Teaching ABCs With XY Chromosomes

Ruben Raskin is listening intently to a story about a jet pack. Cupping his chin in his hand, he overflows a child-sized chair, knees splayed.

“So when you don’t wear the jet pack,” he says, brow furrowed, “no one wears the jet pack?”

Raskin is a preschool teacher at the TCC Stata Childcare Center at MIT, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he is a statistical anomaly: of all American early childhood educators, just 3.2 percent are men.

“Ruben is often the only one in the room,” says Kyle Eichner, a former classmate at Shady Hill School, where Raskin earned his teaching certification last year.

With a shock of red hair and sleeves pushed up to expose veiny forearms, Raskin takes up sixty percent of the toddler-sized tables where his students perch. Even kneeling with his feet tucked balletically beneath him, Raskin is permanently bowed to reach his students’ level.

“When I told my parents, ‘Surprise, I’m going to be a preschool teacher!’ I had to add, you know, ‘I’ll be getting my OBGYN certification soon!’” Raskin jokes. “But no horror stories as a man so far.”

According to Ashley Brennan, Raskin’s co-teacher at TCC Stata, it is Raskin’s temperament, not his gender, that makes him stand out in the classroom.

“I’m pretty sure Ruben entertains me as much as the kids,” says Brennan.

Take morning circle. Singing good morning to a dozen 3- and 4-year-olds by name, Raskin gets to an absent student and erupts into a 1980s style ballad. “We miss you!” he wails, throwing his head back and drawing out the words. Students yip alongside him like a pack of wolf cubs.

Raskin is just as enthusiastic one-on-one. “So muscular!” he tells a boy who arrives in a superhero costume. A girl with a perky blonde ponytail chooses watercolors over crayons: “Bold choice!” says Raskin.

When a boy with curly black hair fingers the rip in Raskin’s pant-knee, the conversation turns philosophical.

“Sometimes that happens,” says Raskin. “I have holes in my pants. Do you have holes anywhere? What about your face?”

The boy looks confused until Raskin opens his mouth wide, pointing with an index finger. Brightening, the little boy points to his nostrils.

“We have holes all over!” says Raskin. “Yay holes! Up top! Boom. High five.”

For all his antics, Raskin is less Calvin than he is Hobbes. He is patient and sanguine, referring to his students as ‘friends,’ and using the kind of language that one would expect to hear on a therapist’s couch.

When a girl with a red headband announces that she’s feeling shy, Raskin looks her in the eye and says, “We respect your shyness.” Raskin steers other children away from a girl on a pillow in the corner, saying, “Let’s give her some space. It looks like she needs a moment, friends.”

“It’s about the way Ruben talks to the kids,” says Brennan, who has worked at TCC Stata for five years. “We work a lot on emotional intelligence, and he really models that language for the students.”

Raskin’s sensibility seems made for early childhood, but it was only by happenstance that he stumbled into the field.

“I was pretty unhappy at college, and I thought volunteering at a preschool would be an endorphin boost,” says Raskin. “Kids are fun.”

Raskin’s discovery that he had a knack for teaching, however, led him to appreciate the social-emotional development that children do in their early years.

“I’m drawn to the age because of the work you do to help kids become accepting of people’s differences,” says Raskin.

Raskin first got his start at a Jumpstart preschool, where he worked with students from a low-income background on literacy intervention. After graduating from Emerson College, he transitioned to working full time with elementary schoolers from the same background as the preschoolers he had met at Jumpstart.

“Now I work with privileged students, so I look at this as a chance to make them into people who can do good, not spoiled tycoons,” says Raskin. He laughs. “Although I guess by definition 4-year-olds can be pretty tycoonish!”

Students’ high-handed behavior doesn’t seem to phase Raskin, however. Making the rounds during morning snack, a little boy in a yellow pullover marches out of the bathroom and thrusts his hand under Raskin’s nose.

“I don’t need to smell your hand; I trust you used soap,” Raskin says. He pauses as the little boy next to him catches his eye.

“Did you just put cream cheese on your orange?” asks Raskin. The boy looks at him blankly. Raskin nods. “I wonder how that would taste.”

“He gives kids the kind of freedom they need,” says Brennan.

Eichner says Raskin made an impression on her because of his ability to blend enthusiasm with the kind of attention to detail necessary for early childhood education.

“I don’t really understand how he does it — to have not just a Plan B, but a Plan C, D, E, X, Y, Z,” Eichner says. “And it’s so rare for men to be in education at all, much less lower grades.”

Raskin is used to inquiries about his gender, but says it has impacted his teaching less than even he expected.

The kids don’t really care: to them, you’re just another teacher,” says Raskin. “They’re like, ’The butt wiper’s here — just getting my butt wiped,’” he laughs.

Raskin’s modesty aside, it’s clear that students’ attachment to Raskin is personal. Mid-morning, a little girl in a floral skirt chirps that the collage she has been working on is a house for Raskin. Inspired, her peers thrust their own “Ruben houses” at him.

“So many houses!” says Raskin. “What will I tell the mailman?”

Raskin’s sense of humor doesn’t always land with his students, but he sees a day when everyone had fun — kids and adults — as a victory.

“When I was in high school I was into theater,” says Raskin. “Here I find my entire day is one eight hour performance and improvisation.”