Recruitment & Retention

Despite Downturn, Few Men Sign Up to Teach

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 08, 2012 7 min read
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The economic downturn seems to have worsened an already-vast gap between the numbers of men and women teachers, particularly in the early grades.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2011 Current Population Survey, men make up only 18.3 percent of elementary and middle school teachers and 2.3 percent of preschool and kindergarten instructors—a dip from the 2007 prerecession proportions of 19.1 percent in grades 1 to 8 and 2.7 percent in preschool and kindergarten. The numbers of men and women on high school teaching staffs are more evenly divided but still off parity; 42 percent of high school teachers in 2011 were men, down from 43.1 percent in 2007.

A panel of researchers and former elementary teachers at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia last month argued that the diminishing status of teachers generally, coupled with continuing sexism against men working with children, is helping tamp down the number of men willing to enter the field.

Gender Gap: 2011

Experts say sexism and the diminishing status of teaching are keeping the percentages of men in the classroom small.


SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Chanté Chambers, the managing director of recruitment at historically black colleges and universities at the New York City-based Teach For America, sees the same trend playing out in her organization’s efforts to recruit teachers among high-achieving college students. She said education’s perceived low status is “definitely a major barrier” to bringing more men, and particularly black men, into the teaching field.

“They’re coming from communities that are not necessarily affluent, so it adds to that pressure to be that breadwinner, to have financial stability, ... to make six figures so they can give back to their communities in a meaningful way,” she said.

In previous economic declines, such as from 1939 to 1942, more men entered K-12 teaching, according to Bryan G. Nelson, head of MenTeach, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that works to help men become educators. “Don’t get me wrong: If we started paying elementary teachers $150,000 a year, we’d see a massive influx of male teachers,” Mr. Nelson told Education Week in a separate interview, “but if it were just money, the proportion [of male teachers] would be the same in secondary and elementary schools, and that’s not the case.”

In spite of calls by President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for more men—particularly black men—to become teachers, researchers said federal and state accountability measures have effectively lowered the prestige of teaching.

“The discussion around male teachers has gone pretty quiet recently; a lot of our discussion around diversity has taken a back seat to these other things, like the common core, state tests, high stakes, and all this stuff,” said Shaun P. Johnson, an assistant professor of elementary education at Towson University in Towson, Md., and a former District of Columbia teacher. He said: “The status of the teaching profession, I believe, weighs very heavily right now on men’s decision to go into teaching. Teacher bashing is a new national pastime … and [one] which you could argue is highly gendered. Its status as a profession isn’t going to improve in this climate; it’s only going to get worse.”

Mr. Johnson and other researchers who contributed to the 2011 book Go Where You Belong: Male Teachers as Cultural Workers in the Lives of Children, Families, and Communities spoke about their research and experiences at the research conference.

‘Women’s Work’?

Researchers argued that though girls are increasingly encouraged throughout school to enter male-dominated fields such as engineering and mathematics, boys are given less incentive or opportunity to explore working with young children. For example, Robert M. Capuozzo, an assistant professor of early-childhood education at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, said many of the young men he teaches have never even held an infant, while the female preservice teachers have been baby-sitting and tutoring children for years.

“We don’t give boys the same opportunities that we give girls,” Mr. Capuozzo said. “It’s really important for the 6th graders to occasionally go down to read to the kindergartners or, if you are in an early-childhood setting, that the preschoolers get to go down and play with the infants, because it’s not an expectation that boys get to hold little babies.”

Male primary and preschool teachers are often accused of being gay, pedophiles, or simply “not masculine” for wanting to work with young children, according to Jeffrey M. Daitsman, a preschool teacher and early-education researcher at the Center for Practitioner Research at National-Louis University in Chicago.

Mr. Johnson and Mr. Capuozzo agreed, noting that male teachers are often seen primarily as disciplinarians and given students with more challenging behavior, even when a more experienced female teacher might be a better choice.

“One of my first parent conferences, I thought [the student] was doing great; I thought it was going to be a wonderful conference. They said, ‘We were expecting a Big Mac, and we feel like we’ve gotten a taco out of this,’ ” Mr. Capuozzo recalled. “Jackson was this spirited kid, he was doing great, and his parents wanted me in essence to break that spirit. They assumed I was that man who would whip him into shape, and that totally wasn’t who I was at all.”

Perhaps because they are so frequently assumed to be disciplinarians, male teachers also have been more likely than their female colleagues to be threatened by students in every year of the Indicators of School Crime and Safety survey since 1993—though female teachers were more likely than men actually to be physically attacked by a student.

Drawing distinctions between men’s and women’s teaching styles can reinforce the stereotype that teaching can be only “women’s work,” Mr. Johnson said. “Is there something about a man’s teaching that is or should be different? I don’t think so, and a lot of men teachers I’ve spoken to over the years are not interested in believing they are doing something different. They just want to be teachers. That’s it. They don’t want to be male teachers; they don’t want to be male role models.”

Mr. Daitsman disagreed, noting that he often grows his hair long and wears a beard to encourage his preschool students to question gender differences.

He said men often become teachers because they want “the ability to break some of these stereotypes, to show kids that they can be caring, that they can be nurturing, that they can wear pink,” he said. “A woman teacher might be able to say those things, but it’s different when you actually see Bob in a classroom. … I think socially and emotionally a man can do a lot in the classroom. I think gender does matter.”

First-year teacher MarQo D. Patton agrees. The 4th grade math and science instructor is the only full-time male teacher at Smithson Craighead Academy, a charter elementary school in Nashville, Tenn., and he said being a “positive black male role model” is the most meaningful part of his job.

“I knew I would be the only male teacher at the school, but these kids had the same experiences I had as a kid,” Mr. Patton said. “I really would have liked to have had that positive role model when I was growing up. I’m more than just a teacher for these kids.”

Welcoming Details

Playing up the potential to be a direct role model for students can help overcome the prestige gap between teaching and other careers, Teach For America’s Ms. Chambers said. The group has slightly better-than-average recruiting numbers for men: In 2011, its 5,100-member corps of first-year teachers was about 28 percent men, including 3 percent black men. Ms. Chambers said TFA brings in high-profile men in the community to raise awareness about the need for male teachers, and also brings male college students out to the schools as often as possible.

It was one such visit that “sealed the deal” for Mr. Patton’s decision to become a teacher. He went to college pursuing a career in the music business, but changed his mind after taking a TFA tour of the school where he now works.

“I remember kids coming up to me and saying, ‘Mr. Patton, please come teach me next year, don’t let me down,’” he recalled. “Even if I hadn’t been considering coming here, those kids, seeing the way their faces lit up and how excited they were, would have convinced me.”

Small details can make a school feel more welcoming to male teachers, MenTeach’s Mr. Nelson said. “Does the school have pictures of men nurturing children, or just men in suits, like presidents? If you go into the school’s teacher or parent lounge, is there Cosmo, but no Sports Illustrated or Field & Stream?”

For example, Mr. Nelson noted that Principal Carol Meyer of Prairie View Elementary School in Eden Prairie, Minn., brings male teachers with her to recruiting fairs. “The guy sitting there just makes for great marketing; the guys can go where the other guys are,” he said.

Yet it’s easy to go too far, Mr. Johnson said. “We have to be careful when we talk about this issue, not to reinforce gender stereotypes,” he said. “We shouldn’t make teaching sound more action-packed or market it in a way we think might attract more men. These are the sort of things that make teaching sound like ‘women’s work’ in the first place, and we don’t need to play that game to attract more men to the workforce.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2012 edition of Education Week as Despite a Downturn, Few Men Attracted To Teaching Field


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