Where are the Male Teachers?

Copyright 2008 by Neil Chethik www.NeilChethik.com

Walk into most any elementary school, and you'll find the usual: There'll be lists of classroom rules, crisp American flags, brightly colored name tags in the shapes of lions, bears, and dinosaurs. But unless you stumble across the janitor or gym teacher, there's one species you're not likely to confront: men.

While law enforcement, medicine, engineering, and other professions have changed markedly in their gender make-up since the 1960s, elementary education remains a female citadel. Nationally, only one in 10 grade-school teachers is male.

Interestingly, while school officials rightly put resources toward recruiting and retaining ethnic minorities, they do not do the same to bring in men. And yet, a school without male teachers may be just as detrimental to a child as one without black, Hispanic, Asian, or other ethnic minorities in the teaching ranks.

What's the potential damage? Listen to Mike Carr, the director of human resources for my local school system, in Lexington, Kentucky. When I asked him recently why the county targets ethnic minorities to fill teaching positions, he responded: "It's good for (children) to see all different kinds of people as role models."

In other words, schoolchildren, regardless of their background, benefit from having a culturally diverse array of teachers. The lives of minority children are especially enhanced; they feel more welcomed and understood in school, more comfortable in the education culture.

The parallel with boys is clear. If there were more male teachers, wouldn't boys naturally feel more welcomed in the schools? Wouldn't they understand more fully that education is as important for them as it is for girls?

Last year, a friend's son started kindergarten at a local public school. During the first week of class, his female teacher routinely required the boy and his classmates to sit quietly in their seats, hands in lap - or lose privileges.

Not surprisingly, virtually all of the children reprimanded were male. It's not surprising because 5-year-old boys are not designed to sit and stay; rather, because of testosterone, they're chemically engineered to be on the go. Michael Gurian, author of The Wonder of Boys, puts it this way: "Boys tend to use up far more space than girls."

Rather than trying to squelch this tendency, Gurian and others say, teachers should be designing their classes to accommodate it. Sadly, by the end of the first week of my friend's son's class, a handful of his most active classmates already were being labeled as "the bad boys." (In an ironic twist, children who disobeyed rules in this class were not allowed to go out for recess, the only 15 minutes of the school day when intense physical activity was encouraged.)

Certainly, there are female teachers who understand "boy energy." And there are male teachers who do not. But I can't help believing that the presence of more men in the elementary schools would generate interest and conversation about the important differences in educating boys and girls.

If boys were excelling in school, I suppose all of this would be moot. But they're not. New research shows that boys are more likely than girls to be expelled or suspended from school, to drop out before graduating high school, and to end their education before college. While girls certainly face obstacles in school, boys are the ones now losing ground.

What can be done to attract more male teachers to the grade schools? Not much, says Carr, the Lexington, Ky., schools human resources director. He told me that few men seem interested in the starting salary he can offer: $25,600 a year.

For the long run, then, those of us who see the value of men in the grade schools can advocate for higher teacher salaries, which all teachers deserve anyway. We can also support special recruitment and retention efforts for male teachers. And we can suggest that school officials take a look at such books as Raising Cain, Real Boys, and The Wonder of Boys, all of which present the latest research on how boys learn.

While we wait for results, however, we fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and other males are needed where it counts - in the classroom. As this academic year begins, we can go to our local schools and offer ourselves as tutors, mentors, advisers, consultants. Even if we do nothing more than read a book to a class once a month, we'll send the message - to both boys and girls - that men care about their education, that we care about them.

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Neil Chethik is a writer and speaker. He is author of FatherLoss: How sons deal with the deaths of their dads (Hyperion) and VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think of Their Wives (Simon & Schuster). Reach him at neil@neilchethik.com or at www.NeilChethik.com .

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Copyright 2009 Neil Chethik