are also excited by the program.

"With my Dad, it's more like I'm getting more time with him," said seven-year-old Lachlan Hogno. "He works shiftwork and he came for Fathers' Fun Friday, literacy day and Mothers' Day and talked about being in the fire brigade."

"It gives fathers a chance to get to know the school better and spend more time with us kids," agreed eleven-year-old Sallyanne Henderson.

Roger Know, teacher and program leader, explained "We want more fathers involved in all aspects of children's education - including the literacy project we have initiated here - as we believe that it will lead to more positive attitudes towards education on the part of the children if both mothers and fathers are involved."

The Benevolent Society, along with Schools as Community Centres, has launched the I Spy project, another New South Wales initiative designed to get more fathers into the classroom.

"Dads are trying to find their way into this new culture and schools can assist by having things on that are time-friendly for dads and specifically target dads or father figures," said Robert Boyle, men's health worker for The Benevolent Society.

As part of the scheme year two students on New South Wales will be given disposable cameras to capture images of their father, or another important male role model. These photos and accompanying short stories will be displayed at each school, libraries and shopping centres.

St Augustine's School in Maryborough, Victoria received a Teaching Initiative grant last year to help implement their Real Men Read program. Fathers and children attend information sessions with authors and guest speakers, designed to educate them about reading. Through the initiative, the students and their fathers are exposed to a variety of books, literacy and reading styles.

The scheme aims to encourage fathers to talk to their children about books, help fathers and children read together, and foster a love of reading in parents and children. Similar programs have been implemented in schools across Australia, including East Narrogin Primary in Western Australia and St Columba's Primary in Queensland.

Our Lady Help of Christians School in Epping, a suburb of Sydney, has actively supported men's involvement in children's education for the last two years through their Dads in the Classroom project.

More than 30 fathers each week take time off from work to participate in reading groups, science and technology projects, and lessons in computers and maths.

The number of male helpers swelled to 70 in June when fathers and grandfathers participated in the school's Dads in the Classroom Week. The men helped the school's students make a communication device, a possum house and butter.

"Boys need to do something physical, hands-on - and the girls enjoy it too," said builder Joe Daniels, who joined his three sons at school.

"It's a challenge fitting in the time, but for an hour a morning once a quarter it's not that hard," said Derek Bronk who has two boys at the school.

It seems that even without formal programs, more dads are becoming active participants in their children's schooling. Kris Jaksic, assistant principal at Drummoyne Public School, said while more mothers assist around the school, she has recently noticed more fathers becoming involved.

"In the last five years, I've seen a lot more fathers coming to parent-teacher interviews. It's nice to have fathers in the classroom. It shows that helping out at school is not just a 'mother' thing."

"It's very satisfying to do fundraising and other activities," enthused Allan Scott. The P&C president and stay-at-home dad works regular shifts at the Drummoyne Public School canteen, and also helps organise trivia nights, chocolate drives and coffee mornings. "I didn't have time to help out when my sons were younger. Now it's time to put back in."

Michael Currey, another Sydney father, juggles volunteer time at school with his four-day working week. "My daughter loves seeing me at school," he told The Sun-Herald. "She's very proud. You see a different side of your kids at school; how they interact with other kids. It's good."

Mr Fletcher, in his recent paper 'Male role models: emotional regulation, identity scaffolding and father's involvement in schools' outlined five key questions to be answered when selecting role models for male students.

  • Are they male?
  • Can they model appropriate emotional reactions to stress, risk and excitement?
  • Will they give the boys 'enough rope'?
  • Will they be able to communicate what they like (admire, value, recognise) in the boy?
  • Will the boy see the role model as credible?

"Women are fine teachers of boys, that's not the issue," assured Deborah Hartman, of the University of Newcastle's Boys in Schools program. "But the issue is if a boy goes through his whole school career and doesn't see a man in that situation, what is that telling him about men and learning? What is that teaching him about how he, as a man, should approach learning? It's the hidden curriculum."

The importance of male figures in schools for girls too should also not be underestimated. Students of both genders have responded positively to an increased male presence in the classroom and extra-curricula school activities. In light of these early results, Mr Fletcher urges further study on the impact of male role models on boys and the wider school community.


'Helping fathers in a class of their own', Sydney Morning Herald, 11 March 2004
'Fathers & Schools Together in Newcastle', NSW Commission for Children and Young People, Spring 2004
'Dads outshine stars as role models', The Australian, 5 April 2005
'Conference to discuss educational needs of boys', 7:30 Report transcript, 5 April 2005
'Not bad Dad, now let's see you to algebra', Sydney Morning Herald, 9 June 2005
'Hey dad, I spy more time to be with you', Central Coast Express-Advocate, 15 June 2005
'Mums make room as dad's army reports for school duty', The Sun-Herald, 3 July 2005

(c) 2006 Lauren Katulka