Fewer men are making a career of teaching, with reasons ranging from social stigma to economic reality.
By MELANIE AVE
Published November 14, 2004
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Athian Early, a 29-year-old resource teacher at Pasadena Fundamental Elementary School, teaches fifth-grade remedial math to Sharell Bradford, 11.
TAMPA - Even before the teacher begins the class, he is greeted with bubbly affection.
"Mr. Roberts," the kindergartener shouts. "I made something for you. I made a heart for you."
"You made a heart? For me?"
Marissa Lopez nods, her curls tumbling as she stares down at her pink Barbie sneakers.
But there is no time for chit-chat. Mr. Roberts must teach these 20 kindergarteners at MacFarlane Park Elementary School a life lesson: How to throw a ball using the opposite hand and foot.
For the next 45 minutes, the kids surround the physical education teacher with eager faces and begging voices: Mr. Roberts, look what I did. Mr. Roberts, did you see that throw? Help me, Mr. Roberts!
Jason Roberts, 26, is the only man most MacFarlane Park Elementary students will see at school. He is one of just two male teachers there, and one of only 450 male elementary teachers in Hillsborough County, where women outnumber men by a 3-to-1 margin.
Those numbers are not unusual. Across Florida and nationally, the number of male teachers is declining.
A recent National Education Association survey shows that the number of male public school teachers is at a 40-year low. Only 22 percent of Florida's 158,000 teachers are men - a percentage that mirrors the national breakdown.
Males are particularly scarce in elementary schools. Four percent of the elementary school teachers in Pinellas are men. In Hillsborough, it's barely 3 percent.
"Males are needed," said Donald Washington, a senior program analyst with the NEA, the nation's largest teachers union. "They serve as great role models. They provide a different perspective than women. They bring different lenses into the learning environment."
Experts say longstanding gender stereotypes, combined with low pay and status concerns, are major reasons for the dwindling number of male teachers. So is a perception that men are more apt to hurt children than women.
"When people see a man in the classroom, especially males in elementary schools, a lot of them think something must be wrong with them," said Athian Early, who teaches at Pasadena Fundamental Elementary School in Pinellas County. "They think, "They must be gay or feminine.'
"I'm not either one," he said.
Teacher, not father
Men say they get the same rewards from teaching as their female counterparts.
Early, a 29-year-old special education teacher, had planned on becoming a lawyer. But Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach offered him a scholarship to pursue a career in teaching, his second choice. Now law is out of the picture.
Early, an African-American, sees himself as a role model, especially to the black students who view the cash-rich drug dealers in their neighborhood as heroes.
"They're looking up to these guys with the fancy cars," he said. "They want to make the fast, quick money. I want them to try and rethink that."
Bryan Nelson, a founder of MenTeach, a Minneapolis nonprofit group that recruits male teachers, said schools need more men to give children a real picture of life outside school walls.
"Don't you want a classroom that's representative of the world - half men, half women?" Nelson asked. "Children are no dummies. When they don't see any guys, other than the janitor and maybe the principal, they get this message that this is not a place that's important. I think it hurts our children."
But even if men get the same rewards from teaching as women, they face very different obstacles.
Several who were interviewed said they feel they must be more careful when giving children attention and affection. They make special efforts to reassure parents, and avoid any behavior that could lead to allegations of abuse.
"I'm not huggy," Early said. "I give high-fives."
First-grade teacher Joseph Rober, MacFarlane Park Elementary's teacher of the year, said parents often seem surprised to meet a male teacher.
"In the first three or four days of the school year, parents are curious about me being a male," he said. "I try to call them on the phone and I allow parents in my classroom any time they want.
"I think that openness makes them feel comfortable."
One of those surprised parents was Shauna Shaw, whose 6-year-old daughter Delaney is in Rober's class.
"When I found out, I was like, "Oh wow. A man,' " said Shaw, who has high praise for Rober's patience, enthusiasm and class organization. "In today's society there are a lot of split families. A large number of children don't have a positive male role model in their life. I think it's a good thing having men teaching."
Rober said he is never alone with children. He gives them only side hugs and pats, and only when the children insist.
"I don't want to be cold to them," he said. "They are very affectionate but they know to keep their space. I'm not their father, I'm their teacher.
"The sad truth is, in the world we live in, there are a lot of horrible things going on."
Local school officials say they don't specifically recruit men, as they do minorities. But most everyone said they would like to see more male teachers. The NEA has started several recruitment programs aimed at encouraging men to embrace the profession.
But educators say people must accept men as nurturing if they want the number of male teachers to increase.
"Until those issues are addressed, we are always going to have a shortage of males in teaching," said Susan Turner, the principal of MacFarlane Elementary. "There is a view that a male teacher of math or science is more acceptable than a teacher of kindergarten or first grade. It's a societal perspective.
"I think it's a societal problem."
Cold, hard economics
Steve Crosby, who hires elementary school teachers for Pinellas County, said low pay closes the door to teaching for many men.
Teachers can make $31,000 their first year, he said, but 15 years later, their pay may only be up to $40,000.
"You can make more selling cars. You can make more selling real estate, which don't even require degrees," Crosby said.
Low pay drove Paul Noble, a 32-year-old from Riverview, out of the teaching ranks. He taught and coached at Hillsborough's East Bay High School for several years, but gave it up to become a salesman. He now makes three times what he made as a teacher.
Though he preferred his old profession, Noble said he felt pressure to be his family's breadwinner. Teaching, he said, was not paying the bills.
"It came to a point where I wanted to get married and I wanted to have a family," he said. "I didn't want to force my wife to work. I didn't want to struggle."
Dan Valdez, a deputy superintendent in Hillsborough schools, also sees an economic connection.
When the economy is good, he said, more men find private sector jobs. When it's not so good, men look for secure jobs that offer benefits, such as teaching.
"That just seems to be the litmus test," Valdez said.
A product of the peace-loving 1960s, Michael Marckese Jr. became an elementary teacher because he felt it was a social need.
"Money wasn't a big object to us at the time," said Marckese, now principal of Pasadena Fundamental in Pinellas. "That commitment isn't there today. It's individually there, but not collectively."
While teaching elementary school for 16 years, Marckese said he felt a connection with children.
"I could give them a foundation of education," he said. "I could watch them grow. It was fun to watch them grow."
But with a growing family of his own, Marckese went into administration, first as a guidance counselor and now as a principal.
"If you wanted to do better on the salary issue, you went into administration," he said. "That's why a lot of great teachers are no longer in the classroom. If you were a family provider, that was one of the directions you had to go. That was the alternative."
Marckese has two male teachers on staff and wishes he had more.
An early impact
Back in Mr. Roberts' PE class, the children are tossing yarn balls into targets on a volleyball net.
Teacher assistant Kim Peluyera marvels at Roberts' interaction with the children.
"They love this class," she says. "He's just so patient and he makes it fun. They really look up to him."
Soon after the 5- and 6-year-olds complete throwing practice and leave PE, kindergartener Marissa Lopez runs outside with two envelopes. She stuffs them in Roberts' hand, giggles and runs away. On them she has drawn suns and clouds and written his name: "Mr. (Heart) Roertson."
He slides them into his pocket. Inside one is a tiny picture of what appears to be a smiling worm. Inside the other is a heart that looks like a kite.
"Oh my. She took some time to do that."
Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3400.