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November 13, 2013As a 29-year-old man who works with very small children, I stand out.

“You teach preschool?” people say when I tell them what I do for a living. They’re often as incredulous as if I’d told them I was a private investigator. When I visit my hometown of Buffalo, New York, my grandfather still asks, hopefully, if I might consider going into school administration one day: “Wouldn’t you like to be a school principal?”

I can tell that my granddad, a successful labor lawyer who founded his own firm, doesn’t consider my job quite manly enough. “Not really, Grandpa,” I say. “I like being in a classroom and working directly with the students.”

As for my students’ parents, I get along perfectly well with most of them. It helps that their kids love me and I’m enthusiastic about my job. But the truth is, relative to my women colleagues, I’m under heightened scrutiny. Men who want to work with children are still seen as unnatural, even slightly suspect. No one notices when women hug kids, but alarm bells go off when we see a man with an arm around a child who isn’t his. This is why I’m very firm with my students about physical boundaries. It’s sad but often necessary in the course of my day to tell a three-year-old to stop trying to hug me.

You’d think that being a young, straight guy who works with kids would at least have worked to my advantage with the ladies, back in my single days. But that was never quite the case. Some women thought it was sweet that I work with kids, and considered it a sign that I’d be a good father someday. But in the end, many of them were also put off by my not-exactly-commanding salary. (I’m thrilled to report that I married a wonderful woman in July—a social worker who respects what I do.)         

So why do I persist in doing a job that earns me relatively little in the way of respect, and even less in the way of money? Because I love kids, and I think that they benefit from having role models of all stripes. It’s good for children to see that women and men alike can go to work and read stories and prepare lunches. It’s important that they realize as early as possible that a person’s role in life doesn’t have to be determined by his or her gender.

Most of all, I want to help create a society that’s as open as a young child’s mind. Little kids believe anything is possible, until we tell them otherwise. I’d like to help them hold onto that belief.