As a single mom a few years ago, Tracie Adams wished her kindergarten-aged daughter, Kristina, could somehow forge a bond with a caring, responsible man - a father figure.
"She didn't have a male role model at all," says Mrs. Adams, who has since remarried. "She only saw men when her friends were picked up by their fathers."
With few options at the time, Adams pinned her hopes on the school system of Louisville, Ky., to pair Kristina with a male teacher who could help fill a void in her life. Only in music classes, however, did Kristina have a man at the front of her classroom. Despite her lobbying efforts, Adams discovered what parents across the nation are finding: Demand for male teachers is growing, but so is the list of reasons why men don't go into teaching.
On the one hand, a recent survey shows that men continue to shun the field of early childhood education for seemingly timeless reasons: low pay, low status, and stereotypes about teaching youngsters as being a feminine endeavor. Add to the list a heightened fear of being accused of sexual abuse, and the result is a field saddled with a mounting image problem when it comes to recruiting men.
On the other hand, many children without a father at home crave a male presence in the predominantly female domain of elementary school. And as the push for more male teachers grows, a chorus of voices is delivering a fresh case for why men should consider teaching youngsters: They need what men have to offer uniquely as men.
"We all need someone to emulate," says Bryan Nelson, a former teacher and director of MenTeach, a Minnesota-based organization for the recruitment of male teachers. "Men show boys what they could become. And girls need to see a nurturing male in order to see what kind of men they'd like to have in their lives."
Few young boys or girls, however, ever see men in their classrooms. Of the 103,525 members of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 4,000 are men. Men of color comprise an even smaller minority, with just 360 members. The organization represents those who work with children in and below third grade.
Nelson began researching the shortage of men after seeing those statistics firsthand at the school where he taught and at teacher conferences. At 6 foot 3 inches, he would look across the conference hall - what he terms "a sea of women" - and wonder, 'Where are all the men?' " His question led him to conduct and publish for NAEYC the 2002 survey, "The Importance of Men Teachers and Reasons Why There are So Few."
Analysis in the report aimed to dispel discouraging "myths," such as the notions that men who work with young children will sexually molest them, or that men are not nurturing enough to do the job well. The focus held to communicating why educators want to see more men teaching in early grades.
More than 97 percent of respondents said they believe in the importance of men working with children in early childhood education. According to Monitor interviews with administrators, parents, and teachers, men might enrich the educational experience in ways an all-women staff cannot. How they achieve that goal, however, is a matter of some debate.
One group says men offer intangibles available only from those with a Y chromosome. In his 11 years of teaching, Curtis Wilson has found that his female colleagues expect children to work quietly in their seats most of the time and to keep noise levels down. But he says men don't expect quite as much serenity from children.
"Men bring a different perspective to the classroom," says the kindergarten teacher in Wichita, Kan. "Men have more tolerance for noise, for active play and movement, and a vocal atmosphere."
Boys are apt to suffer when codes of conduct reflect the sensibilities of an all-female faculty, according to Megan Farnsworth, an education fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
"The way boys play with each other is inevitably rougher than girls," Ms. Farnsworth says. "When women set the rules, those rules tend to be based on how they would like to be treated if they were out there playing. But boys can't just play jacks and hopscotch. They'll go crazy."
More male teachers could also mean better discipline in schools, according to Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association in Louisville.
Students require more disciplining than they did in previous decades, Mr. McKim says, and some students respond better to men. "A young male can sometimes connect better with a male teacher than a female teacher," he says. "It could be an overgeneralization to say it's always the case, but it might be true that boys accept male authority better than female authority."
Another group, equally interested in recruiting men, would do so precisely for the purpose of showing students that men can do anything women can do - diapering, comforting, and so on - in order to showcase equality of the sexes. There's also a second reason: To show that teaching is a career worthy of both men and women.
"It would be better for children if they had more of a gender-neutral environment," says Cris Watson, a teacher and curriculum specialist at Disney Elementary School in Burbank, Calif., where all 21 teachers are women. "Balance is good because we don't want children to think there are boundaries to what [they] can do" as boys or girls.
"There's nothing inherent that men are going to provide differently than women, except to be a male role model," counters Jaime Rossi, who taught elementary school in Los Angeles for two years after college and now lobbies for the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco. "But there is a need for kids to see positive, strong men in a nurturing role ... where you have to wipe noses [and such]."
Two ideological camps, therefore, have come to share a common dream to boost the numbers of men teaching in schools. But men interviewed for this story say those who teach in the early grades and stick with it do so at a considerable personal cost - one many are unwilling to pay.
Principal Paul Young recalls a boon time three years ago when three of 25 teachers at West Elementary School in Lancaster, Ohio, were men. Since then, all three have taken jobs as principals at other schools, where a bump in salary enables them to support families. The school's sole male teacher today holds a position in physical education.
"It's pride, not money, that will sustain people in teaching," says Mr. Young, who currently serves as president of the Elementary School Principals' Association. Parents ask him and his fellow principals "all the time" if their children can have a male teacher, but only qualifications - excluding gender - determine if an applicant is hired.
In the case of Mr. Wilson, the Wichita teacher, starting pay of $26,000 wasn't what inspired him to put up with the rats, pigeons, and roaches inside the dilapidated 1917 school where he worked for five years. He worked two to three nights per week as a laboratory technician at a Wichita hospital to supplement his wages. Yet he stayed in teaching, and intends to keep teaching kindergarten even after attaining his doctorate in education.
"I grew up in a very religious home where I was taught that you give to society because you'll get back everything tenfold," Wilson says. "Kids look at me, and I am the role model."
MenTeach has the complex challenge not only to urge men to teach but also to convince schools that an applicant's "maleness" is an attribute worth considering in the hiring process. While some administrators worry about male applicants being sexual predators, the majority try to turn a blind eye to gender, just as they hire without regard for disability or race.
"To equalize [gender balance among teachers] would be nice, but I'm striving to get the best people I can," Young says. "You'd be foolish to go out and hire a male if there's someone more qualified who's female. Sometimes you'd have to look far and wide to find a man with the same qualifications. It's not always practical."
And yet, despite all the built-in hurdles, Nelson is convinced the profession will attract more men as the fringe benefits, especially the sense of doing a worthwhile job, are understood. "You go into a bar and someone says, 'I drive trucks. What do you do?' And you say, 'I teach kids.' It just doesn't have the same punch or cachet," Nelson says. "But a lot of men are looking for something more meaningful. So they get into caring for children."