School & District Management

Odd Man Out

By David Hill — September 04, 1996 24 min read

There’s something unusual about Room 130: The teacher in this classroom is a man.

Stand inside Room 130 at James T. Granbery Elementary School in suburban Nashville, Tenn., and you could be in just about any kindergarten classroom in the country. There’s a dusty blackboard, a clock, an intercom, two rows of fluorescent lights, a scuffed-up linoleum floor, tables, and chairs. Blue cinder block walls are covered with students’ artwork. In the center of the room, there’s a large rectangle of indoor-outdoor carpet, big enough for all the boys and girls to sit on. There’s a flag, a TV, and a computer. In one corner is a small bathroom. Shelves are crowded with books, games, and puzzles.

There is, however, something unusual about Room 130: The teacher in this classroom is a man. Bert Morgan has taught kindergarten at Granbery for 13 years, and, before that, he taught 2nd grade at the school. His 22 years in the classroom have all been spent at the elementary level. At present, he is the only male teacher at Granbery, which makes him, in his words, “an odd creature.” The only other men at his school are the principal and two custodians.

Most days, Morgan, who is 44, doesn’t have time to dwell on his minority status. He’s usually too busy doing what all kindergarten teachers do: reading stories to hisstudents, singing songs, teaching about insects, and so on. But when you start asking questions, it becomes clear that Morgan has a lot to say about life as a male schoolteacher.

As a man who teaches young children, he’s had to put up with the kind of scrutiny that few female teachers ever have to endure. He’s had parents pull their children from his class simply because he’s a man. He’s encountered resistance from female colleagues who didn’t think a man could be nurturing enough with little girls and boys. Once, a nervous mother stood outside his classroom for the entire first week of school, until she was satisfied that nothing unusual was going on inside. He’s always aware that an innocent show of affection could be taken the wrong way by a student and reported to district officials, which could mean the end of his teaching career. “That’s a constant back-burner thought that you keep with you,” he says.

And yet, he’s proud to be a man who teaches elementary school. “There’s sort of this feeling of, ‘I’m glad I chose this,’” he says. “It makes me unique.”

He likes to joke that he’s part of the “dinosaur club.” “I mean, we’re probably close to being extinct,” he says.

Indeed, male elementary school teachers are few and far between. Many elementary schools don’t even have a single male teacher. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 11.6 percent of the nation’s 1.3 million public elementary school teachers are men. Grade-by-grade figures are not available, but it seems certain that the rarest bird of all is the male kindergarten teacher. Bert Morgan, for instance, is one of only three such teachers in the entire 71,000-student metropolitan Nashville public school system. Some school districts simply will not hire men to teach kindergarten.

The proportion of male public school teachers in all grades has declined over the past 10 years, from 31 percent in the 1984-85 school year to about 27 percent today.

At the secondary level, on the other hand, the story is quite different. Of the nation’s 1.2 million public secondary school teachers, 43.8 percent are men. Still, the proportion of male public school teachers in all grades has declined over the past 10 years, from 31 percent in the 1984-85 school year to about 27 percent today. According to census figures, the proportion of male teachers reached its peak--in this century, at least--in about 1980, when men made up 34 percent of the teaching force.

In the United States, the preponderance of women in the teaching profession has become so accepted that we rarely stop and ask ourselves why that’s the case. The roots of this state of affairs, however, can be traced to the common-school movement of the early 19th century. According to Joel Spring, the author of The American School: 1642-1993, “The real heroines of the common-school movement were the schoolmarms.” That’s because common-school reformers believed women were best-suited for carrying out the high moral ideals necessary for the establishment of a professional teaching corps. “As women began to be educated in larger numbers,” Spring writes, “school men began to seek them out as teachers because of their belief in the inherent moral character of females. The teacher was to be a paragon of moral virtue whose influence would be felt and imitated by the students in the common school.”

Horace Mann, whose hopes and dreams for the common school greatly influenced the nation’s system of public education, fervently believed that women made the best teachers. “That woman should be the educator of children I believe to be as much a requirement of nature as that she should be the mother of children,” he wrote in 1853.

Men, on the other hand, were not suited for teaching young children because, as Spring writes, “of their supposed lack of emotional qualities and their reliance on the use of reason.” One result of such stereotypes about men and women was the elementary grade school with a single male principal and subordinate female teachers. “From the perspective of 19th-century society,” Spring writes, “the rational male should govern the school and provide limits and order to the emotional nature of the female schoolteacher.”

There were practical reasons, as well, for the feminization of the teaching profession. For starters, in the early 19th century, young men typically taught for a few years and then moved on to another career. “Consequently,” Spring writes, “the teaching force was young and inexperienced and had a high turnover rate, which made selection of teachers and control of their moral character difficult.” Women, on the other hand, had virtually no other career opportunities, so they were more likely to remain in the profession. More significantly, they could be paid less money than their male counterparts, which kept school costs--and thus taxes--low. Schoolmarms, therefore, were necessary for the development of a “stable, inexpensive, and moral teaching force,” according to Spring. The downside, however, was “the generally low status of teaching as a profession in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

The culmination of this gender revolution came during the Civil War, when male teachers abandoned their classrooms for the battlefields. By the end of the war, Spring reports, women dominated the nation’s teaching corps. And that’s how it has been ever since. When men enter the teaching profession, they are swimming against the tide of history and social convention. No matter that in our popular culture, the male teacher has always received top billing. (Think of such movies as “To Sir With Love,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Stand and Deliver,” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” “Dangerous Minds,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer as an ex-Marine turned inner-city high school English teacher, is merely the exception that proves the rule.) In the real world, men who teach--particularly men who teach elementary school--often have a tough row to hoe. “I think there’s still probably this feeling out there that ‘real men’ don’t teach little kids,” says Robert Sadler, Bert Morgan’s principal at Granbery Elementary. “Well, real men do teach little kids.”

Of course, such thoughts were far from Bert Morgan’s mind when, as a college student in the early 1970s, he decided he wanted to teach. At the time, his biggest concern was getting a job--any job. His first career choice was social work, but when a friend urged him to try education because there were more jobs available, Morgan made the switch. “And that’s pretty much why I did this,” he says, “at least initially. Then I sort of got hooked.”

He graduated from the University of Tennessee at Nashville (now Tennessee State University) in 1974, and two days later he found a job at an elementary school in Nashville. He taught 5th and 6th grades the first year and 3rd and 4th the second. Then, when the school’s enrollment declined, Morgan was transferred to another elementary school, Brick Church, where he was assigned to teach 2nd grade. When Morgan arrived, there was one other male teacher at the school, an older man who taught 4th grade. “He became more or less a mentor,” Morgan says. “He sort of watched over me to make sure that I didn’t do anything goofy.” The presence of another male teacher at the school made it easier for Morgan to gain acceptance from parents. “I think the community was already accustomed to having a man in the school,” he says. “But it was a little unusual having a man teaching 2nd grade.” Nonetheless, Morgan stayed at the school for five years; during that time, he and his mentor were the only male teachers there.

Assigned to teach 2nd grade, Morgan immediately came under suspicion by the mother of one of his students.

When he moved to Granbery, however, Morgan was breaking new ground. “There had been no male teachers here, to my knowledge, and, suddenly, here I was,” he says. It helped that Granbery had a male principal, Robert Sadler, who had once been an elementary school teacher himself. But for the most part, Morgan had to fend for himself. Assigned to teach 2nd grade in one of the school’s many portable classrooms, Morgan immediately came under suspicion by the mother of one of his students. “She was so afraid when she learned that a man was going to have her son,” he recalls, “that she would stand outside the portable after class started. You could see the top of her hair. She would stand right below the window, listening to everything that was going on. And she was frequently running to the office, making sure that I had never done anything, that I had no police record, the whole bit. So that was my initiation to this place.

“At first, I was hot as hell about the whole thing. When the principal called me in and said, ‘I want you to be aware of this,’ I said, ‘You don’t have to make me aware. I see the woman outside my classroom every day!’ I guess I viewed the whole thing as an interference. The crazy thing about it, as I look back, is that the mother became one of my best allies.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Morgan had to prove himself to skeptics. Two years later, when he started teaching kindergarten, he had to contend with doubting parents who didn’t think a man could be nurturing enough with their children. “They were very open and honest about it,” he says. One set of parents, in fact, told Morgan that they had hoped their son would be placed with a woman because they felt he needed to be exposed to “that maternal instinct.”

“I spent a lot of time with those two parents trying to tell them that there is a paternal instinct, too,” Morgan says. By the end of the year, he had won them over.

Other parents, however, have been unwilling to give Morgan the benefit of the doubt. Kindergarten teacher Beth Crutchfield, who is one of Morgan’s best friends at Granbery, recalls one set of parents “who just did not want their daughter in a male kindergarten teacher’s room. And that was the only reason they would give. They just didn’t want that. They didn’t think it was appropriate. So they moved her out.”

Principal Sadler remembers one father storming into his office when he found out his son had been assigned to Morgan’s classroom. “He was angry,” he says. “I thought he was going to hit me. He said, ‘I’m not having my kid in a man’s room. No way is my little boy going to be in that room.’ He’d never even met Mr. Morgan. I say the father had the problem. He immediately assumed that because Mr. Morgan was a teacher, he was gay. That’s what he said to me. That’s the only time I’ve ever had a parent do that.” (Morgan, incidentally, is married and has two children.) Sadler moved the boy to another classroom. “Why create a problem?” he asks.

When Morgan made the switch from 2nd grade to kindergarten, not only did he have to prove himself to parents, but he also had to convince some of the other teachers at Granbery that he had what it takes to work with 5-year-olds. “I think the initial resistance was the feeling that ‘This is a woman’s job,’” he says. “Some teachers viewed kindergarten as a woman’s place to be, not a man’s.”

“Mainly, they were worried about the ‘nurturing role,’” adds Crutchfield. “But Bert has disproved the whole theory that men cannot work with young children. He’s just blown that right out of the water.”

In the classroom, Morgan--a chubby man with a double chin and a thick head of sandy hair--is alternately tender and tough with his charges. “Good morning, sweet!” he says to one girl, who walks right up and gives him a big hug. Other students respond in kind: A boy with red hair and wire-frame glasses enters the classroom, plops himself down in Morgan’s lap, smiles, and says, “You’re pretty happy today!” Throughout the school day, kids tug at his slacks, begging for attention, pleading, “Mr. Morgan! Mr. Morgan!”

And yet, when the children get out of control, Morgan makes his displeasure quite clear. “Too much confusion!” he says at one point, flicking the lights on and off to get his students’ attention. “I’d like to see all of you sitting on the edge of the carpet.” The boys and girls slowly make their way to the center of the classroom and the large square of blue indoor-outdoor carpet their teacher has taped down. “Now, here’s the problem we’re facing,” he tells the children. “Do we have much time before lunch?” The kids respond in unison: “No!” Morgan admonishes the students for their behavior, imploring them to settle down. But as they return to their tables, the volume picks up again, ever so slightly, until 10 minutes later, chaos has returned. Morgan shakes his head. It’s one of those days.

Later, during one of his few breaks from the classroom, Morgan reflects on his teaching style. “I try to be a warm, accepting creature,” he says, puffing on a Carlton. “But, at the same time, I expect a lot of my kids, and sometimes I can be as abrasive as Ajax. I know how rough it is out there; I’ve done other things besides teaching. I know how dog-eat-dog it can be. I don’t want them to be the dog eaters, but at the same time, I want them to be prepared. I want them to understand that it’s your best that’s going to be looked at, and it has to be there every day.

“I don’t know that I teach differently. We basically have a prescribed program that we teach during the year, and all of us are pretty duty-bound to that. But I think maybe I bring a different perspective.”

Bert Morgan

“As a man, I think I bring a different tone to the classroom. I don’t know that I teach differently. We basically have a prescribed program that we teach during the year, and all of us are pretty duty-bound to that. But I think maybe I bring a different perspective. I know my little boys especially are fearful at the beginning of the year because oftentimes Daddy is still the disciplinarian at home, and suddenly here is this man who is going to be their teacher. I think they’re probably more fearful than the little girls sometimes. Then, as the first six weeks or thereabouts end, they become just so totally relaxed and open with the situation.”

Indeed, Morgan’s students appear to be utterly nonchalant with the fact that their teacher is a man. As kindergartners, they don’t know any different. Every now and then, however, stereotypical notions come to the surface. “Once, just a couple of years ago,” Morgan recalls, “one of the little boys came to me and said, ‘You know, my daddy says that you can make a lot more money doing something.’ Not ‘doing something else,’ but ‘doing something.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll be honest with you. I can’t think of what it would be like to do anything else. And if I did do something else, I wouldn’t get to know you.’

“And he went back and told his daddy, who sent me a note that said, ‘Good answer. Proud of you.’”

The issue of job status comes up often when you talk to male elementary school teachers. After all, in the United States, teaching has never had the same cachet as, say, law or medicine. Female teachers have long struggled with this image problem, but for male teachers, the situation seems to be worse. “There’s not a lot of prestige with the job,” says Peter Burnett, an elementary school teacher in Colorado Springs, Colo. “When I tell people that I’m a teacher, they say, ‘Oh?’ People wonder when I’m going to get a ‘real’ job.”

Says David Downing, a 2nd-grade teacher at Belmont (Mass.) Day School, “The one I get often is, ‘Are you still teaching?’”

Last year, Howard Karlitz, an elementary school teacher from Long Island, N.Y., wrote an essay for Working Woman magazine in which he explained how being the only man on an otherwise all-female faculty has changed his life for the better. “But any personal gain I may have realized as a result of this environment,” he wrote, “is tempered by a public attitude toward teaching that is not only unsupportive but at times antagonistic. For one, my colleagues and I are often riled by those individuals who see the profession, especially in its involvement with younger children, as being cushy or womanish. ... Casual acquaintances stereotypically surmise that my marriage is in trouble or that I’m gay.”

Adds Crutchfield, Bert Morgan’s colleague at Granbery: “There’s a public perception that teaching in an elementary school is a female thing to do. And it doesn’t allow for the macho male kind of persona that a lot of young men like to show.”

Male elementary teachers have long suffered from the homophobic notion that “real men"--that is, straight men--don’t teach young children, and those who do must therefore be gay. And to some parents--like the father who nearly came to blows with Robert Sadler when he found out his son’s teacher was a man--gay means the same thing as pervert. Sadly, parents aren’t the only ones to perpetuate this stereotype. Dominic Gullo, a professor of early-childhood education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, likes to tell the story of what happened when one of his students, a male, introduced himself to the principal of an elementary school where he had been assigned to do his student teaching. “The principal, who was a man, said, ‘Thank God you don’t have a limp wrist,’” Gullo says.

Sometimes at parties, Morgan finds himself having to defend his chosen profession to perfect strangers. “There are those individuals who truly feel that teaching is overpaid day care,” he says, shaking his head.

To use “overpaid” and “teaching” in the same sentence, however, seems utterly ridiculous, given the traditionally low salaries most teachers earn. That factor alone, Morgan believes, is enough to keep a lot of men from entering the profession. “I can’t complain about my salary,” he says, “because after 22 years and a number of degrees and everything else, I’m pretty much at the top of the scale. But I can’t imagine how a young man would try to support a family at the starting pay of a teacher. I just don’t see that.”

To Peter Burnett, it’s not a hypothetical matter. “When I was single and teaching,” he says, “I was young enough so that the money wasn’t an issue.” Now, however, he’s 35 years old and married, and when he goes off to school to teach, his wife stays at home with their three children. Somehow, they manage to get by on Burnett’s salary. “I don’t get paid what I’m worth,” he says. “But I just can’t imagine myself doing anything else.” To help make ends meet, he works during the summers; this year, he took a job in the children’s section of the local public library. “People always talk about how teachers get summer vacations,” he says, “but what it really means is that you get laid off for three months.”

Some men are reluctant to enter the teaching profession because of the “fear factor.”

Even men who might otherwise be willing to put up with low pay and the lack of job prestige are reluctant to enter the teaching profession because of what Morgan calls the “fear factor.”

“There’s always the fear that something you say or do is going to be taken the wrong way by a child or by a parent,” he says. “And then, in turn, you get accused of everything from A to Z, which could cost you your family, your home, your career, and everything else. That’s enough to chase men away from teaching young children. But at the same time, they’re realistic fears that you need to consider.”

When Morgan began his career, such fears never crossed his mind. “It wasn’t even a factor,” he says. But that all changed about 10 years ago, when a number of highly publicized child-abuse cases in schools and day-care centers insured the issue’s place in the national Zeitgeist. Some teachers stopped touching students altogether, but Morgan couldn’t bring himself to go that far. “Yes, I’m a little more guarded,” he says, “and I’m a little more cautious. But as far as letting it govern or drive me, if I do that, then I’m less than I was meant to be, and I can’t do that.”

Not that Morgan goes out of his way to touch his students. “There are those kids who don’t want that contact,” he says, “and the main thing is honoring that. I’ve had groups of kids whereby the hugging or whatever means nothing; it’s just as natural to them as the world. And I’ve had other groups where, if you tell a kid, ‘You need to go zip your pants,’ he says, ‘Why were you looking at my pants?’ And you’re thinking, My God, why did I even say anything? So it just depends on the kids.”

It’s clear, however, that the issue is one that Morgan hasn’t completely come to terms with. When a student sits on his lap, for example, “the first thing that hits my mind is, I shouldn’t let him do this. But the natural part of me says any parent would do it. I’m not going to shove him off because that would be rejecting him. And I’m not going to reject a child.”

“Men have to be so far above reproach,” says David Downing, “because of fears of child abuse. I have to be very, very careful about how I touch children. I don’t like it, but I make sure I’m never alone in the classroom with a female student.” He adds, however, that “if a child is affectionate toward me, I don’t brush it off.”

“I worry that at anytime I could be accused of something,” Peter Burnett says. “But it doesn’t stop me from letting a kid give me a hug.” Still, he knows “a lot of teachers--men and women--who just don’t touch students.”

Paul Hassler, a high school teacher who chairs the National Education Association’s Men’s Caucus, sums up the dilemma this way: “If a female teacher touches a kid, it’s seen as something that is natural because women are supposed to be more cuddly. But if a man does it, it’s suspect.”

Since nearly all teachers work behind closed doors, isolation has always been an issue within the profession, for both men and women. But for male elementary school teachers--who, like Morgan, are sometimes the only men on an otherwise all-female staff--the problem can be more pronounced. Sometimes, it can be as simple a matter as the conversation in the teachers’ lounge. “I hear a lot about the lingerie sales in Nashville,” Morgan says. “I’m serious! When it first happened, I thought, ‘Oh boy, do I really want to listen to this?’ But now, it’s become blase.”

Morgan, in fact, has been a minority for so long that he hardly even notices it anymore. “Strangely enough, when you teach, this is your world,” he says, looking around his classroom. “You don’t see that many people during the day. So there could be 20 other men, and I would never see them anyway. I think it probably becomes more defined when I go to meetings or educational functions, where oftentimes I’m the only man.”

Morgan recently attended a districtwide meeting on inclusion where, he discovered, he was one of only two male teachers in a roomful of women. “During one of the breaks,” he says, “the other man walked up to me and asked, ‘Are you going to stay all day?’ And I said, ‘Well, yes.’ And he said, ‘Good. I don’t want to be the only male in this group.’”

Asked if he ever wished he had more male colleagues at his school, Morgan replies, “I’ve just never considered it. I feel comfortable with the people I work with. And the beauty of this place is that you can pretty much say whatever you want to anybody, call it like it is, and they’ll do the same thing with you.”

Morgan credits his friendship with Beth Crutchfield for having helped him get through the difficult times. “Beth, being black, has a perspective on the discrimination that can come with this profession,” he says. “And as a male teacher, I’ve had to deal with a different sort of discrimination. So I think we sort of bring those perspectives together. We’re kindred spirits. I think the world of my principal, but at the same time, Beth is the one I run to first.”

When Crutchfield started teaching, she encountered some resistance from parents because of her race. “So I knew what Bert felt like when he came into the younger grades,” she says. “I know what it’s like to be picked on, so I made a point of being a good friend.”

Crutchfield, for one, would like to see more men teaching elementary school, particularly because an increasing number of children are being raised by single or divorced mothers. She applauds the efforts of some urban school districts to attract more African-American men to the teaching profession. (In Philadelphia, for example, the local chapter of Concerned Black Men Inc. has worked closely with district officials to create a program that would see 100 black teachers hired each year for the next five years.)

“We need more males,” she says. “It does not matter what color they are or what their ethnic background is. We need more males in the younger grades.” Children from single-parent homes “need to have a strong male figure, and they need it as early as they can get it.”

But do some elementary school principals resist the idea of having male teachers? “That’s hard for me to say,” Crutchfield says, “because I’ve only taught at this school. Our principal actually encouraged Bert to get his kindergarten certification. So it hasn’t been a problem here. I’ve heard tales from other schools, where principals don’t want men in the younger grades. But I think the main problem is that men just don’t come. I think they would be readily accepted if there were more who were willing to work with young children.”

“I’d like to have a male teacher in every grade level,” adds principal Sadler, “but there just aren’t enough out there.”

Dominic Gullo from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee says many of the school districts he works with can’t seem to get enough male teachers, particularly in the younger grades. “There’s a kind of affirmative-action program going on at a lot of school districts,” he says. “Our male students are usually the first ones to be hired.” Gullo, in turn, actively recruits men for his program, which trains students in pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade. “Since our program started in 1992,” he says, “we’ve gone from having zero men to about 10 percent today.” Despite figures that show a continuing decline in the number of male teachers in the United States, Gullo is optimistic. “I think in some places, things are getting better,” he says. “Here, it’s not an issue.”

It’s not unusual for male elementary school teachers to eventually move out of the classroom and into the principal’s office, as Robert Sadler did. During Bert Morgan’s first two years of teaching, his principal, a woman, was determined to see Morgan head in that direction. But being an administrator has never interested him. “I never wanted any part of that,” Morgan says. “I enjoy working with kids. Running a school, the financial aspects of that, just never appealed to me. More power to anyone who can do it.”

Instead, Morgan spends much of his time leading professional-development workshops, mostly on the topic of alternative assessment, for other Nashville teachers. “I love being with other teachers,” he says, “to find out what’s going on in the profession.” In fact, he’s currently on a waiting list for a full-time mentoring position. The job, which would take him all over the Nashville school district to work with new teachers, would mean giving up his kindergarten class, something Morgan says he’s prepared to do. But is he? Pressed on the matter, Morgan sounds ambivalent. “At this point,” he says, “I’d like to be working with adults. But I’ve never regretted this a day in my life. With all the stress and the problems and the money and everything else, I don’t regret this at all.”

He takes another drag off his cigarette. “I love what I do,” he says. “I’ve done it for so long that it’s like breathing and eating. For some people, like Beth, it’s a calling. But I think for me it was just something I sort of fell in love with. And that’s the way I’ve always looked at it. And now it’s something that I can’t just give up.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Odd Man Out


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