Scholastic Administrator

Teacher Man
Students need them. Schools need them. More than ever, their presence is crucial. So where have all the good men gone?

By Matt Bolch

At Smiths Station Elementary, in eastern Alabama, teachers call it the “man hall”: three clustered classrooms that house the school’s only male teachers. Despite the significant need for male role models in this rural area near the massive Fort Benning U.S. Army base, the “man hall” offers only 60 slots for students—boys and girls whom administrators deem more in need of extra direction. Teachers Jon McGowan, Dennis Jones, and Todd Seeley provide that direction, dispensing attention, advice, and affection along with curriculum instruction to their third-grade charges. But it is as role models that they are invaluable.

From an academic perspective, there’s no hard evidence that a balance of genders in the teaching profession is necessary. But many educators see significant benefits for students. “It’s extremely important for modeling, particularly in the minority community,” says Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association (NEA).

The decline in the percentage of male teachers in the Smiths Station district—as well as nationwide—has been felt keenly, particularly at a time when the overall school performance of boys is on the wane. In 1980, about 17 percent of elementary school teachers were male, compared with 14.2 percent of men in today’s elementary classrooms, according to the NEA. Other sources report a rate as low as nine percent. Although more men can be found in secondary schools, the NEA says the number of men has dropped from slightly more than 50 percent in 1980 to less than 40 percent today. Minority males are even more scarce: Only 2.4 percent of K–12 teachers are African-American men.

According to Anthony Whittington, a 2004 Milken National Educator in Prince George’s County (MD), “You’re lucky to find two male teachers in the building, and maybe one of them is African-American.” Whittington entered the profession because of his passion for teaching, eventually becoming a regional instructional specialist for 10 schools, including eight elementary. It’s frustrating that more men don’t enter the field, he says, because men and women bring different but complementary approaches to classes.

Whittington also believes that a lack of men to emulate contributes to some boys’ learning problems. “Many boys don’t have real-life role models,” he says. “They watch TV and see athletes and entertainers, which isn’t real life.”

Now that girls are outpacing boys in the classroom, a stigma has developed that suggests academic success is “for girls.” Male role models help dispel that myth, says Whittington.

What’s behind the death of male teachers in K–12 education? According to Steve Peha, president of Teaching That Makes Sense Inc., based in Carrboro, North Carolina, “Most people will just go back to the old chestnut of low teacher pay and men having to be breadwinners in a family.”

Although that argument rings true, Peha says other factors are more important. Many male teachers wind up in administrative positions for the upward mobility. Others experience loneliness at elementary schools where they may be the only male teacher, or feel threatened in a society where parents are liable to bring lawsuits related to sexual misconduct.

“I’ve had plenty of principals admit to me in private that they just don’t want to deal with men in the primary grades at all,” Peha says. “It’s not prejudice, it’s politics. They know that women in those positions will be more readily accepted by parents.”

Some believe this attitude is proof that the perception around elementary school teachers needs a fundamental overhaul. “At the elementary school level, there’s something about the male ego and venturing into what’s considered a women’s world,” says Terry Steiner, a fifth-grade teacher at Dieringer Heights Elementary School in Lake Tapps, Washington.

The resistance to the very idea of male elementary teachers says a lot about society’s opinion of the profession. “The public perception of teachers has diminished considerably, from one that was respected to one just slightly above the role of child care,” says Stephen Best, a researcher at the Center for Highly Interactive Classrooms, Curricula and Computing in Education, a group of educators, computer scientists, psychologists, scientists, and learning specialists at the University of Michigan’s School of Education. The group develops curriculum improvements.

“We need to draw people who see teaching as a career,” he says. “We’re not bringing in the people who study math and science in college. They don’t want to be teachers.”

Improving the perception of an elementary school teacher is key to enacting the kind of changes in education that politicians and parents demand. It’s also essential for making teaching an attractive career choice for men who are under intense pressure to have meaningful jobs.

Unfair attitudes toward teachers are also seen in high schools. “Unless there is a change in the quality of what it means to be a teacher, only doggedness and persistence of mission will keep you in teaching,” says Marie Hardenbrook, director of secondary education at Peabody College, part of Vanderbilt University, in Nashville. “Administrative support and the quality of one’s work life are critical to keeping teachers on the job,” she notes. “Without respect from superiors and the community, it’s even harder for men to justify a career in teaching.”

The need for all teachers, not just men, to garner the respect that the profession deserves makes the quest for male teachers even more crucial for districts. Within this decade, as a large cohort of teachers reach retirement age, U.S. schools will need to hire more than 2 million new teachers to serve a growing student population. Add to this concern the fact that 40 percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years, and that in general women are less and less compelled to become teachers.

“There was a time when women tended to go into teaching because they didn’t have other options,” says Edward Liu, a researcher with Harvard University’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, a multi-year study of new and intermediate- level teachers geared toward improving teacher recruiting and retention. “Women no longer feel that being in a classroom for 30 years is one of only a few possible career options.”

Enter the male teachers—who are more needed than ever.

With fewer female college graduates considering teaching right out of school, the landscape of teaching candidates is changing. More and more are entering the field after spending a significant number of years in the private sector. They move to teaching in the hopes of finding deeper meaning in their work. It’s a favorite way for men to enter the field, says Hardenbrook.

The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers found that from 2001 to 2003, 33 percent to 47 percent of new teachers were entering at mid-career. Their average age was between 35 and 38 years old, and they’d spent a substantial period in another line of work.    

“If you have a third to half of your teachers entering the profession this way, that really changes the opposition of the teaching force; it changes the way the schools are organized,” says Professor Susan Moore Johnson, lead researcher on the project.

These mid-career entrants bring expertise in individual subject matter and a real knowledge of the working world, but can be disheartened by the loss of resources. They’re surprised by the lack of supplies and dismayed by the lack of support and training, Johnson says. “They’re puzzled by the way schools are organized—the isolation, the static organizational structures.”

These problems are a particular sticking point for men, who already may feel isolated. “Teaching has traditionally been more of a flat career,” says Liu. “There haven’t been a lot of leadership roles for teachers.” The new crop of teachers of both sexes and all races have higher expectations in terms of flexibility and career options. “For districts, building in career ladders is key,” says Liu. 

Showing sensitivity to the expectations of mid-career teachers will help administrators stabilize their teaching staff, as well as diversify it by bringing in more male teachers with experience outside the profession.

Anthony Whittington is no longer in the classroom every day, but he still interacts with pupils by teaching at his county’s Saturday academy. He compares teachers with physicians (except for the pay): They deal with each student as an individual, judge his or her strengths and weaknesses, then write a prescription for future success. The question in his mind is why this job is not considered “appropriate” for men.

“There’s a stigma attached to male teachers, especially elementary teachers, and I don’t see why. We’re building a solid foundation so [students] can perform successfully in middle school,” Whittington says. “I want to be the teacher you never forget.”

“We know the changes in attitude aren’t going to happen overnight,” says the NEA’s Reg Weaver. “But until people decide to put their money where their mouths are to attract qualified, certified teachers to the profession, to realize the importance of male role models at every level, and to give teachers the support they need, this discussion will go on.”

Photos: Crosby Stills, Inc.