My 11-year-old son Tommy doesn't particularly like math. He does, however, love his 6th grade math teacher.
One big reason: His math teacher is male.
This teacher is patient, creative and energetic, yes, but so are Tommy's other teachers, who are all women. Tommy doesn't worship them like he does his algebra teacher. This is a new experience for him because in all his years of school, Tommy has never had a male teacher in the classroom before. The only male teacher in his entire elementary school, in fact, teaches physical education. My younger son, who is in 4th grade, has never had a man teaching him, either.
To me, this is just sad.
It's also common all over the country. The number of men who teach, especially in the lower grades, is very small. In 2011, just 2.3 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers in America were male, according to MenTeach, a national nonprofit organization that works to increase the number of men working with young children. That rises to 18.3 percent in elementary and middle school (statistics aren't split between the two, although from what I've seen the vast majority of those men must teach in middle schools) and 42 percent at the high school level.
Some reasons are obvious, namely the relatively low pay and benefits offered by the profession. There's a lingering stereotype that teaching little kids is "women's work." Sadly, there's also a fear of false allegations of sexual abuse.
Obviously, men can be great or terrible in the classroom, just like women. No individual is defined by his or her gender, so a male teacher isn't necessarily the best fit for a boy just as a woman can be a bad match for a girl.
At the same time, it seems like diversity among a teaching staff can only be a good thing, and that should include gender. Boys need strong male role models outside their parents, and I wish that didn't always seem to come from the coach/athletics side of life.
Student surveys have reported overall differences in how male teachers work, saying they tend to use more sports analogies and are more likely to integrate active learning methods such as competitions and games. I can't speak for other boys, but those things really appeal to my son (and his friends, I must add). He loves chattering to his math teacher about their favorite baseball and football teams. He says the teacher uses sports examples that help him understand math skills and lets the students stand up, stretch and wiggle frequently throughout their 90-minute classes.
So beyond doing something about low teacher pay, what can we parents do to help our boys consider teaching a career possibility? Here are a few tips from Bryan G. Nelson, founding director of MenTeach:
Support your son to be nurturing and caring. Research shows that children learn from modeling, so show kindness and caring to others. That goes for dads especially, because your son is watching you.
Encourage your son to teach other children. As your son grows older, have him learn how to care for younger children, either a sibling or a friend's child. Don't just assume he knows how. You'll need to consciously teach him, just like you teach him other skills. And you'll need to supervise him until you know that he is capable. Another option is to encourage your son to tutor a younger student at school.
Ask your school to hire more male teachers. If no one is asking, many early and elementary programs don't believe there is a need or desire by parents. Next time the school is hiring, mention to the principal that you would like to see more diversity in your school, which also includes more men.
Watch your attitude about the profession. Is teaching a career that you respect and value? Do you believe it's important? How you treat your son's teacher will tell your child what you really believe.
I'd love either of my sons to become teachers, or at least have the profession on their list of possibilities (after their planned careers in pro athletics, of course). Have I ever told them that? I think it's about time I did.