Percentage of Male Teachers Hits 40-Year Low
By Tamar Snyder
When Dan Brown began teaching fourth grade at Public School 85 in the Bronx as an NYC Teaching Fellow, he quickly realized he was one of the few male teachers at the school. The gender discrepancy worked to his advantage, he said. “As a rookie, I was given my own classroom, in part because there weren’t any male teachers for that grade.”
But his role came with an added responsibility not many female teachers face. “Only two kids out of the 26 had parents who were married,” he said. “Most of these kids had no father figure at home. To come to school and have that male authority figure who was treating them respectfully made a huge difference.”
Brown spent the better part of the year trying to connect with his students and serve as a role model. “I had to be an agent of good with them,” he said. “Many of them lead exceptionally difficult lives. They’ve been abandoned. I’m not claiming I was any kind of savior, but I went to great lengths to prove they could trust me.”
Brown recently published “The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle” (Arcade Publishing, 2007), in which he recounts what he terms a “brutal” year as a Teaching Fellow. He’s currently teaching at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and studying for a master’s degree at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Although gender doesn’t matter in most regards, “some kids, especially boys, connect more with male teachers,” Brown said. Many of his students had never had a male teacher before. “It made a difference that I was a man,” he said. “It was just a different kind of classroom environment, a different vibe. Some female teachers are maternal toward their students; I wasn’t. I expected a lot from them.”
Wanted: A few good men
It’s not just New York City’s P.S. 85 that’s experiencing a shortage of male teachers. Male teachers are in the minority across the country. And although this isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s getting worse.
According to statistics recently released by the National Education Association (NEA), men made up just 24.4 percent of the total number of teachers in 2006. In fact, the number of male public school teachers in the U.S. has hit a record 40-year low. Arkansas, at 17.5 percent, and Mississippi, with 17.7 percent, have the lowest percentage of male teachers, while Kansas, at 33.3 percent, and Oregon, with 31.4 percent, boast the largest percentage of men leading the classroom.
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Why the downward trend in male teaching? According to Bryan Nelson, founder of MenTeach, a nonprofit organization dedicated to recruiting male teachers, research suggests 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.
Many men once in the profession say they quit because of worries that innocuous contact with students could be misconstrued, reports the NEA.
“There’s a lack of support for male teachers, a lack of respect, and a lack of being able to be involved in decision-making,” said Reg Weaver, president of the NEA. “And I can’t say it’s getting better.”
Low salary levels have also proved to be a deterrent, especially for those men who value being the breadwinners of the family. The average U.S. public school teacher salary for 2005-2006 was $49,026, according to the NEA. “There’s a long-entrenched idea that males are supposed to make lots of money and be a big-time breadwinner,” Brown said. “But teaching won’t make anyone rich.”
Historically, a majority of teachers have been male; that began to change in the 1880s, when women pushed for their own education and the opportunity to teach. In the 1930s, after the stock market crashed, a big surge of men returned to education, as they did after World War II, said Nelson. “In tough economic times, men looking for work returned to education,” since there were always teaching jobs available, he said.
Of the men who currently choose to pursue a career in education, many are promoted to administrative positions, often more quickly than their female colleagues, said Steve Peha, president of Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., an education consulting company. “Even if men start out in the classroom, they often don’t stay there for long,” said Peha.
And then there are gender stereotypes to contend with. “Particularly in the younger grades, women are seen as nurturers,” said Brown. “Men, not so much.”
Recruiting men into the classroom
What can be done to stem the tide and attract male teachers? Increase recruitment efforts, for starters, say experts. “We’ve seen efforts to recruit minorities into teaching,” said Peha, “and efforts to recruit adults looking for alternative careers, but we’ve never seen a coordinated effort to recruit men.”
To be effective, recruiting must begin while men are still in school, he says. “We won’t see more male teachers if we don’t see more young men pursuing teaching degrees,” Peha said.
Focusing on quality
The key to solving the gender gap in education is to focus on recruiting quality teachers, regardless of sex, said Nelson of MenTeach.
But once quality is assured, it’s important to focus on bringing in more males at the head of the classroom. “Children are no dummies,” Nelson said. “What message do they get when they see no men in schools? The message they get is that education is not important to males.”
For men thinking of heading into education, Nelson offered hard-won advice: Be persistent. Get practical experience first. Look for resources to help you get through school, and, when applying for a job, make sure you have thick skin.
“People will ask you inappropriate questions,” he said, recalling a recent e-mail he received from an aspiring male teacher who was asked during a job interview, “Why would any healthy male want to work with kids?”
In such situations, Nelson suggests stressing the positive aspects of having a man in the classroom. “When kids see [a man] in front of them on a daily basis, it helps to contradict negative stereotypes,” Nelson said.
But turning the tide and recruiting more male teachers won’t be simple, said Weaver. “Everyone’s talking about how important this is. But I don’t want to see rhetoric, I want to see action,” he said.