Teaching Opinion

Response: Male Teachers ‘Walking A Tight Rope’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 10, 2013 8 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series on the challenges facing male teachers. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s “question-of-the-week” was:

What are the unique challenges facing male teachers? Do they have it easier, harder, or the same as women educators?

Part One in this series included a few of my own thoughts and an extended piece by Chicago educator Ray Salazar.

Today, New York City teacher José Vilson and Sacramento educator Alice Mercer respond. In addition, I’ve included many reader comments.

Response From José Vilson

Mr. José Vilson is a math educator for a public middle school in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, as part of the NYC Department of Education. He is in his ninth year as a teacher. He served on CTQ’s TeacherSolutions 2030 team, co-authoring the book TEACHING 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools... Now and in the Future. Mr. Vilson has been featured at TransformED, Edutopia, GOOD, Education Week, and The Huffington Post. His blog was named one of the top 20 teacher blogs by Scholastic Inc., and part of the GOOD 100. He is also on the Board of Directors for the Center for Teaching Quality. He can be found at The Jose Vilson:

For male teachers, about 20% of the teaching core, we have a few challenges that feel a lot like walking a tight rope. For one, our relationships with students are presumed to be father-figure disciplinarian. This is especially true of men of color, or men of a sizeable physique. Many of our children across the spectrum don’t have father figures in their lives, and navigating our academic responsibilities (standards, curriculum) with our socioemotional aspirations (love, passion, care) can be difficult. While some of this is true for women as well, the expectations for men (sadly) are different and require a different mindset in the classroom.

Speaking of which, our relationships with girls is also a point of contention. People still have a perception about male teachers who may be somehow tempted by our female students. I do have to make sure that, when I speak to my girls, it’s in an open-door setting or amongst a larger group of students. I get that there’s a long history of issues stemming from before I was born. Sometimes, however, it feels like the burden of proof leans harder on male teachers in those situations than female teachers.

Then again, much of that is a reflection of our patriarchy, and the ways in which we view the teaching profession. As a male teacher, I have the privilege of showing a few leadership qualities and getting sought out for administration-level positions more frequently than women do. In any other job, I would also have the privilege of getting paid 30-40 cents more per dollar than my woman counterpart. For some staffers, I’m seen as an asset, not just because I teach math, but because administration might see a need for more male teachers in their school. Generally, people see high school teachers as more professional and rational than elementary school. Not coincidentally, the percentage of women to men decreases as you go higher in the grades.

It’s obviously easier for men than women in schools, and in society. Some of these pieces on our plate, however, can suck the life of current recruitment efforts.

Response From Alice Mercer

Alice Mercer teaches sixth grade at an elementary school in Sacramento, CA. She started her teaching career in Oakland, Ca, and moved to Sacramento in 2001. Alice is an active member of her union, and uses social media extensively for professional development and to help organize educators to improve our craft and working conditions:

Here are a couple of things for men to note in elementary. You will be outnumbered, greatly, on any given campus. You’ll get one staff bathroom for every two for female staff. Not to worry, you’ll sharing it with only 2-3 others, while our ratio for us is 8 - 10 per restroom. You will either be well-loved as a rarity, with parents demanding their kids get in your class (to get experience with a non-female teacher) or treated with suspicion. In high poverty schools, you will be a rarity, as there is an absence of adult men for a variety of reasons that have as much to do with parents having to work two or more jobs to make ends meet and mandatory minimums with the war on drugs. I’m not blaming the victim on this, it’s an unfortunate demographic reality in some neighborhoods. Anytime you’re put on a pedestal, there will be those who want to knock you down, and you will be reminded often to never spend time alone with a student, least you be accused of something awful.

You’ll also have to deal with the perceptions, and mis-perceptions, of others. Folks will assume you’re just putting in time until you move up to administration, which some are. But many of you have found your calling in the classroom and wouldn’t change it for the world. Because you are in a traditional “female” job you also get to experience the perceptions (sometimes low) that go along with the job. It means you also have lower pay than in other male-dominated government jobs. It could make you more sensitive to this sort of misogyny, or oblivious, but it’s the context that you work in whether you acknowledge it or not.

People will assume lots of things about your abilities and interests that often do not mesh with reality.They will assume you can handle discipline, and will send kids to you as though you are the “dad” on campus. They will assume you can’t handle decorating a bulletin board. Some outside education may even wonder, “couldn’t he do better?” To those people, I suggest you laugh, and move on. If this is your profession and one you truly feel called to, they are merely gnats on a horse’s back. Call folks on their assumption about you and male teachers, but also be prepared to call others on assumptions that folks make about all teachers, what we do, why we do it, and what we should be paid, etc.

I have no idea who has it harder or easier. It’s a hard job for everyone who’s doing it right, but the most enjoyable too.

Responses From Readers


I haven’t found any unique challenges, over a teaching career spanning more than 20 years, due to my being a male teacher. Actually, being male has been incredibly advantageous in my dealings with parents, students, and staff. At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, mothers seem to respect me more than they do my female colleagues, and fathers seem to appreciate dealing wit a “guy.” As far as students, for many of my students, I’m often their first male teacher, and they love it, giving me a clear advantage. Regarding staff, all the administrators I have worked for, have demonstrated a tendency to value male opinions more than those of equally, or even more experienced and qualified females. I have observed this behavior in male and female administrators. Definitely, being male has never presented a unique challenge, it has been a unique advantage.


The day your question appeared in print, I was at an assembly. A baby wandered from her mother into the crowd of seated children and teachers. One of the female teachers turned, saw the child, drew her onto her lap, kissed her on the head, and turned back to the assembly presentation.

I thought, “I could never get away with doing that.”

Almost a decade ago, a baby boy wandered from his mother and tottered next to me as I was seated as an assembly. I asked him if he wanted to sit and pointed to my lap. The boy sat and began to look around. Within 15 seconds, the boy’s mother yanked her son from my lap and took him back with her to the doorway, where she was standing.

I am a male elementary school teacher.

The year we added a middle school, an administrator told the assembled school body that she welcomed hearing deep and changing voices. The adults, mostly teachers and mothers, laughed. I looked at the eighth grade boys. They were not laughing. I told the administrator later her commenting on signs of puberty in boys was about as welcome as would be my saying I liked witnessing girls’ breast development in the oldest students. (In retrospect, I know that was not the best way to make my point.) The administrator told me I was overreacting.

When the school hired two men to teach fifth grade, some parents went to the principal. They were nervous because their fifth grade girls would not have a female teacher as a role model. I wondered how the fifth grade boys felt, having spent six years at school with almost no male teachers and role models.

This school has undergone frequent debates about staffing. Do we hire a female math specialist, because we want to give the girls female role models for math? Or do we hire a male teacher, because men are not common in elementary schools?

It probably was easier for me to get a job as an elementary school teacher, because I am male. I feel like I have been given a unique gift, seeing up close younger children grow up. I feel it has been an equal gift (and, admittedly, a burdensome responsibility at other times) to be able to show young students that a man caring for children is an acceptable, enjoyable, and rewarding way to be an adult.

Several people sent tweets in response to the question. I’ve “curated” them using Storify:

Thanks to Jose and Alice, and to many readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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