Public schools are searching for a few good men -- male teachers, that is. Men accounted for less than one-fourth of all teachers in 2006, according to statistics released recently by the National Education Association (NEA), and there is little indication of that figure changing anytime soon.
Although education has historically been a predominantly female field, the number of male public school teachers in the United States hit a forty-year low that year. Kansas and Oregon boast the largest percentages of male teachers, at 33 percent and 31 percent, respectively. Mississippi and Arkansas have the lowest percentage, with males making up just under 18 percent of the teachers in those states.
"We're experiencing a significant male-teacher shortage," confirms Reg Weaver, president of the NEA. The shortage is particularly acute in early-childhood and lower grades, and the reason is partly pay related. "Teachers in elementary school typically don't make as much money as teachers in high school do," Weaver says. "More than 50 percent of male teachers are at the high school level."
Research conducted by MenTeach, a nonprofit organization that promotes the recruitment of male teachers, suggests that low status and pay deter males from entering education. "If you started paying teachers $150,000 per year, you'd see a lot of guys going into the field," admits Bryan Nelson, founder of MenTeach. Other key reasons behind the male-teacher shortage, according to MenTeach, is the stereotype that teaching is "women's work," as well as possible fears of lawsuits around accusations of sexual abuse of children.
To attract more male teachers, heavy recruiting at the university level is necessary, says Steve Peha, president of Teaching That Makes Sense, an education-consulting company. "We won't see more male teachers if we don't see more young men pursuing teaching degrees," he notes.
One of the more prominent recruitment programs is Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models), which provides tuition assistance and leadership training to male African American students pursuing education degrees. When the 150 participants in the program, which originated at South Carolina's Clemson University, finally start working, they will double the number of black men teaching in the state's elementary schools. The program has ten participating colleges throughout the state, and two other colleges in Pennsylvania and Virginia are replicating it.
Still, according to Peha, a coordinated effort to recruit male teachers is lacking, in part because some education experts remain unconvinced about the added value male teachers bring to the classroom. "If we want more men in the classroom, we'll need to see some data about the benefits of a gender-balanced corps," he notes.
Research studies focusing on whether male teachers help boys learn better have provided contradictory results. But a majority of male teachers interviewed confessed to serving a dual role in the classroom as both educator and role model, especially in low-income districts with single-parent homes that typically lack a male influence. "Some kids connect better with male teachers," says teacher Dan Brown, who chronicled his year at the Bronx's PS 85 as a NYC Teaching Fellow in his book The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.
In some cases, others at the school ask male teachers to play disciplinarian. "A lot of female teachers would come to me if they had a disciplinary problem -- mainly with boys -- and ask me to handle it," says Alan Flory, a retired special education teacher with twenty-eight years of experience. "I didn't particularly appreciate it, but I did it."
Flory believes that though males tend to be structured in what they do, they are more willing to use creative means to engage students. He now trains female teachers to use music in teaching as he did; for example, he brought a guitar into class on Fridays as a reward for good behavior. "I'd make up rhymes for vowel sounds and to help the kids learn math," he explains. "The kids really enjoyed that."
Brian Hendrickson, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Hillcrest Middle School, in Trumbull, Connecticut, polled his students to find out how they feel their male teachers differed from their female teachers. The results: Male teachers tend to use sports analogies, such as "Standardized tests are the Super Bowl of knowledge." They are more tolerant of chitchat and are more likely to integrate active learning methods, including competitions and games, into the curriculum. They also tend to be funnier, the informal poll suggested.
"Men tend to give more direction in their approach to sharing knowledge," says Stephen Jones, a longtime educator and the author of Seven Secrets of How to Study. "They want to appear to be the expert." Women, on the other hand, are more likely to collaborate with students and incorporate their ideas, Jones says. "Therefore, men who are teaching mixed classes must incorporate collaborative and direct instruction to meet the needs of all students." Meeting the needs of all students? That sounds like a great educational environment.
Tamar Snyder is a writer in New York City who specializes in education, personal finance, and careers.