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Chuck Carney

Last modified: Monday, March 19, 2007

Danger? Men not working

IU ed school students focus on lack of male teachers in elementary, early childhood settings

March 19, 2007

EDITORS: At the bottom of this release are audio comments that are available as mp3 files on the IU School of Education Website at

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Historically low numbers of male teachers at the elementary and early childhood levels are the impetus for a new class offering at the IU School of Education in Bloomington. "Men in Education and the Male Teacher" is a graduate class developed by doctoral student Shaun Johnson.

According the National Education Association, the number of men working as elementary school teachers is at its lowest point in four decades. The NEA reports that only 9 percent of elementary school teachers are men. Less than a quarter of all public school teachers are male. The state of Indiana actually has one of the highest percentages of male public school teachers, at nearly 31 percent.

Johnson's interest in the subject came out of his teaching experience — a year in a Washington, D.C. public school, then three at a school in Montgomery County, Md. Johnson said he "stuck out," particularly in Washington, where he was one of three men teaching alongside 45 female teachers. He also said he felt some colleagues and acquaintances didn't take him seriously as a professional both within and outside the school.

"I sort of got frustrated after a while with people telling me how 'cute' it is that I teach," Johnson said. "You know, 'isn't that adorable?' It was a profession to me and it still is, and I take it very seriously."

Another doctoral candidate examining the issue found that kind of reaction isn't unusual -- and isn't innocuous. Volkan Sahin, who came to IU in 1999 from Turkey, conducted a study along with colleague Arif Yilmaz. Male elementary teachers he interviewed said they often felt an expectation to be the tough disciplinarian, fix broken items in the classroom and lift anything heavy.

"This actually bothers them," Sahin said, "just being seen as a handyman in the classroom. Not like a professional, not like a colleague, but like a handyman and a disciplinarian."

Sahin's research indicated four factors that make men enter the teaching profession and stay, despite the long hours, low pay and hard work:

  • Men with previous experience, such as volunteer work with children;
  • The desire to be a role model for kids;
  • A positive working environment in which colleagues and others support their work; and
  • Men who are parents.

Both Sahin and Johnson point out that other research indicates student achievement is not affected by teacher's gender.

"For practical reasons, there is no difference," Sahin said. "There is nothing the men can do that the women cannot."

Still Cary Buzzelli, IU professor and chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, said the issue is important.

"I do think it's good for children to see both men and women in a variety of roles," Buzzelli said.

The early childhood education professor said particularly since more children are coming from single-parent homes, having a male presence could be very helpful developmentally.

As Johnson can testify from experience and as Sahin's study shows, old stereotypes about male and female roles persist and may keep some men from joining the profession.

"There still continues to be, I think, some stigma around men wanting to work with young children," Buzzelli said. "And I think that is cautionary to some men."

Sahin's study used a small sample, and he points out a larger population would be necessary to make more general conclusions. But the study does provide some explanations for low numbers of male teachers. Johnson will continue examining the issue during the summer session class. He said the goal for his class will be to come up with potential solutions to recruiting and retention of male teachers in elementary education.

"Students in the class hopefully will be more critical of how they promote gender practices in their classrooms," Johnson said, "but then consider mentoring or encouraging men to become education majors or work with younger children."

Media Outlets:

The following comments are available as mp3 files on the IU School of Education Website at Professor and Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

Shaun Johnson says his class will try to touch upon one unanswered question: is it important to have more male teachers in elementary schools?

"But no one can seem to tell you why beyond role modeling, and you know, kids without dads -- these non-nuclear families that are becoming more prevalent. And so these teachers need to be role models for these children. But the actual literature, the educational stuff really doesn't give a lot of credibility to those arguments, although a lot of people feel this to be true."

Shaun Johnson says the class will examine three themes -- what can be done about the low numbers, why there is a wariness about men teaching young children, and how historically the elementary teaching profession became dominated by women:

"Even as early as 1870, in the United States, at least, throughout the country, it was largely a female-dominated profession. And then the second theme would be, well, what are the current issues -- and that was low salary, low status."

Volkan Sahin says many men told him they felt pigeon-holed into being the disciplinarians of the schools:

"What happens is, other teachers will send problematic students to them and say, 'Okay, here, go talk to him. You're not behaving right, so go talk to him.' And that's the really, really wrong approach if you ask me, because as our teachers told us, they don't want to have that sort of relationship with children. They want to be caring just like the others. They want children to come to them not just for discipline but for comfort and affection."

Volkan Sahin says his reason for researching this issue is because of his belief in gender balance in the profession. He says it's important for children to see the different styles of men and women teachers:

"They solve the problems by using different strategies. And our children need to be exposed to both ways of solving problems. This is a way of life. To survive, to be successful in life, you need to know as many possible ways to solve your problems. And promoting more males in the classroom -- more than anything it will bring this different perspective in children's lives."

Cary Buzzelli on one reason men may not even think about becoming a teacher:

"Even if they feel inside of them that they are more interested in working with younger children or feel that's the age group with which they want to teach and nurture, since there have historically been so few models, I don't think it comes to mind as, 'Oh, I can do this,' because they see somebody else doing it. And there's the assumption there that this is not something that men do."