When numerous fellow teachers asked Josh Holt to mentor their students last year at Heber Hunt Elementary in Sedalia, Mo., Holt initially felt a burst of pride. It was his first year at the school teaching health and PE, and he hoped that he had impressed his senior colleagues. But looking around the school, Holt realized there was a simpler reason teachers and even parents asked him to be a "buddy" in the school's program for at-risk kids: he was born with a Y chromosome. "The principal is the only other guy in the school," says Holt, 24. "Some of these kids don't have any men in their lives, and they really need a male role model."
That is increasingly difficult to find in American classrooms. According to the National Education Association, the number of male schoolteachers is hovering at a 40-year low. Only one quarter of our 3 million teachers are men. In elementary schools, the problem is more acute—just 9 percent are men, down from 18 percent in 1981. "If kids do not see males in the classroom, they begin to believe teaching is only for females," says Reg Weaver, president of the NEA. Unless more men become teachers, says Weaver, the shortage will continue to be a self-perpetuating problem.
Although the feminization of the teaching profession has been underway since the 1890s, school administrators say it's becoming a more salient issue as boys fall behind girls in graduation rates and demonstrate more difficulties with reading and writing.
There are several reasons many men find it difficult to enter, and stay in, the teaching profession: the starting salary for teachers is about $30,000, and less in early education. "Right now I don't have a wife, I don't have kids," says Bart Tittle, 24, a preschool teacher in Independence, Mo., who earns about $25,000 a year. "Later in life it's going to be much more challenging."
Another reason men fail to consider teaching is a widely held belief that they lack nurturing skills. Conversely, if a man expresses tenderness or too many traits associated with being female, some parents assume the male teacher is gay. Last fall Justin Smith, a first-grade teacher in North Kansas City, Mo., told the mother of one of his students that he'd be happy to tie a scarf on the child's Halloween costume. A few hours later, the principal notified Smith that the mother had requested her son be pulled from the class because she didn't want her child "taught by a homosexual." "At first I was kind of offended," says Smith, who is straight and married, "but then I realized this was a common stereotype and that I'd just have to let my teaching do the talking for me."
Another problem is that grown men who express physical affection for small children can be accused of being pedophiles. Steve Weber, a preschool teacher in Onamia, Minn., who has been working with special-needs children for nearly 30 years, still remembers the pit that formed in his stomach 20 years ago when a student's mother accused him of molesting her profoundly handicapped daughter. During a meeting to discuss the allegations, the mother burst into tears and blurted out that the child's molester was actually her boyfriend. "I was, like, 'Holy crap!' " recalls Weber, both relieved and horrified. Smith, whose first-grade students often need help undoing buckles or rebuttoning pants when using the toilet, insists they step into the public hallway before he will help them. "It's awkward, but I just have to protect myself," he says.
Educators are taking new approaches to address the shortage. This summer, Indiana University offered a seminal course on men and education. In July, the Pennsylvania state legislature appropriated $1 million to create a statewide version of Call Me MISTER, a recruitment program that began at Clemson University aimed at attracting African-American men. The Borough of Manhattan Community College now runs a mentorship program to help male teachers-in-training find jobs. Roy Fox, an education specialist at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is expanding MEET, or Men for Excellence in Elementary Teaching, a group that gathers on a monthly basis to discuss research and serve as a sounding board to deal with one another's male-specific teaching problems.
Bryan Nelson, the founder of Men Teach.org, says the absence of men in America's classrooms deprives kids. Children need good teachers, male and female, says Nelson. With support from the community, that's exactly what men like Josh Holt hope to be.