Name: Jamel C Campbell
Location: Lewisham, south London
Current position: Freelance early years teacher and consultant
Have you always wanted to work in early years? What was your route in?
I was raised in Lewisham. My uncle ran his own youth club there, and one day I was hanging around with my friends and he said why don’t you do youth work? He advised me to study health and social care. As part of that course I had to do four placements – at an after-school club, in a nursing home, at a youth club and in a nursery – and that’s when my passion began. The way the children responded to me. There were no other males there but the way the children and the parents responded and interacted got me hooked.
What’s the best thing about the job?
The best thing is seeing the children thrive. When you have a child that needs support with fine motor skills, say, they can’t feed themselves or put their shoes on. And you provide the activities and the environment so you see that child develop step by step. I might be providing it naturally but then you step back and look at the notes and you can see the development over time. It’s so rewarding.
As a freelance at the moment I love the process of going in somewhere, no-one knowing me and you can see them wondering what’s he doing, how’s he going to be. But I know how to work with children, I enjoy it. So I get to prove myself to them. And I feel like I’m making a difference.
And what are the drawbacks?
Definitely the pay. You don’t go into this to get rich.
Have you had support from other men in early years? Would it be easier for you if there were more men in this field?
When I started with Bright Horizons I was the only male in that particular room. In the setting they had one other male but not long after that there were five males in that setting. I’ve encouraged male family members to join the profession, my brother joined one of the big nursery groups I worked for. We are in the minority and the gender thing is there – so you will get prejudice, but there are positive as well as negative stereotypes to deal with.
Do you feel pressure as one of few men working in the sector?
I don’t feel pressure, because I’ve got one of those personalities, I can work in any environment whether that’s deprived areas or more well-off areas. So let’s scrap the whole gender thing and talk about good practice. If you’re a good teacher you can go anywhere.
What reaction have you had from colleagues?
I sometimes get a bit of surprise from other staff but the best feedback is when they say ‘you really understand the children’. And I do. I’ve gained so much experience during my journey in the early years. I’ve got the statutory early years qualifications and I’ve got an autism awareness qualification. I’ve studied the science and looked into the biology so I can understand things like neural pathways.
I’m an outlandish, crazy character. I encourage calculated risk and some people are a bit taken aback by that but when you can break it down and explain why you are doing the things you’re doing people respond well to that.
What about from the children?
The best reaction is when they ask ‘Are you coming back? Are you here to stay?’
And from their parents?
Some of the female staff are a little shy when dealing with dads who come to collect their kids from nursery, and some of the dads go a bit shy when interacting with female staff. But I’ve noticed a difference when they interact with me, the dads that usually hang around the door will come in and we might have a lengthy conversation about something silly like football for example. That gets them through the door and feeling comfortable in a nursery setting.
As a new dad you might be full of nerves and you go into a place that is full of females, you may feel they are judging you – that’s the unspoken elephant in the room. That’s different when there’s a man there. Also a lot of mums that are single parents respond well to me because I’m providing that male interaction that they might not be getting elsewhere. I get a lot of them saying ‘thank you’ and it’s good to have a male teacher in the nursery.
Have you faced any further issues because of your ethnicity?
I have to prove myself as a black man. I’m six feet tall, I’ve got a gold tooth, people are surprised that someone like me would work in early years. But then they hear me talk and I knock down every wall of prejudice there is.
I’ve also had to prove myself as a black man who isn’t feminine, there’s a stigma that all men who care are feminine. I’ve had to overcome that.
And I’ve faced a bit of discrimination. I got a warning for speaking patois with one of the chefs at one nursery, I was told that wasn’t setting a good enough example as I was part of the management team.
What would you say to any man thinking about a career in early years?
We have a cosmopolitan clientele, parents are men and women, kids interact with men and women in their lives, we need to have a cosmopolitan workforce in early years.
Men can be nurturing too. If we got more men into early years I really do believe that a lot of the crimes, a lot of the problems in our society caused by the knock on effect of toxic masculinity and men not being in children’s lives could be alleviated. If you come from where I do you see, a certain fraction of men doing crime and going to prison and you see a lot of children with strong male figures in their lives but you can be a role model to many who have none. I feel proud when I talk about the work I do.
Tell us about your children’s books. Has working in early years helped with creating them?
I’ve got two manuscripts ready to publish. One is called Fly on the Wall and it’s about travelling, it’s inspired by my experience when I was young watching the planes going overhead and thinking about where they’ve been and where they’re going. The second is called My Teacher and it’s about “a child talking about their teacher at nursery who happens to be a man. My experiences as a man working in early years have showed me how important this book is.