Gender Gap

Illustration by Arthur Giron

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,, 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.

U.S. education is decidedly pink collar.

About 75 percent of all U.S. teachers are women. Women claim nearly 84 percent of elementary jobs and 57 percent of the high-school posts, according to a 2004 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics.

In Michigan, women hold nearly 74 percent of the state’s 345,000 school jobs. The breakdown: administrators (about 53-percent female), teachers (76 percent), substitute teachers (71 percent), paraprofessionals (92 percent), and non-instructional staff (69 percent), according to the state Center for Educational Performance and Information.

Meanwhile, in colleges of education, where teachers are shaped and polished, men in elementary studies are as rare as a Detroit Lions win on a Sunday afternoon. “I have an undergraduate class of seniors; most of them will be student-teaching in the fall,” says Lewis-White, the professor at Eastern Michigan University. “There are 25 of them, and only one is a male. Once in a while, we’ll have a class with two male students. But it’s rare that we have more than two male students in an elementary-methods class.”

Bryan Nelson, a former elementary-school teacher, recalls that when he was single, revealing himself as a teacher was not all that great a pickup line. But it took an education conference to really drive home the gender gap: Most of the men’s restrooms at the conference center had been temporarily labeled women’s rooms — matching facilities to the high percentage of women at the sessions.

“I was a teacher and going to conferences, 6-foot-3, walking down the halls.  I’d say, ‘Where are the guys?’ ” says Nelson, now director of MenTeach, a Minnesota-based advocacy group for men in education.

Nelson says male teachers get a bum rap. “We know from Department of Justice data that children are more likely to be harmed in their home than in school,” he says. “Children are very safe in schools. To assume a man is going to be harmful to children is stereotyping and a disservice to men and to children, too.”

Nelson started out teaching high school but said he happily worked his way down to elementary. “Look at little kids — they’re pretty interesting,” he says. “Teenagers are hard work. I taught high school, and it’s a different audience. The young kids are so hopeful. They’re learning new things, to read and write. It’s a major change in their life, and you can have an influence.”

Kevin Shallow, a fourth-grade teacher at Eastover Elementary in Bloomfield Township, says he has worked in other schools where he was the only male teacher. “So when they got to the fourth grade, it was the first time a kid got any experience with a man teacher,” he says.

Former teacher Just Holm declares men in education an “endangered species.” To counter that, he oversees a city program in Cambridge, Mass., to encourage high-school males to consider teaching. “We talk to the young men about what it is to be a teacher. You have to plant the seed that this is an OK place to be, that this is an OK profession to be in,” he says.

“Some women feel that, ‘This is my world, I’m a woman, I know about kids.’ It’s a birthright kind of thing. Some feel men can be a threat and want to come in and take over. Other people don’t think men can take care of kids because they’re men.”

Relatively low salaries are blamed for dissuading many of both sexes from teaching careers, with no one getting into the profession for the money. Nationally, the annual pay for beginning elementary teachers is $33,400, the high end about $78,000, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. High-school teachers make roughly the same.

By comparison, the beginning pay for rookie petroleum engineers tops $86,000, or about $53,000 a year more than a first-year teacher. And a computer scientist with a bachelor’s degree can expect to start at about $61,000, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

An overriding gender question: Will having more male elementary teachers make a difference in student performance and behavior?

“The problems that occur in schools are often with little boys,” says Lewis-White, the Eastern Michigan professor. “And I believe that little boys often need a male to help them learn what it means to be male. It’s not something a female teacher can do. A female teacher can work with the child and maybe bring about some changes. But female teachers cannot have any authenticity in saying, ‘Men don’t fight,’ especially since that’s what the kids see on TV every day. And they see it in the streets.”

At MenTeach, Nelson cites correlations. “We do see the percentages of boys graduating from high school going down,” he says. “We see fewer boys going on to college. Sometimes we get too complicated trying to figure it all out. It seems simple to me. If you’re a young guy in school and you don’t see any men around you, why would you think this is where you belong?

“We have a lot of data about fathers — even fathers who are not the custodian parent and not living with the kids. With fathers involved in their lives, as in the father goes to PTA, girls are less likely to get pregnant. Those boys and girls are more likely to be on the honor roll. Both boys and girls are more likely to graduate. And boys are less likely to end up in jail. So we have some real evidence about fathers, and these are even non-custodial fathers. So what effect do you think a positive male teacher might have?

“I’m biased,” he says. “I think some education problems are because we don’t have enough men. Kids are hungry for positive men.”

Bullard is a Nebraska-based freelancer. E-mail: