Anna Rosenblum Palmer wonders how to answer her son when he asks, “Why don’t I have any men as teachers?”
The New York Times recently ran an opinion piece on Men’s Lib written by two senior fellows from the Brookings Institute.
The article detailed trends in earnings, marriage, childcare and employment over the past 40 years, outlining the increasing number of women entering traditionally male-dominated fields, and questioning whether any progress has been made in the opposite direction.
According to the authors:
“LATELY, there has been a laudable push to get girls and women into jobs that require STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and math). But it is equally important to train and encourage men to take jobs that require skills in health, education, administration and literacy, so-called HEAL jobs.
Right now, HEAL jobs are dominated by women. Men make up 20 percent of elementary and middle-school teachers, 9 percent of nurses, 16 percent of personal care aides and 6 percent of personal assistants.”
Which led me to ask: where are all the male teachers?
There is a lot of information to unpack in this essay, but what struck me most is the data that backs up a question that my nine year old son asked me just last week.
“Why don’t I have any men as teachers? Why don’t they want to work with kids?”
Despite organizations like Teach for America, which make a concerted effort to train and place male teachers, male elementary school educators have decreased in number from 33% of the teaching pool to 20% over the last twenty years.
In 2006 Thomas Dee published a Stanford research round-up titled “The Why Chromosome,” which stated that both boys and girls pay a price when they are taught by teachers of the opposite gender. He states that,
“When a class is headed by a woman, boys are more likely to be seen as disruptive. When taught by a man, girls were more likely to report that they did not look forward to a subject… Simply put, girls have better educational outcomes when taught by women, and boys are better off when taught by men.”
In addition, Mark Malaby and Sarah Ramsey combined original research with peer-review to hypothesize that male pre-service teachers cited close and nurturing relationships with their mothers as the impetus to choosing teaching as a career.
In interviews with male education students the researchers revealed that the interviewees considered “traditionally female” characteristics such as caring, sensitivity, creativity, to be responsible for their success in teaching. One study participant described his upbringing as different from that of many other boys’:
“My mothers always showed that love and that caring and a lot of guys don’t get that. A lot of the parents try to make the guys harder. They don’t encourage them to express their feelings. They don’t tell them that it’s OK to cry. They don’t tell them that it’s alright to love somebody or to tell them that you love somebody. There are few of us in our breed that actually… that actually got that caring part.”
So here I am, still wondering what I can I tell my son in response to his question.
Can I tell him that teaching is considered a profession with less prestige, and therefore only women will take the job?
Should I explain that the hours worked by elementary school teachers fit well with raising children, and that although this is still shifting for the positive, mothers still provide more than two times more childcare than fathers?
Maybe I can tell him that teaching salaries are amongst the lowest professional wages, and women are more willing to work for lower pay than men.
Or perhaps I should tell him that research shows that only men who think of themselves as having female characteristics opt in to elementary teaching.
Each option above seems worse than the last.
So how do we HEAL this?
As for reversing the trend by attracting and training more men, Susan H. Fuhrman, President of Teachers College at Columbia University, doesn’t offer a positive picture. In 2014 she shared her thoughts on the gender imbalance among students in their elementary education programs, where women outnumber men nine to one, saying,
“I do think it’s a vicious cycle… Women went into [teaching] without other options and it was a low-status profession that was associated with women, and the fact that it’s now dominated by women inhibits the status from increasing.”
The Men’s Lib article offers one small but positive method to potentially attract more men into the field of elementary school education. We need to match the campaigns to help girls and women see traditionally male jobs as appropriate for them with equally effective efforts in the other direction. As there are no legal obstacles for men hoping to become school-teachers or nurses, the problem remains largely a question of cultural attitudes, and must be addressed as such.
As I look down at my own small but positive possibility for change, he slips his hand into mine. “I think I will be a teacher. It seems like the most important job in the world.”
So there it is. Rather than looking at the past and lamenting over inequities and trends, perhaps we should look to the future — the boys we are raising — and help them reframe and claim jobs and characteristics that have been traditionally labeled feminine.
I’ve got one that’s ready.
Photo credit: Flickr/ckk8sy