Gender lessons

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Rob French didn't originally intend to teach first grade.

He started out as a music teacher, then switched to high school. But while finishing up a college degree, he ended up student teaching at an elementary school in Sikeston, Mo. And that's when it hit him.

"I really fell in love with the younger students. It seemed like they really wanted to know," French said. "At high school, students get an attitude like they don't really want to be there."

The decision to teach at the elementary level made French an instant anomaly, one of the few male teachers working with young children.

MenTeach, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to recruiting men to the teaching profession, cites lowly status, poor pay and fear of lawsuits among the factors preventing more men from becoming teachers.

Nationwide, only 9 percent of teachers in elementary schools are men, according to a survey by the National Education Association. Around 7 percent of teachers at Jackson's seven elementary schools are men. In Cape Girardeau, 3 percent of elementary teachers are men.

"I think it's seen more as a female role. That's been the tradition. It has to do with the nurturing that mothers usually do," said Dr. Rita Fisher, assistant superintendent of Jackson schools.

Fisher said while her district doesn't actively recruit men for the elementary level, they do encourage those who are interested.

"In the lower elementary levels it's always nice to have those role models to let students see that males can do it also," Fisher said. "There are more young men now seeing that it is OK, but there's still not very many."

Declining numbers

The shortage of male teachers is not as obvious at the junior high and high school levels, but there is still a difference. According to NEA, just 21 percent of the nation's 3 million teachers are men and that number has been steadily declining for several years.

"There is a lot more status associated with being a college professor than an elementary school teacher," said Bryan Nelson, founder of MenTeach. "And if we started paying teachers what we pay NBA players, there would be a lot more men entering the field."

Nelson's organization offers support to men pursuing teaching careers and works to end gender bias.

"There are people who still say, 'It's so nice to have a man in the classroom,'" Nelson said. "But think about it: You wouldn't say, 'It's so nice to have an African-American in the classroom' or 'It's great to have a Jew in the classroom.' It should be no different for men. We want teachers to be teachers and for gender not to be a factor, but until we get to that point, we have to do something about it."

French, who is in his first year as a teacher at South Elementary in Jackson, said whether teachers are male or female, the important thing is to be consistent in handling students.

"A lot of the differences are exaggerated. There's not a big difference between myself and the three ladies I teach with in first grade," French said. "I just try not to think about it too much."

The Christian Science Monitor contributed to this report.

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