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Needed: A few good men. Or more accurately, a whole bunch of good men who would like to help kids learn.
That’s the word from researchers and educators pointing to the relatively few male schoolteachers, especially in elementary grades. Reformers are plotting to lure more guys into classrooms, where women have ruled for decades.
It’s a tall order. Only about 16 percent of U.S. elementary teachers are men. In preschool classes, the number drops to a pitiable 5 percent or so.
The numbers are linked, in part, to notions that teaching lower grades is low-paid “women’s work.” And some men fear being unfairly pegged as sexual predators if they show interest in working with young children. Even veteran male elementary teachers are wary of innocent contact that might be construed as untoward. Some devise “safe” techniques for handling, say, a spontaneous hug from a young, exuberant student.
“There’s this pressure saying, ‘There must be something wrong if you are a man and want to work with little kids,’ ” says Linda Lewis-White, a professor in the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University.
“I do believe that prejudice exists. It’s not talked about. It’s really swept under the carpet.”
Lewis-White recalls an incident when she was teaching elementary school. “There was a male second-grade teacher who taught next door to me. During a recess period, he was out turning the jump rope with the girls. A parent stopped me and said, ‘Who is that man? And is it OK for him to be with the children?’
“There’s this prejudice against men in elementary that goes unspoken. It happens within the communities. If parents don’t know there’s a male teacher in the school and don’t know them by sight, they oftentimes feel uncomfortable. So that makes the male teachers uncomfortable.”
Ben Gilpin, a fifth-grade teacher, says his college professors warned him that male teachers face more scrutiny than their female colleagues.
“We were taught to pat students on the back, give them a high-five, give them a fist bump, ruffle their hair, or something like that. Try not to give hugs,” Gilpin says.
But sometimes a young student in a hallway will try to hug. “I’ve learned how to kind of lean to one side instead of a full hug,” Gilpin says.
Adds Gilpin, who is a teacher in the Hanover-Horton School District south of Jackson: “I was taught that if you’re going to have a meeting with a student, you should have another student in there as well, or you should have another teacher in there.
“The door should be wide open. Or you should talk to them in the hallway. Or something like that.
“The majority of one-on-one conversations I’ve had with kids take place in the hallway. That’s just one of those habits I got into early, and I’ve tried to stay with it because it’s the safest way for me to be.”
The extra scrutiny unfairly tars the men teachers. But suspicion persists. For example, a local blog, detroit.momslikeme.com, once debated a new male third-grade teacher at an unidentified school. “Do you think it’s appropriate or inappropriate for young men to be teaching the little ones? Do you think it is wrong?” one mother asked.
Responses to her query were varied, with men getting plenty of raves. But then there was this: “Personally, I think it’s a little wierd [sic]. I think I’m stereotyping. I’m guessing he took that job because it was the only one out there at the time, and it paid the bills until he came across a bigger and better job.”
Said another mother: “I do think most men are better-suited to the upper levels. Women are more likely to be comforters and that is more in line with the average younger child’s needs.”
Those comments align with research by Valora Washington, president of CAYL (Community Advocates for Young Learners), a Cambridge, Mass., institute to research and advocate children’s issues.
Men considering teaching lower grades are subject to closer examination — and that deters them from entering the field, she says.
“Some of them say people think they’re some kind of predator who wants to work with young kids. This really surprised me. It’s something we heard young men say many, many times. People look at them and say, ‘Why do you want to work with kids?’ They don’t deserve that kind of extra scrutiny and they don’t want that kind of extra scrutiny.”
In a paper for the New England Journal of Higher Education titled “Needed in School Teaching: A Few Good Men,” Washington calls for a “G.I. Bill for Teaching” and other financial incentives to attract more men to the profession.
The institute reports that about 5 percent of preschool educators are men and that, overall, the number of male teachers in the United States is at a 40-year low.
“We find that a lot of men have not been introduced to the idea of working with young children,” Washington says. “Men give several reasons for that. One, of course, is the pay. They feel that it’s really not going to help them support a family.