Tuesday, March 22, 2011

By Request: Why Are There So Few Male Teachers?

We've already considered the feminization of teaching a couple of times on the blog, but I'm also interested in other issues of teacher diversity. At Elizabeth's request, here are a few thoughts on why teachers tend not to be male.

Male teachers are especially rare at the elementary school level. According to a variety of sources, there are a few reasons for this:

1. Low status: Teaching tends to be considered a less-prestigious career than, say, medicine or law. It shouldn't be, in my view, but there you have it. Men have long had other job options, whereas teaching was the only profession open to women beginning in about the mid-19th century. Teaching has never shaken off this stigma. Before the common school movement, male teachers were much more common.

2. Low pay: Because teaching was the only option available to women in the early years of public schooling, they could be paid less. Again, this is review from my earlier posts on the matter. Teaching remains a very low-paying profession. In part because men are traditionally expected to be the breadwinners (a tradition for which I hold some contempt), they have been more likely to take higher-paying jobs.

3. Stereotypes that hold them to be less nurturing: Almost anything you read about men in teaching talks about how there is an assumption that women are more nurturing and therefore better suited to teaching. Horace Mann would be so proud.

4. Fear of being accused of inappropriate behavior: This is sad, but it remains a fact that there are those who are concerned that men go into teaching because of some predatory nature. Whether the parents of their students are worried about it or not, male teachers might be concerned that they are being judged or regarded with suspicion. This is clearly problematic, and I don't think it would be an issue if teaching were a higher-status job - if it were a job society saw as truly professional and well-paying, no one would be saying, "Why is he a teacher?"

5. There is an idea that elementary school is not academically rigorous, but that high school is. The older the kids, the more "acceptable" male teachers are. So men teaching high school isn't as big a deal, but male kindergarten teachers are the unicorns of K-12. Anyone who knows anything about education, though, realizes that every grade level produces intellectual challenges for its teachers. I have never taught elementary school, but I've tutored first graders in reading, and believe me: it is not easy.

Does it matter? It's hard to tell, from the data - it might be that kids learn just as well under male or female teachers, while others claim that having positive male role models is good for kids.

The economy might correct some of these issues: when job options are more limited, men are more likely to become teachers - just like women in the common school movement. This article talks about these issues, among others discussed here. Also, there is an entire nonprofit dedicated to getting more men in the classroom - I haven't vetted it, so I don't know if it's a good thing or not, but there it is.

What do you think?


  1. I've read some research on male teachers' perspectives on their representation in education. It's connected to the stereotypes you mentioned. The men in the research I read seemed to feel that traditionally masculine men were more easily accepted--and expected, especially by parents who want to see strong male role models for their children. The men in the article longed for their to be a broader spectrum of "maleness" to be accepted.

    I actually had a discussion about gender representation in teaching with my interns a few weeks ago. I think I counted 8 male teachers throughout my K-12 schooling--not many, but a lot more than most might have had. It's unfortunate, for a multitude of reasons, that there is not more diversity (and respect, of course) within the field of teaching.

  2. That's really interesting, Desi. I'm working on a series about LGBTQ teachers, and I'll have to address that. Do you have any sources I can read?

  3. Jess, thanks for this post. I agree, as long as teaching is considered a supplementary income to a breadwinner's paycheck fewer men will be interested in this job. I also feel so brokenhearted over the stereotype that men involved in teaching younger children are predators. I think of all these kids today who have absentee fathers who would really benefit from a strong, dependable male presence on a daily basis.

  4. Elizabeth: Totally. I think it would be interesting to interrogate the idea of "strong" and figure out what that means and why it's valued. There's a lot of baggage in that word, and it can mean awesome, empowering things, and it can be oppressive.

    I've been reading too much theory this week, I think. :)

  5. Fascinating piece. An anecdote: I taught a section of elementary social studies methods a few semesters ago. In the class where 28 females and one male. He made a concerted effort that first day to inform me that he was 1. straight and really liked girls and 2. not a pedophile. This was unprompted, so certainly something he had had to address in the past.

    And, of course, that there are those far more uncouth than I who have referred to our wonderful college as 'No-man Hall.'

  6. Even at the high school level, females outnumber males, though it often varies year by year and department by department. For example, up until very recently, I was the only guy in a social studies department of 6. Now there is one woman and 4 guys. But then, I think social studies tends to attract more men/coaches. But THAT is a topic for another time...

  7. I teach a course in science for college students intending to be K-8 teachers with specialties outside of science. Out of 72 student, 6 are men. While I haven't had Steve's experience of unprompted "explaining", some have pointed out that their career decision is at least partially strategic - they feel that, since they are male, they'll have an easier time getting hired than their female counterparts.

  8. Perhaps this is inconsequential, but my mother claims to have identified a trend in my own education - that I did not get on well with my male teachers until latter years of high school. I don't have a particular recollection of a history of personality conflicts with my male teachers (I only remember one in particular), but she still brings it up on occasion.

  9. Just thinking about how teachers are represented in TV and film. It strikes me that there might be an archetypal character known as "inspiring hero male high school teacher"-- EJO in Stand and Deliver, Mr. Hand from Fast Times and Ridgemont High, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, and I'm sure I could come up with several more. There seem to be fewer women characters of that type-- I can only think of Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. I think this has helped foster the notion that being a male high school teacher is acceptable, even "cool."

  10. I'm sure this helps mitigate the stigma of teaching for men -- at least for teaching high school or beyond. However, I consider this effect the silver lining to a different problem: if women are doing the bulk of the teaching, why the hell do they not get the bulk of the "inspiring teacher" roles?

  11. Oh man, there's another blog post in here about pop culture perceptions of teachers. My adviser, Sevan Terzian, has written some stuff about this, and some other historians of education do this kind of work. I shall pick their brains at AERA in a few weeks.

  12. Sevan rocks. He is the professor I would love to be. :)

    As an on-topic related aside, I had a conversation with a colleague in my department. Big guy, built like a cross between a caveman and an ox, and fits the look of the football coach that he is. He is also a great history teacher. How is this relevant? He was telling me today about the rather surprised and slightly disturbed looks he would get from parents when, during the previous two years, he taught elementary school! I just found it slightly ironic that the 'stereotype' of the elementary school teacher in his case worked against him because he didn't seem to fit that profile.

  13. I don't have much to add except that—as a male and as a former first-grade teacher—I thoroughly endorse it.

    It may not be right, or fair, or PC, or even directly related to sex or gender, but it was also true that students in the school responded in a different way to me and the other male teachers. I can't explain it, let alone define it or study it, but there was something distinct.

    Anyway, more men should teach in elementary schools. Among other things, they'd be better fathers. I know I will be as a result.

  14. Yeah, I know, I always encourage my male students to go into teaching. I think we DO need more men as teachers, if for no other reason than it will get rid of some of the issues I wrote about above.