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A spiky white caterpillar crawled up Russell Grammer's outstretched arm as his fourth-graders crowded around to get a better look.
Elsewhere in the classroom, students practiced their math skills with handheld computer games.
In Grammer's Jefferson Elementary School classroom, students get an education on everything from earthworms to a pet garter snake. Grammer has a large black tray of earthworms and a terrarium is home to the snake.
To most elementary school students in the Cape Girardeau School District, the 35-year-old Grammer is an unusual sight.
He is one of only six male teachers in Cape Girardeau's elementary schools and one of only 62 male classroom teachers in the whole school district.
Less than 17 percent of Cape Girardeau's 375 public school teachers are men, and the majority of them teach at either the high school or the career and technology center.
In the neighboring Jackson School District, about 25 percent of its teaching staff -- 77 out of 308 teachers -- are men. Most of them are secondary school teachers.
Nationwide, less than 25 percent of the nation's 3.1 million classroom teachers are men, the National Education Association says.
Only 9 percent of the nation's elementary school teachers and 35 percent of secondary school teachers are men, the lowest level in four decades, the NEA says.
In Missouri, the rate is even lower. Only 21.5 percent of the state's teachers are men and most of them teach in high schools.
Local teachers, school administrators, university educators and the NEA say low pay and low status discourage men from pursuing careers as classroom teachers.
"Men do not see the teaching profession as a lucrative way to provide for their families," said Reg Weaver, president of the NEA in Washington.
Not surprisingly, he said, states with higher teacher salaries tend to have the most male teachers.
Massachusetts ranked first in the percentage of male teachers -- nearly 38 percent -- in the 2003-2004 school year. The state ranked eighth in average teacher salaries.
Mississippi ranked 50th in the percentage of male teachers (17.4 percent) and 48th in teacher pay.
Missouri ranked 42nd in the percentage of male teachers in the public schools with 21.5 percent, the latest NEA report shows. The state ranked 45th in teacher pay with an average salary of over $38,000.
Grammer, who has been teaching eight years, including the last seven at Jefferson Elementary School, said teachers locally could make far more money in the business world. His brothers couldn't believe he wanted to be a teacher. "They thought I was stupid," he said.
Grammer views teaching less as a job and more as a calling. "It's in my heart," he said.
Grammer's wife stays home and takes care of their three children. He said his family qualifies for government aid.
He also works at other jobs in the summer to supplement his income, usually construction or carpeting work or tutoring children.
When he talks to other men, Grammer said, they often seem puzzled by his decision to be an elementary school teacher.
"Our society tends to really build up success in material things and the amount of money you make," said Grammer, who graduated from Southeast in May 1998.
He wishes more men would become school teachers. Many of America's students are being raised by single mothers, he said. Male teachers, he said, provide important role models for those students.
Last fall, only 9 percent of Southeast's education majors were men. Among those majoring in elementary, early and special education, men counted for only 5 percent.
Dr. Sue Shepard, dean of the College of Education at Southeast Missouri State University, blames the relatively low salaries for steering men away from teaching careers. "There is only so far you can go in education without leaving the classroom and going into administration to get a better salary," she said.
Teaching attracts women, Shepard said, partly because it allows them to be off in the summer and during school breaks when their own children are out of school. Women still handle many of the family responsibilities of raising children and hauling them to various after-school activities, Shepard said.
Jackson assistant superintendent Dr. Rita Fisher said the Jackson district feels fortunate to have as many male teachers as it does, including a dozen in elementary school classrooms. But Fisher said the district doesn't focus on gender in hiring teachers. "We always try to hire the best candidate, male or female," he said.
The NEA's Weaver said more men won't enter the teaching profession without cultural change. "As long as the outdated notion exists that teaching is women's work, men are not going to come in," he said.
Gerald Richards, human resources director for the Cape Girardeau public schools, believes women typically are more nurturing, particularly when it comes to the elementary grades. "There is still that mothering in them," he said.
Many female teachers are married to husbands who have higher paying jobs, easing the families' financial burden, Richards said.
He started his career as a classroom teacher in the mid-1960s when salaries were far lower than they are now. Richards said the low salary wasn't a deterrent to him. "I grew up poor, so I didn't have any aspirations to become wealthy," he said.
Early in his teaching career Richards had to work two jobs, teaching during the day and moonlighting at the IGA grocery store at night and on weekends.
The statistics and the salary issues don't make Grammer, who in 2004 received a national award for excellence in science teaching, question his choice to become a teacher. He can't imagine a career outside the classroom. "I love it," he said.
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