A shortage of male teachers takes its toll

By Christina DeNardo - The Palm Beach Post, Florida USA

The National Education Association found that the number of male public school teachers is at a 40-year low.

Lenny Connors shakes his rear in time to music in front of 20 second-graders as a boombox screams the Macarena.

The 21-year educator tries to teach the rhythmically challenged students the moves of a song only heard today at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

''Shake your booty,'' he tells them.

''Hey Macarena!'' they shout.

If this were middle school, the students would roll their eyes and stand like wallflowers, but at Addison Mizner Elementary they're less self-conscious. They laugh and smile and try their hardest. It's why Connors wants to be nowhere else.

''You get so much enjoyment teaching them something they didn't know how to do,'' Connors said.

But Connors is a rare breed. Elementary schools struggle to find men to fill teaching positions.

At Crosspointe Elementary, there's only one male teacher. At 10 other elementaries, there are only two.

In Palm Beach County, men comprise only 10.7 percent of elementary school teachers, compared with 38 percent at middle and high schools. And only 1.7 percent of black men teach the lower grades.

A survey by the National Education Association that represents teachers shows the number of male public school teachers is at a 40-year low.

REAL WORLD

The shortage, experts say, can affect students who need to see teachers who look like them.

''It helps the school look like the real world,'' said Stephen Sills, principal of Discovery Key Elementary in Lake Worth. He has five male teachers.

``I'd like to have a better balance, but there are few applicants.''

While male teachers are underrepresented in elementary schools, they are overrepresented as principals. In many cases, the successful male teachers climb the ladder to administration, leaving openings that often go to women.

LOW SALARIES

Those who have studied the phenomenon say the disparity exists for many of the same reasons why female teachers leave the profession: low salaries, testing demands, burnout.

Elementary school teachers used to be paid less than high school teachers, which tended to steer men toward the upper grades. The two-track pay scales have been eliminated -- all teachers get the same rate of pay regardless of what they teach -- but the disparity still exists.

Some schools are doing better than others. West Gate Elementary in West Palm Beach has the highest number of male teachers at 14.

Principal Thais Villanueva, who has increased the number from three in a decade, usually brings along males on recruiting trips to lure new teachers.

''It's a subtle desire in the back of your mind,'' she said. ``But I look for the match of the school. If it happens to be male, Hallelujah.''

''It takes a lot of patience to teach elementary school,'' said Edward Haukland, a third-grade teacher at Addison Mizner in Boca Raton. ``But you can have the biggest impact here.''

Haukland's principal, Donna Binninger, said she sometimes gets requests from parents for male teachers like Haukland, especially if parents are getting separated or divorced.

IMPORTANT INTERACTION

''For the most part, their experience has been with female teachers and to have that interaction with a male so early in their education is so important,'' Haukland said. ``And they seem to benefit and respond.''

Binninger said she has sometimes placed more challenging boys in Haukland's class because of his success with boys.

Unlike many girls, who can sit for entire lessons without fidgeting, boys need something to break the monotony. In Haukland's class, students who answer questions correctly get thrown a ball. After they sit for 15 minutes, they get a chance to stretch, do jumping jacks and play tag.

The girls in his class have also grown out of their shells. Once afraid to look him in the eye, one girl is now the first to raise her hand.

Beside the pay, male elementary teachers also face very different obstacles to teaching. Some said they feel they must be more careful when giving children attention. They go to great lengths to reassure parents and avoid any behavior that could lead to allegations of abuse.

''You have to watch what you are doing now more than ever,'' said David Preston, a fifth-grade teacher at Seminole Trails Elementary and a 34-year veteran.

``You need to know where to draw the line.''