Needed in class: a few good men

Lowly status, poor pay, and fear of lawsuits are pushing the numbers of male teachers in US classrooms to an all-time low.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

John Yaeger is the first to admit that being a teacher is challenging. He spends his days attempting to teach the basics of spelling and grammar to students who are more interested in playing video games than learning. He also devotes part of his weekend to grading papers and planning lessons.

But hard work, long hours, and modest pay are not the only challenges that Mr. Yaeger faces as a teacher: As a man working in a female-dominated profession, he must also battle stereotypes.

"I have been asked to carry heavy boxes by female teachers and assigned to extra lunch duty and hall patrol because administrators think male teachers are better at dealing with disciplinary problems," says Yaeger, a special education teacher at P.S. 72 in the Bronx. "I also overhear a lot of teachers - smart, educated women who are great teachers - saying that there should be a man in the classroom to solve certain problems."

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The assumption that male teachers can be counted on to administer discipline is just one of the gender-related biases that dog men in the profession.

"There is a sexism that accompanies the notion of men as teachers that needs to be challenged," says Bryan Nelson, founder of MenTeach, a nonprofit clearinghouse promoting the recruitment of male teachers.

Even when the stereotypes are positive, says Mr. Nelson, they can be damaging. "We are giving children the message that nurturing and teaching and education must not be important because there are no men around," he worries.

There seem to be fewer than ever these days. Just 21 percent of the nation's 3 million teachers are men, according to the National Education Association (NEA). Over the past two decades, the ratio of men to women in the classroom has steadily declined. Today it stands at a 40-year low.

"The teaching profession is definitely dominated by females," says Donald Washington, senior program analyst for the NEA.

The shortage of male teachers is most pronounced in elementary school, where men make up just 9 percent of teachers, but middle schools and high schools also suffer from a male-female imbalance.

Currently, in secondary schools, about 35 percent of teachers are men - the lowest level ever for the profession.

At P.S. 72, just five of the 70 teachers are men, and the numbers are similar in classrooms across the country.

Nelson is concerned about how the shortage of male teachers affects students.

"Children are missing out on different teaching approaches, alternative authority figures, and male role models because there are so few male teachers," he says. "Children are also getting a powerful message that teaching is something men just do not do."

Research conducted by MenTeach reveals three key reasons for the shortage of male teachers: low status and pay, the perception that teaching is "women's work," and the fear of accusation of child abuse.

"There is a lot more status associated with being a college professor than an elementary school teacher," Nelson says. "And if we started paying teachers what we pay NBA players, there would be a lot more men entering the field."

Nelson notes that the fear of accusation of abuse is another barrier to men entering the teaching profession. "I have had men tell me that they are not being hired or they can't get an interview because people think there is something wrong with a man who wants to work with children," Nelson says.

Yaeger acknowledges that the fear of being accused of improper conduct is something that most male teachers think about. "As a male teacher, especially in this day and age, you have to be a lot more conscious of your behavior," he says. "It is not something I necessarily worry about all the time, but I am aware of it."

Through MenTeach, Nelson is also working to eliminate the gender bias in education. "There are people who still say, 'It's so nice to have a man in the classroom,' " Nelson says. "But think about it: You wouldn't say, 'It's so nice to have an African-American in the classroom,' or 'It's great to have a Jew in the classroom.' It should be no different for men. We want teachers to be teachers and for gender not to be a factor, but until we get to that point, we have to do something about it."

Liberty Jones, a fourth-grade teacher at Maplewood Elementary in Portland, Ore., supports efforts to draw more men into the teaching profession. "It's important for the same reason it's important to see women in science and engineering," she says. "It helps break the societal stereotype."

Male teachers send an important message to students, says Ms. Jones. "In my experience, moms tend to be the ones staying home or helping kids out with their homework. Having a male teacher gives students a different perspective and shows that men care about education and learning too."

Increasing the number of male teachers may seem like the obvious solution, but Mr. Washington says it is not enough to train men to be teachers: The real challenge is keeping them in the classroom. "Fifty percent of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years," he says.

Once they are in the classroom, male teachers must also contend with powerful messages about their roles as educators. "There is a perception that if you are male and in the teaching profession, you should be an administrator," says Washington.

Nelson also believes that men are encouraged to pursue administrative positions instead of remaining in the classroom. "I have heard stories about male teachers getting slips of paper in their mailboxes advertising positions as principals and administrators that were not given to female teachers," he says. "Men are shuttled out of teaching and given the message that they can do bigger things."

Yaeger admits that he has been encouraged to pursue administrative roles but says his true passion is working with children. "I have thought about moving into a higher position but the higher up you get, the less contact you have with children," he says. "I got into this profession because I enjoy teaching children."

Organizations like MenTeach and the NEA say they are making strides in addressing the shortage of male teachers.

"[The] NEA has been examining the issue for more than two decades," says Washington. He notes that initiatives such as Call Me Mister, a program at Clemson University aimed at recruiting African-American men to the teaching profession, and others like it are improving the recruitment and retention of male teachers.

"We are slowly turning the tide," he says. "We are not yet where we want to be, but no one is giving up."

It's a complicated issue with no easy answers, says Washington. "Things are changing and improving, but we are not going to make a difference overnight."

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