Why There Is A Shortage Of Male Teachers In Elementary Schools

male teacher elementary schoolBy Susan Donaldson James

When Philip Wiederspan began teaching first-grade at age 25, he was the only male, except for the gym teacher. His former New Jersey college friends would look at him in shock when they learned his profession: "How can you do that? You must have a lot of patience."

"It requires a lot of patience," he said. "They are babies when they come in, just out of kindergarten, and by the end of the year, they are independent and can work on something by themselves for 10 minutes. Then they come back in September and, my God, they're babies, again."

Today, at 51, Wiederspan has devoted more than half his life to the youngest students at Upper Freehold Regional Elementary School in Allentown, N.J.

"Word got out my first year of teaching," he said. "Parents would call the office to come and visit my classroom to see if they wanted their kids in my class. I remember that. ... they just wanted to see."

As a man, Wiederspan is a rarity in U.S. elementary-school education. And experts say that as boys continue to lag behind girls academically, schools could use more male teachers.

(Full disclosure: This reporter's son, now 31, was a student in Wiederspan's first-grade classroom and thrived having a male role model, later going into teaching himself.)

"I am definitely not a mommy figure," said Wiederspan, who, after 17 years, moved up to third grade. "Boys are a challenge. I try to draw them out. I use humor a lot and sometimes, when a kid is really shy, it's going to take a while for them to warm up."

"I relate to this age group," he said. "I am a big kid."

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For the past 20 years, the numbers of male teachers in elementary and middle school grades have stagnated at about 16 to 18 percent, according to MenTeach, an organization whose mission is to increase the number of males working with young children.

There were no statistics for grades K-3, but in 2011, the most recent year for which there are data, only slightly more than 2 percent of kindergarten and preschool teachers were male.

"The gap and discrepancy between girls' performance and boys' performance is growing ever more marked," said Massachusetts psychologist Michael Thompson, co-author of the groundbreaking 2000 book Raising Cain, which argues that society shortchanges boys.

"There are lots of explanations for it," he said. "One is the nature of the elementary classroom. It's more feminized and it does turn boys off, perhaps because they are in trouble more or because the teaching style is more geared to girls' brains.

"You go to an elementary school and there isn't a man in sight except the custodian, and the kids love him," Thompson said.

The odd man who teaches is well liked, but often treated like the "school mascot."

"Having male teachers, boys have a model that it's OK to be male and be in the classroom," he said. "School isn't just a female enterprise. That's what the presence of a man says to kids."

Pete Ellenzweig, 58, has spent more than three decades in K-4 classrooms in a suburban school district outside Portland, Ore.

"I have never felt as if I were under any particular type of scrutiny, not even once," he said. "I think a parent asked me in 1990 or '91, 'Isn't that an unusual career choice?' I replied, 'I don't think so. It's been amazing.' "

There are two male kindergarten teachers and five out of 17 in his building who teach in other grades are men. He said that his school district began recruiting males "years ago."

While Ellenzweig said he believes men make great teachers, a student's gender "just doesn't enter my world view."

"I do everything possible to treat people equitably," he said. "And that means having the same types of behavior expectations in the classroom and the same long-term belief in the capability of each kid. ... I think there are gender differences in terms of maturity, but it doesn't affect my day-to-day work with children."

Teacher Wiederspan admits that his class of 24 students -- mostly 8-year-olds -- is "a handful," especially the boys.

"They have a lot of energy and they don't always know how to properly release it," he said. "Something physical happens. They trip over someone, then it escalates. It was an accident, but then it becomes, 'He did this and he did that.' "

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Girls can sit still more easily and are more efficient at processing language. Many female teachers have a "pretty low tolerance" for boys, who are more active and like competition, according to psychologist Thompson.

In the past, girls began to lag behind boys as they entered high school, particularly in science and math. But efforts in the past few decades have paid off. Today, 60 percent of all college graduates are women.

"Most boys are not falling off the cliff, but when we took the shackles off girls, they began to zoom," Thompson said.

Organizations like the National Education Association have called for efforts to support young men interested in teaching, but many are discouraged by the relatively low pay, especially if they are the primary breadwinner.

Stereotypes about male teachers, and sometimes mistrust, persist.

"It's very hard to change the suspicion of men who are going to elementary education when there are so few of them," Thompson said. "Schools ask me to talk to men on their faculty and when I sit with them behind closed doors, they say the moms look at them like potential pedophiles.

"If they are too nurturing or a mother comes in and sees a teacher reading in a chair and the child is leaning against the teacher or cuddling him, they freak out," he said. "Men tell me they only have to look in the mom's face to know what they are thinking."

That has never been the case with Wiederspan, he said, although when he first started teaching, mothers showed an unreasonable curiosity about what kind of a teacher he might be.

"I would have literally four or five parents sitting at a table at a certain point in the year observing me," Wiederspan said. "And it was nerve-wracking as an untenured teacher."

He's now comfortable in his role, still teaching among only a handful of male teachers, seven in all, three of whom are gym teachers.

"I have high expectations and I lay that out in the beginning and reinforce it throughout the year," he said.

"I am definitely strict, but I am fair. ... And there are boundaries."

Just a few weeks ago, for instance, a female substitute teacher had trouble with three students, all boys.

"When I came back, there was a whole note, three incidents, and the kids were sent to the principal's office. I took them aside and told them, 'You know, I am disappointed.' ... They will take advantage."

Married with three children, a 20-year-old daughter and 11-year-old twin boys with autism, Wiederspan sometimes laughs that his classroom is easier than the demands of fatherhood.

After 27 years, he says, "I still like being with the kids. You can joke with them and you don't always have to be so serious. It's like being a dad, but they get to go home."

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cmkennedy

In my area, men who teach go into middle school & high school, because they also coach a sport.

June 04 2013 at 8:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
nos2001

low salary? give me a break..the pAy and benefits are way above the average person. also the time off.....spring,winter vaations, holidays,no weekends and the whole summer off. its a perfect job fpr most people for time off. what other job would pay yu that well and work only a total of six months of the year? 365 days in a year and the school working days is less than half that.

June 04 2013 at 6:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lee Hoekstra

I love the comment that the low salary deters men from teaching. It isn't a draw for female teachers! I sure hopoe they don't start offering higher pay as an incentive to the men to be teachers and leave the women behind. I would love to be paid a higher salary, I am bringing home less than I did 10 years ago with salary freezes and higher costs of ins. etc. Teachers should make a good wage and be able to support themselves on a teacher's salary whether they are men or women.

June 03 2013 at 8:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
chuydiaz54

I am a male teacher who has taught 4th and 5th graders for the past 23 years. In addition to 2 male PE
coaches there are 5 other male teachers here. The principal and assistant principal are also male. We also
get male substitute teachers on a regular basis. We have never encountered any problems being male teachers
in elementary school. I would not teach at any other level.

June 03 2013 at 12:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kay

In my school district we have several men in the elementary schools. My children are much older and even they had men in elementary school and I can honestly say that they loved the men teachers. I learned very early, after my oldest had a very bad teacher, to request their teacher for the school year. But I had to do it at the end of each school year to request a teacher for the next year. The children always wanted the men teachers because they said the men were much more fun and easy going and relaxed in the classrooms.

March 28 2013 at 11:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
katwr1029

Yeah, the starting pay stinks and yeah, there are the fear of accusations and sure, there might be a female administrator with an axe to grind. All that said, I agree with the thrust of the article which is we need MORE male teachers in elementary school. I know because my husband is a teacher in a k-8 public school. It was a change, after teaching for 11 + years at the high school level but he found he prefers the elementary school setting to the high school. He primarily works with 7th and 8th graders but has also worked with K and 1st graders too. It was intimidating at first to go into those early ed classrooms when he started at his new school but our daughter was 4 years old at the time and his experience as a father helped him get in the door. My husband's school is VERY fortunate - the male teachers are husband in Special Ed, Kindergarten, 5th grade and two in the 7th/8th grades, which are subject based and share the students in both grades. ALL the boys gravitate to my husband, sped kids and reg. ed kids. My husband will talk sports with them, doesn't try to mother them, and just plain listens and understands where they are coming from. No one gives creedence to how much support a good male teacher can be but it makes a tremendous difference for boys.

March 28 2013 at 11:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
bill

I am a male teaching in middle school. They come in as babies there too!

March 28 2013 at 8:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
unshy13

Everyone keeps saying pedophile as a reason male teachers don't want to teach elementary. I have a better one for you. Underpaid....

Teachers are drastically underpaid. Male and Female. However it is my opinion women are far more willing to use their nurturing side to take a job dealing with small children for little money while men are not. Men tend to look to provide. And that providing steers them away from stress. A man really wants to be a teacher, would you teach kids a little older with more patience and understanding or little snot nosed Tommy in 1st grade. Some teachers don't mind, but if you're passion is truly teaching, you have to make that decision yourself.

(and for people who are going to say, A teachers passion should be teaching regardless of age, you're right. I absolutely love kids. But if I had to teach 1st graders or 8th graders, I'm taking 8th graders. They are more formed and parents are generally less involved than 1st graders.)

March 28 2013 at 3:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
GA

Why are there so few male elementary teachers...It starts and ends with female administrators that are unwilling to hire male teachers. I know of many female principals that have never and will never hire a male teacher. As for the other reasons listed in the article, they're bogus; Low salaries have little or no effect when it comes to male teachers, both men and women know going in how piss poor the pay is for teachers but they still want to persue a teaching carreer because they want to make a difference in the lives of children. And being afraid of being labled a pedophile, is just assanign.

March 27 2013 at 10:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
barney

it is sadly becoming that way as to coaching sports and scouting also........just takes one false accusation
to ruin a person financially and career-wise

March 27 2013 at 9:59 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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