Teaching Profession

Endangered Species

By Kellie Rowden-Racette — November 11, 2005 18 min read
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Although there are plenty of desks in Pete Villa’s 4th grade classroom, his 16 students are sitting in pairs on the linoleum floor. Each pair is equipped with a marble, a ruler, and a piece of carpeting. Propping their rulers against books, the students roll their marbles down the rulers and onto the carpet pieces, to see how a change in incline affects velocity and distance.

“Does everybody have everything they need?” Villa asks.

Pete Villa, a 4th grade teacher at Cumberland Head Elementary School in Plattsburgh, New York.

A warm May breeze blows through the classroom at Cumberland Head Elementary School in Plattsburgh, New York. Part of the Beekmantown district, Cumberland Head serves 500-plus kids in a rural area in the state’s northeastern corner. Villa’s brightly colored room is cluttered with projects that have been accumulating since the beginning of the school year. Signs hanging near the blackboard read “YOU are responsible for your own actions!” and “Attitude is a little thing that makes a BIG difference.”

As the students work on their science project, the 41-year-old teacher bounces like a teenager from pair to pair. “OK, guys,” he says, “remember when you record your measurements, we’re talking centimeters here. Do you remember how we record centimeters?”

Sixteen confused faces stare at Villa. Finally one boy tentatively raises his hand and says, “Cm?”

Villa smiles. “Yes,” he says, chuckling, “cm is kind of right, but not what I’m asking. How do you write the numbers? Fractions?”

Three hands shoot up. “No—decimals,” says a girl with short blond hair.

“Decimals! Good job!” the teacher says, beaming. “OK, y’all are ready to roll!”

Dressed in khakis and a navy button-down shirt, Villa could easily be mistaken for a corporate middle manager. But his tie, adorned with colorful handprints, and his hiking boots give him away. This is Villa’s 18th year as a 4th grade teacher, and, according to the bespectacled, dark-haired educator, it’s far from his last.

“To be honest,” he says, “when I went for my first teaching job, I took what I could get. What’s cool about 4th [grade] is that it’s just the beginning of intermediate information—math and science as subjects—and it’s so great to see the beginning of that. I enjoy coming to work every day. I love it.”

But Villa is in the minority—a shrinking minority. Only 9 percent of the country’s elementary school teachers are male, according to the National Education Association’s 2003 report Status of the American Public School Teacher. Although the NEA’s statistics were drawn from the 2000-01 school year, they’re still considered definitive by those keeping tabs on men, who, according to the report, amounted to just 21 percent of all teachers. The report covers a 40-year span, and the midway mark, 1981, seems to have been a renaissance year for males, who accounted for 33 percent of all teachers and 18 percent of elementary school educators.

“I don’t know,” Villa says, trying to explain why today’s numbers are so low. “I think maybe, at first, when men look at elementary ed, some might think it’s girly, like men aren’t supposed to have feelings or something.”

Or maybe the media’s to blame. “On TV,” he explains, “you don’t really see men in elementary education. You see Wall Street types ... making a lot of money. My [college] roommate was like that, and now he’s in the middle of his sixth corporate takeover and doesn’t know where he’s going to get his next meal.”

Roommate experiences aside, money remains the primary stumbling block for many would-be teachers, according to Tom Blanford, associate director of the NEA’s teacher quality department. “In professions that are traditionally female, salaries are designed for employees to take significant time off from the work force, not employees who are full-time and in it for the long haul,” explains Blanford, who taught high school for 15 years. “Add that [teaching is] seen as a predominantly female profession, and it’s hard to break the mold.”

This mind-set is reinforced by contradictory messages about men’s roles. They’re “supposed to be strong and financially powerful, but at the same time be nurturing as fathers,” says Bryan Nelson, the founder of MenTeach, a nonprofit that seeks ways to recruit male teachers. He also teaches early education classes at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Society,” Nelson says, “sends a very strong message that there is something wrong with a man who wants to be associated with something so female, like caring for children.”

Efforts to increase the number of male teachers are gathering steam, however. For several years now, Clemson University’s Call Me Mister program, for example, has been directing African American men toward education studies in college. And NEA members are now asking that the male-shortage problem be considered a priority. “We don’t have our marching orders yet, but we can see it coming,” says Blanford.

What they’re already up againstis the perfect societal storm. In 2002, after surveying members of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, MenTeach confirmed what many believe are the primary reasons men stay away from teaching: low wages, a feminine stereotype, and fear of being accused of abuse. Says Nelson, “It’s not just one factor—it’s a combination.”

‘If teachers were paid a hundred thousand dollars, we’d see more men in teaching,’ says Bryan Nelson of MenTeach. ‘The unfortunate reality is that in many parts of our society, people feel that if a man isn’t bringing home the bacon, what use is he?’

New York’s Clinton County, home of Cumberland Head Elementary, is sandwiched between Adirondack Park and the Canadian border. The small towns and rural surroundings make it easy to lead a relatively simple life. But even in a place where a dollar goes far, raising a family requires a decent salary. Bob Harris, a 52-year-old math teacher who’s nearing retirement at Beekmantown Middle School, believes that for men, money is the biggest issue when considering teaching.

“This world is so competitive, and it’s not glamorous to say you’re a teacher,” he says. “But mainly, it’s the economics. The beginning salary in my school is $33,500, [and] it tops out in the mid-60s, and that’s after 30 years of teaching. I have a cousin whose two sons are pharmacists and started their first jobs at $62,000. So you can see the dilemma.”

To be sure, educators’ salaries are relatively low. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they range, on average, from $45,670 for elementary school to $48,420 for high school. Preschool teachers fare even worse, averaging $23,940 a year.

While teacher salaries have been rising steadily—by roughly 3 percent annually, according to the American Federation of Teachers—the costs of health care and housing have by far outpaced those gains. Health insurance costs have increased 13 percent each year, the AFT notes. According to the National Association of Realtors, the median home price is roughly $218,000 and, by year’s end, will have increased by 10.5 percent since 2004.

“If teachers were paid a hundred thousand dollars, we’d see more men in teaching,” says Nelson. “The unfortunate reality is that in many parts of our society, people feel that if a man isn’t bringing home the bacon, what use is he?”

Single men, however, may not feel the same pressure. Mark McFadden, a 38-year-old high school English teacher in Burlington, Vermont, says his salary fits his lifestyle. Add in the vacation time, and teaching is the perfect job. “Nowadays teachers can make $50,000 to $60,000 per year, and to some people, that’s pretty respectable,” says McFadden, a 10-year veteran. “But I’m single, and I can see how the pay would become a problem if I were trying to raise a family.”

McFadden also admits that pay isn’t the only issue. “I don’t think this country values its teachers,” he explains. “If you mix in the male ego, some men don’t see it as a noble pursuit. Personally, I can’t think of anything more important, but in our society, money means appreciation, and it would be hard to attract men who want to be appreciated.”

Appreciation isn’t a problem for Pete Villa at the moment. His 4th graders are playing one of their favorite games: spelling bowling. They’ve been paired up once again, and each pair has been given dice and a list of words. If a team spells a word correctly, it gets to roll for points, and the team with the most points wins. But the game has rules.

“Two minutes left—hey!” Villa says after seeing a pair of dice skitter halfway across the classroom floor.

“No, no—I was just putting it back!” pleads a boy, quickly retrieving his dice.

Games are a big part of Villa’s MO. He says he’s like a kid himself, and he sees a difference in how quickly students learn when they’re having fun. “I’m always on the lookout to find ways to make it fun but can’t always do it because we have so much material to cover,” he explains, keeping an eye out for stray dice. “There’s just a lot of work to be done each day.”

As with most teachers, strategizing doesn’t stop for Villa when he leaves school grounds. His work follows him home, to the grocery store, and even on vacations with his family—his wife, Katy, and their two elementary-age boys. But this diligence is balanced by job satisfaction. “I definitely feel appreciated by the people I work with and the kids I teach,” Villa says. “And the parents appreciate me, too—that is, until their taxes are raised.”

A sense of humor is one of the many traits fellow 4th grade teacher Kathy Miller admires in Villa. “He’s great,” she says. “He has a really nice rapport with the kids and really connects with them—especially the boys, which is ... a nice change of pace.”

Barrett Waling, a 5th grader who had Villa last year, remembers enjoying his first experience having a male teacher. “He was funny,” Barrett says. “He had ‘what if’ sessions where we could just ask questions instead of wasting time. He was rumored to be the funny teacher who you wanted to get.”

It’s recess time for Villa’s class. Anxious to enjoy the spring air, 13 students fidget near the door until their teacher gives them the go-ahead. Three remain behind, correcting homework from the day before. One by one, Villa checks their work and sets each student free. The last, a pretty blond girl named Asia, stays in the room with Villa for several minutes before handing in her paper.

Pete Villa, a 4th grade teacher since 1987, is an exception to the rule: Just 9 percent of elementary school teachers are men. And many of their students come from single-parent homes. "What happens a lot of the time is that there are children who don't have a male influence in their lives," Villa says. "I think they look to me for that."

“Let’s see here. No, no—the ‘B’ has to go like this,” Villa says, showing the girl what he means. “Go write ‘beautiful’ the right way, and you can head out.”

“Like this?” Asia asks several moments later.

“Yes! B-e-a-u-tiful!” says Villa. “You’re free—go play!”

Before the last word is out of his mouth, Asia is out the door.

As innocent as this scene is, the public perception of male educators in particular has been sorely tested by headlines that seem ubiquitous: “Teacher Accused of Sex Abuse” and “Music Teacher Charged with Sex Assault of Pupil,” for example. And in Educator Sexual Misconduct, an analysis of several sex abuse studies that Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft did for the U.S. Department of Education in 2004, she concludes that “more than 4.5 million students are subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade.” Both men and women are perpetrators, but it’s more likely to be men; in the studies Shakeshaft reviewed, males accounted for 57.2 percent to 96 percent of cases.

Even though the vast majority of teachers behave appropriately, the headlines and studies have resulted in a rising tide of suspicion, which has many male faculty members holding back emotionally. “When it comes to touching and hugging,” says Mark Ginsberg, NAEYC executive director, “it is more sanctioned with female teachers and it causes men to be more reserved. Right or wrong, men fall under a different magnification.”

Bob Harris believes that the public’s perception of male teachers has changed drastically during the past three decades. “You have to be very careful,” he says. “When I first started teaching, you could go to a student’s house for tutoring, and even if the student’s parents weren’t there, you could go on in, tutor, leave, and fear no consequences. Today you wouldn’t even think of going in the home. The first thing you have to do is call to see if an adult is there.”

McFadden concurs, saying that while it’s important he shows his students that he cares, what’s considered appropriate behavior is a moving target. “I do have to watch my back,” he adds. “The way I show affection is to go to as many out-of-the-classroom, school-sponsored activities as I can. I want the students to see that I’m there for them. But I would not give a student a ride home.”

Behavioral conduct, to a large degree, is scripted these days. In New York, for example, where prospective teaching employees statewide are fingerprinted and undergo an extensive background check, there are strict rules about reporting sexual abuse and stiff penalties for failing to do so. Nationally, organizations like the NAEYC advise early childhood educators to establish a parental presence by adopting “policies and practices that promote close partnerships with families.” Clemson’s Call Me Mister program emphasizes the importance of being a role model and tells its teacher trainees not to place themselves in compromising positions with students.

Villa says of the stigma that male teachers must bear, “It’s a reality of the job, just like a truck driver’s reality is that cars may come across your path and you might crash. ... [But] if you’re doing things right, you shouldn’t have to worry about it. So I don’t.”

The same can’t be said for Steve Weber, a teacher who met MenTeach’s Nelson during a seminar and has a cautionary tale to share. Fifteen years ago, Weber says, when he was 38 and working as a preschool teacher in Minnesota, he was removed from class after the mother of a 5-year-old blind girl accused him of abusing her daughter. According to Weber, the mother later admitted to a school administrator and a social worker that her boyfriend was the abuser. She’d been afraid the man would leave her if she told the truth.

“Honestly, I was pissed!” Weber recalls. “I knew I hadn’t done anything, and I made it painfully clear. At the time, I didn’t realize the severity of what was happening. I thought, ‘This is all nonsense, and I needn’t worry.’ That would certainly not be the case now.”

In the early 1980s, Pete Villa was a typical high school guy trying to decide on a career. During summers, he worked at camps and coached Little League, so he wasn’t surprised, after taking a career assessment test in college, that one recommendation was teaching. Villa graduated with a certificate in K-6 education, and 18 school calendars later, he’s a dedicated elementary school teacher, while Katy, his wife of 15 years, works in the male-dominated field of electrical engineering.

“Yeah, we’re kind of in reversed roles, I guess,” says Villa, shrugging. “My wife definitely makes a higher salary than I do, but I couldn’t care less—as long as we’re bringing in cash from somewhere.”

Even though most male teachers behave appropriately with students, newspaper headlines and studies on sexual abuse in schools have resulted in a rising tide of suspicion. "It's a reality of the job," Villa says of recent public opinion. But "if you're doing things right, you shouldn't have to worry about it. So I don't."

As comfortable as Villa feels, he’s also aware that, for many students, he is the first male teacher they’ve encountered. So at the beginning of each school year, he expects some hesitation. But Barrett Waling’s mother, Ann, says she was “really glad” when she found out Villa would be her son’s 4th grade teacher. “You never know how women are going to react to boys in the classroom,” she explains. “I find that because men have been boys, they’re a lot better with the boy temperament.”

Among educators, though, that sentiment isn’t always shared. When participants in the MenTeach/NAEYC study were asked whether they agree with the statement “It is important that men work with children in early childhood education,” 63 percent indicated they strongly agreed. But when separated by gender, “there was a significant difference between women’s and men’s responses,” according to the report—with 82 percent of the men strongly agreeing versus 62 percent of the women. One female in her 50s went so far as to write, “I think it is a job more appropriate for women,” while another in her 30s said, “A woman is more nurturing and more apt to have experience by being a mother.”

“There is still this mythology that women are the nurturers and that men are the breadwinners,” says the NAEYC’s Ginsberg. “It’s not simple to break because it’s systemic.”

So why teach little kids at all? Many men say the reason is they feel needed in the classroom more than ever.

“I see a lot of single-parent families where there aren’t any fathers,” explains Villa. “What happens a lot of the time is that there are children who don’t have a male influence in their lives. I think they look to me for that.”

He may be right. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 43 percent of today’s first marriages will end in divorce within 15 years, and the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 82 percent of single-parent households are headed by women.

It was a combination of these all-too-common situations for many students in South Carolina’s public schools that sparked the inception of Call Me Mister. Established at Clemson in 1997, the program is aimed at recruiting, certifying, and eventually finding employment in elementary schools for 200 African American males. To recruit candidates, the admissions staff goes to high schools, churches, and other community centers, where they meet with young men. They then invite those who show an interest in education to apply to one of the nine South Carolina colleges participating in Call Me Mister. Once a recruit is established as an early education major and shows that he’s able to maintain a minimum 2.7 GPA, he’s given tuition assistance, academic tutoring, and constant mentoring.

Active recruitment began in 2001, and thus far, 125 students have enrolled and 15 graduates have made their ways to classrooms—just a drop in the bucket, according to Call Me Mister’s director, Roy Jones. “When the program started, one of the most striking statistics ... was the fact that there are 14,655 African American men in South Carolina’s prison system [and] fewer than 200 in elementary education,” he says. “Children are struggling because of the lack of male presence in homes and classrooms.”

Established at Clemson University, Call Me Mister is aimed at recruiting, certifying, and placing 200 African American males in elementary schools. So far, 125 students have enrolled and 15 graduates have made their ways to classrooms.

The Call Me Mister model has not gone unnoticed. Although MenTeach’s Nelson has been speaking at education colleges and sponsoring workshops for male educators since the late 1970s, he’s now stepping up his focus on recruitment—particularly at the college level. Teacher training, he says, needs to be more “male-friendly,” with education majors receiving one-on-one mentoring, immediate exposure to classrooms, and perhaps a stipend.

To help achieve these goals, MenTeach has joined with a coalition of universities, libraries, school systems, and teacher associations to apply for a $7 million federal grant. If the U.S. Department of Education awards the grant (an answer is due in the fall), Nelson plans to implement development programs—sharing some of the same goals as Call Me Mister—at various Minnesota college campuses. “Our focus will be recruiting underrepresented men, then taking those men who have different levels of education and experience in teaching and move them to their next level of training,” Nelson says.

His aim, in other words, is to offer something that most education schools don’t. But some are looking closely at their core programs to see whether they can make men feel more welcome. Victoria Chou, dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, for example, says UIC’s attempts at male-friendliness “aren’t anything to brag about at this point.” Only 20 percent of its students are male, and she’s heard rumblings from the faculty about needed changes.

“There are some here who would really like to see more of a social-justice orientation to our programs,” Chou explains. By attracting the types of students and faculty who are willing, perhaps even eager, to “walk the walk” in the needier school districts, she says, programs like UIC’s would be able to attract not only dedicated future teachers but probably more men, too.

“Right now, students are placed in ‘safe’ schools for student teaching, and we should put them where teachers are really needed,” she adds. “When you have a clear mission, you will not be gender-bound as much because there is a focus.”

As “safe” as a school like Cumberland Head Elementary seems, Villa would argue that he is needed there—if only to demonstrate that men can teach younger children just as well as women while reaping the same rewards.

“I really want a Ski-Doo,” says a brown-haired boy in Villa’s 4th grade class, sitting among a circle of six kids on the floor. “But I can only ride it in the winter.”

“I wonder if you should just get an [all-terrain vehicle]?” a boy wearing a red T-shirt responds.

“Yeah, but then I’d always have to buy gas,” the first boy says, exasperated.

Believe it or not, these students, who’ve broken into two groups, are discussing the book Shiloh—Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s story of a boy who befriends an abused neighborhood dog. While this group’s conversation seems to have wandered, the kids are following instructions; in discussing turns in the plot, they’re finding parallel problems in their own lives and coming up with possible solutions.

“OK, you guys. You know the rules,” Villa says, standing between the groups. “Your sentences have to start with either ‘I like’ or ‘I wonder.’ No making fun, and keep it nice.”

They continue their discussions, and Villa wanders back and forth—joining in, listening, debating. The teacher likes to keep things loose, especially at the end of the school year, when his students are able to tackle assignments independently. Getting to that point is difficult, he says, but the end result is worth it.

“This is a really good exercise for them,” he adds, watching his students. “They take problems from the book, apply it to their lives, and sit down and have a discussion. They’re thinking, they’re interactive. It kind of feeds on itself.”

Now, with 15 minutes to go before lunch, the 4th graders return to their seats to finish reading the last few pages of Shiloh. Silence descends on the classroom.

“Listen to that,” Villa whispers, basking in the concerted effort. “You could hear a pin drop. Just what it should sound like when you are finishing a really good book.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2005 edition of Teacher Magazine as Endangered Species


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