Increasing Male Presence in the Classroom

Across the country, teaching is an overwhelmingly female profession, and in fact has become more so over time. More than three-quarters of all teachers in kindergarten through high school are women, according to Education Department data, up from about two-thirds three decades ago. The disparity is most pronounced in elementary and middle schools, where more than 80 percent of teachers are women.

A change in the gender imbalance could sway the way teaching is regarded. Jobs dominated by women pay less on average than those with higher proportions of men, and studies have shown that these careers tend to enjoy less prestige as well.

Although teaching was once a career for men, by the time women began entering the work force in large numbers in the 1960s, teaching, along with nursing, was one of very few careers open to them. But despite inroads that women have made entering previously male-dominated fields, there has not been a corresponding flow of men into teaching and nursing.

Teachers pay has remained essentially stagnant since 1970 in inflation-adjusted terms. The median pay for an elementary school teacher is now about $40,000.

According to Maria Fitzpatrick, an economist at Cornell University who analyzed census data, women who work outside of teaching have seen their pay rise by about 25 percent. Still, men can earn much more, on average, outside of teaching, while women’s teaching salaries more closely match the average pay for women outside of education.

Because they are still the primary caregivers in families, women may be more attracted to the profession than men in part because they can work the same schedules as their children. Teachers can take a few years out of work to stay at home with babies or toddlers and return to the profession easily (although if they do, their salaries may lag behind those who don’t take time off). And although the recession caused many school districts to hand out pink slips, teachers generally have lower levels of unemployment than other college-educated Americans.

Of course there are other reasons teaching may be devalued beyond the fact that so many women do it. After all, in countries like Finland and Singapore — where students tend to perform better on academic tests than students in the United States — teachers are more highly regarded despite the fact that the gender imbalance looks similar at the front of the classroom. In the United States, where 42 percent of high school teachers are men, high school educators do not enjoy a higher status than those in elementary school.

Teachers unions argue that the swift adoption of new academic standards, the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers’ job performance and efforts to overhaul tenure all make teaching a less attractive career for anyone.

Deans of education departments lament the lack of men, but are not sure what to do about it. Susan H. Fuhrman, president of Teachers College at Columbia University, said she was puzzled by the persistent absence of men in elementary education programs, where women outnumber them nine to one. “I do think it’s a vicious cycle,” she said. “Women went into it 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.”

And at a time when teachers are nowhere near to representing the racial diversity of America’s students, many educators argue that increasing the number of African-American and Latino teachers is a higher priority than simply bringing more men onto the job.

Still, some educators say that males, who tend to struggle in school more than females, could use more male role models. Some say the notion that boys need to be taught differently or by men simply underscores gender stereotypes.

Men who do become teachers tend to be promoted more quickly into senior administrative positions, said Christine L. Williams, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas who has studied the so-called glass escalator. Nearly half of all school principals are men. If educators are determined to get more men into classrooms, Professor Williams said, the best way would simply be to upgrade the conditions and pay of the job. “And that,” she said, “would positively impact the job for women as well.”

With the number of educators who will be retiring or leaving the field, the question is how do we get more educators, male or female into schools? Would simply paying them more attract more educators or will we need to improve the societal view of education?  The suffocating Common Core curriculum, movements to remove collective bargaining and tenure rights, as well as the battle cry of “tying teacher evaluations to standardized tests!” diminishes academic freedom (and public esteem). If school districts want to attract new hires (and they will indeed need to!), teachers of both genders will need to be given more autonomy. Furthermore, the media and politicians need to stop making teachers the scapegoat for all that is wrong in society. We can’t control the socioeconomic circumstances from which our students come, but we can (and do) endeavor to lift up “all boats no matter how low they’re floating.” And finally, yes, teacher salaries must reflect the importance of our role in society. We know, despite the lower pay and scorn heaped upon us, that what we do is of the utmost importance. In society, when all is said and done, higher salaries show who society values.