“It takes some degree either of social ignorance or of personal courage for a man to enter teaching at the elementary school level,” wrote education professor George I. Brown in a 1960 Phi Delta Kappan article about recruiting more men to the teaching profession. For a man to teach “is to spit in the face of a strong societal stereotype.”
More than 60 years later, these assertions may seem vastly outdated. But females continue to outnumber males in K-12 classrooms by about 3 to 1, and stereotyping persists.
“When I started teaching I was thought of as a lumbering football coach,” said Nick Schloeder, a 5th grade teacher at the all-boys Gilman School in Baltimore, Md., and offensive line coach for Johns Hopkins University’s football team. “They see a big male teacher. They don’t see him as being sensitive, well-read, thoughtful.”
Like many male elementary teachers around the nation, 28-year veteran teacher Schloeder has just one or two male colleagues—a dynamic he says hasn’t changed much over the years. It also seems to reflect nationwide numbers. Males made up 25 percent of all K-12 teachers during the 1999-2000 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics; in 2017-18, that number was 24 percent.
Nevertheless, countless males—undeterred by stereotypes or minority status—thrive at the head of K-12 classrooms. We caught up with some of them to find out why they entered the profession, what it’s like to be a minority in the profession, and what they think could be done to inspire more men to join their ranks.
On becoming a teacher
Of the male teachers interviewed for this article, each found the profession via a different path: a career change, inspiring childhood role models, Peace Corps, Teach For America. Few male teachers, it seems, grow up wanting to be a teacher. For some, it was the last thing on their mind.
“When I was going through K-12 education, there’s no way on the face of the earth that I would say that I would want to be a teacher. My K-12 education was like me serving time,” said Kenneth Smith, a 20-year veteran teacher of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md. Smith, who describes his formative education as devoid of intellectual stimulation, says he strives to connect with his students and teach them to think critically.
Smith began looking for a new professional direction when his first job as a research assistant in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office proved, quite simply, boring. “I hated what I was doing, sitting behind a computer all day,” Smith said.
Volunteering for Manhattan-based The Door, a program that supports high school dropouts, sparked an interest in teaching for Smith. From there, he enrolled in the inaugural class of a program at Howard University that facilitated the path for Black men to become certified teachers by offering tuition-free coursework and teacher certification. “I was in a cohort with a solid group of Black men,” recalled Smith, who received the teacher of the year award for his district from the Washington Post in 2018.
That Howard program has since ended, but similar initiatives have followed, including Howard University’s Teacher Residency Program, which focuses on attracting Black males and is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Education, according to the school’s Dean of Education Dawn Williams.
On being in the minority
That comradery eluded Smith when he started teaching. Attending a large conference for educators in the late 1990s as a new teacher, he became acutely aware of his minority status. “I remember walking through the halls and realizing that I didn’t see one Black face, let alone one Black male face,” Smith said.
It wasn’t until years later that Smith began to build a network of male teachers of color by becoming an active member of The BOND Project, a program started by educators within the Montgomery County, Md., school system to increase and retain male educators of color.
Smith’s early experience reflects the reality of Black male teachers in this country, who make up only 2 percent of the nation’s teachers, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Those low numbers persist despite research showing the positive impact that just a single Black male teacher can have on a young student’s life.
Bernard Alexander, a second-year teacher, can relate. “I have kids tell me, ‘You’re my first male teacher, you’re my first Black male teacher,’” said Alexander, who teaches 8th grade English/language arts at Martin Luther King Jr. Social Justice Middle School in Hartford, Conn. “It’s never lost on me the impact I can make, especially as a Black male. Kids do need that role model,” Alexander said.
High school biology teacher Bryan Meeker was struck by the gender divide during his student teaching stint, as the only male on a four-person team. “I had some work I had to do, not only to show I had value, but to get to a place where we could collaborate better,” he said. “It can be isolating.”
Meeker had a far different experience while teaching during a Peace Corp assignment in Sierra Leone.
“Educators are valued in a different way there. The highest paid person in the village was the [male] principal of the high school,” said Meeker, now employed at Major Hector P. Garcia M.D., a charter high school in Chicago.
Expectation to move into administration
With the exception of Alexander, in his second year teaching, every teacher interviewed for this article said they’ve been asked repeatedly if and when they plan to become administrators.
Although 70 percent of all K-12 educators are women, more than 85 percent of public school superintendents are male, according to AASA, the School Superintendents Association. But male teachers who’ve embraced their profession aren’t necessarily interested in becoming administrators, even if it means more clout, money, and esteem—traits traditionally ascribed to male professionals.
“I’ve seen what they [i.e., administrators] do. I have very little interest sitting in an office crunching budget numbers,” said Meeker. “I would struggle going to school every day and not interacting with students.”
Fifth grade teacher Schloeder, who said he’s been asked “about a hundred times” when he’s going to become an administrator, concurs.
“It’s an incredible responsibility to foster that educational experience,” he said of his role as an elementary school teacher.
Recruiting, retaining more male teachers
Sharing with male adults how meaningful teaching is could help attract more males to the profession, many say. “There are people out there who are smart and are looking for [professional] fulfillment,” said Schloeder.
Others note the value of piquing males’ interest in teaching while they’re young. The BOND Project’s boys’ leadership program, aimed at males of color from 4th grade through high school, is an example. “We develop relationships, try to be the model of what teaching is,” said Smith, who’s actively engaged in the initiative.
Simply being a constant and passionate male presence in the classroom could also be enough to interest boys in following the footsteps of their male teachers.
“I would say it’s the most rewarding job you can have,” Schloeder said. “I don’t know of many professions where you get such daily gratification.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2021 edition of Education Week as Male Teachers Share Advice for Getting More Men Into the Profession