Giorgio Selvaggio examines why there are far fewer men in the classroom.
I disliked sports as a child not because I was bad at them; I preferred helping others over competing with them. So when I turned 10, I opted not to spend my summer playing sports on the beach like the other boys, but instead to give back to the community working as a junior camp counselor. I was the only boy among the junior counselors, but I figured that wouldn’t be an issue because I’d be doing what I wanted to do. I liked working with younger kids, I knew I was good at it, and I never worried that someone else might be better than me because childcare isn’t about being better than everyone else; it’s about making everyone else better.
It didn’t go as planned. I was the lone boy in a group of girls, which meant that, in the eyes of other boys, I was one of the girls, but in the eyes of the girls, I was an awkward, socially isolated boy, not a normal boy like the ones playing sports. The younger kids liked me, but I didn’t have a group of peers who made me feel like I belonged. Rather than feeling proud of myself for being good at something, I hated myself for being good at the wrong thing.
Thirteen years later, I became a teacher – again thinking it was the job I would be best at. More specifically, I became a foreign language teacher in an upper-class white suburb, which meant I was a man working in the most female-dominated subgroups of an already female-dominated profession. In graduate school, I was one of only two men in a cohort of ten people; in my first year of teaching, I was one of three men in a department of 15. Of the three men, only one of us came back the following year; of the 12 women, all but one of them stayed. Why was the school only able to find one man who was comfortable and effective in a job that 11 women were comfortable and effective in? Yes, teaching is a profession that attracts and retains more women than men, but why?
When I asked around, it seemed most people thought it related to finding a romantic partner. Most teachers are intelligent, personable, and hard-working, but compared to other jobs that require those same skills, the pay is not comparable. Studies show that most women, even successful women who work full-time, look for an ideal male partner who is wealthy and of high social standing. Teachers are neither. Men, by contrast, are less likely to be deterred by the lack of access to resources that comes from marrying a female teacher over a female doctor or movie producer.
Therefore, a single male teacher is always asking himself questions a female teacher never does:
“If I had a different job, would I still be single?”
In some professions, it’s a badge of honor for a man to be single because it means he’s a desirable mate with many potential suitors and doesn’t want to be tied to only one. When a male teacher is single, however, it’s implied that he’s alone. Dating is difficult for teachers because of the hours they work, the lack of disposable income and connections, and the fear of being spotted by students’ families in public. When I’m on a first date, the last thing I want for a student’s parents to see me running up a $120 bar tab on a school night. The anxiety of being on a first date is already bad enough.
Still, many male teachers do eventually settle down. The fact that we aren’t rich doesn’t make us unlovable, nor does it mean we aren’t fit to have families. Male teachers are loyal, nurturing, and patient with their students, all of which women take into consideration when choosing a life partner to have children with. Of the male teachers I know who are comfortably settled in their careers, most of them are married with two or three kids. Men who choose caretaking professions like teaching and nursing tend to want families, and if teaching doesn’t get in the way of achieving that, then we are more likely to stay in the profession.
Most of my female co-workers who walked away from the professions did so because they wanted to spend more time with their children. Heterosexual men, even those who teach, tend not to have this option. There is nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home father, a male homemaker, or a man who prefers a part-time job where he can plan his schedule around his kids, but all of these life choices require a female partner willing to be the breadwinner in the relationship, which is rare. Male teachers with families are expected to work full-time and be breadwinners, and choosing not to will reduce the likelihood of attracting a mate. Most mothers, particularly those in areas with high living costs are also expected to work full-time, but choosing to reduce their hours or leave their jobs is seen as a viable parenting choice.
“If I had a different job, would I be respected?”
We all have pride, but men’s self-worth is more attached to pride than women’s. Teachers are disrespected every day, but it’s our job not to take the disrespect personally and to make disciplinary decisions that help the students learn from their mistakes rather than acting out of revenge. My first boss told me: “Never come at kids from a position of power.” As a fourth year teacher, these words of wisdom are easy to follow, because I’ve tried being the swaggering authoritarian teacher and realized it got me nowhere. As an inexperienced teacher, though, these words were antithetical to everything I knew about leadership, so I chose not to follow them. I made disciplinary decisions based on my own feelings rather than as a tool to motivate the students and prevent disruptions: if a kid made me angry, they got detention, got sent out of the classroom, and the rest of the class got yelled at.
…and they say women are “too emotional” to do their jobs effectively.
Female teachers get angry, too. Female teachers yell at their students and excessively discipline their students, too. Female teachers also contemplate quitting their jobs when they feel personally disrespected and bring this negative attitude into the classroom when they decide not to quit. The difference, in the eyes of students, is that the men who do these things are “scarier.” Imagine going into a career hoping to improve kids’ lives, but leaving every day being told you make the kids feel unsafe, even though from your perspective, the students are unruly and disrespectful to a point that makes you feel unsafe.
“If I had a different job, would I have the happiness that others have?”
We are all vulnerable to the toxic habit of comparing ourselves to others and letting others’ lives define our standards of happiness. Our friends on social media always share pictures of themselves at parties, on vacations, and in the company of attractive people. Teachers see these photos when checking their Facebook news feed right before their classroom is invaded by hordes of screaming teenagers, whom we must quiet down so we can administer tests that we will later spend hours grading while our friends are out on their next nocturnal adventure, to be documented on Facebook the following day. Every day, we see these photos and wonder, “If I weren’t teaching, could that be my life?”
Well, do you really want it to be your life? Yes, the fun parts of their life are on display, but behind the scenes, they have a job, too, and it’s probably far more mundane than yours. At least the screaming teenagers can be entertaining, whether you care to admit it to them or not. With your guidance and inspiration, they will one day channel that energy toward things you feel passionate about, and that enlightenment will help them grow. Perhaps you’ve already seen it happening, but you were too busy checking out friends’ Facebook photos to really think about how amazing that is.
A University of Pennsylvania study determined that nearly half of teachers leave the profession after five years, and while many of the women leave to become mothers, possibly with the intent of returning to teaching one day, the men leave to pursue other careers. Men feel more social pressure to make more money while women feel more social pressure not to let down the kids and the community they work in. For the average man, the possibility of making more money elsewhere is enough to quit teaching; for the average woman, only the possibility of having her own child can make her walk away. For both, it’s about seeking a greater fulfillment from life, and I just wish more of us found the fulfillment from teaching that we thought we would when we first chose it as a profession.