Few men teach at elementary schools; those who do often have a big impact

As the only male teacher at Wallace Elementary School, Carlos Mendoza is often asked by female colleagues to help discipline select students -- usually boys needing extra attention.

"I guess it's because there is always a mom figure and a dad figure. Things you can get away with with mom, you'll have a different attitude and behavior with dad," said Mendoza.

Having positive male role models is important for elementary school boys and girls, Mendoza said. It's good for students -- especially those without a father at home -- to see a man caring about their well-being and success, he said.

But the number of men nationwide teaching elementary school is hovering around a 40-year low, said Bryan Nelson, founder of the nonprofit and advocacy group MenTeach.org. Only about 5 percent of early education teachers nationwide are men, he said.

Part of that is due to a societal misperception that men aren't as nurturing as women toward young children, Nelson said. Surveys also find men choose other professions for higher pay or fear suspicions of abuse if they interact closely with children, he said.

"Men are suspect if they want to be around children ... It's a barrier for some men, like, 'Do I need this headache?'" Nelson said. "It takes fortitude. It takes a very strong self-confidence to stay in the field."

Many Longview and Kelso elementary schools have only one male teacher outside of physical education or other specialty classes. One school, Carrolls Elementary, doesn't have any male classroom teachers at all. Olympic Elementary in Longview appears to have the highest number of male teachers -- five -- or about 33 percent of the school's teaching staff.

Kelso School District's affirmative action plan calls for increasing the number of male elementary school teachers, though Longview's does not. School officials said few men apply for the jobs and schools by law cannot consider gender in the interview process or specifically recruit male teachers.

"We want our staff to be representative of our students," which is about 50 percent male, said Jenae Gomes, a Kelso School District human resources officer. The district's affirmative action plan aims to have 50 percent of its elementary staff be men, she said.

Neither Longview or Kelso school districts track the percentage of men who teach elementary grades.

Mendoza, who teaches second grade, said he's happy to fill a void of male teachers at Wallace. Students and parents have never expressed concern about having a male teacher, he said. After a while, students get used to him and sometimes even forget he's a man.

"Sometimes they call me 'mom' by mistake. They'll say, 'Mom? I mean, Mr. Mendoza?" he said. Students aren't trying to be funny or disparaging, he said, but "I just chuckle."

Mendoza said he makes a point of attending social events, such as baby showers, hosted by colleagues -- but even he says "no thanks" when it's time for diaper-folding games.

"I support them a lot in different things, but I have my limit," he said.

Most of his daily interaction with another man is the school's lead custodian. It's nice to relax, joke around and talk football with him during breaks, Mendoza said.

"It's kind of a lonely life," he said. "I have really good (female) friends, but it isn't the same as asking a guy, 'Did you see how the Steelers played?' "

Mendoza said he takes several precautions his female counterparts don't have to worry much about.

"As male teachers, we have to be careful with how we deal with little kids. Hugs are on the side" of his hip and nobody sits on his lap, he said. "We have to have those rules in our heads all the time. You have to be careful because there's a very thin like between good touch and bad touch," he said.

Students benefit not only from having strong male role models, but also from seeing positive interaction between men and women in the classroom, Nelson said.

"Students see teachers interacting all the time. 'Can you give me a hand here? Can you watch my classroom?" he said.

While it's good to have men represented in elementary grades, it's important to maintain balance.

"I don't want to imply this is men-versus-women. It's just saying, what do we want that's best for our children? It's not just that we want more men, we want quality teachers, we want quality teachers that are men and women," Nelson said.

If school districts want more men lead classrooms, Nelson said, schools need to be more welcoming to men and better portray men as nurturers.

"If we look in schools, we don't have images of men being nurturing to children. We have pictures of men in a suit on the wall. These messages hit you over and over again."

February 8, 2009

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