Richard Muse was greeted with the same question repeatedly this summer during teacher orientation.
“They said ‘Hey, what are you coaching?’ ” said the third-grade teacher.
At Collierville Elementary, Muse, 23, is one of two male instructors.
In a female-dominated profession, he is a rare and fading breed.
With just one-quarter of the nation’s 3 million teachers being male, declining numbers over the last two decades have put the number of men teaching across the country at a 40-year low, according to the National Education Association.
And in Memphis City and Shelby County schools, the numbers are even lower than the national average.
Out of 3,100 county teachers, fewer than 16 percent are male, while the city system has 7,500 teachers with 20 percent of them male.
“It’s very challenging to be a male teacher in this society,” Muse said.
Coming from a traditional family in which men are the main breadwinners, he worried his $37,000 starting salary would put too much pressure on his wife’s career.
“I said, ‘Would you be happy with someone who wants to be a teacher?'” he said.
According to NEA, the national average salary for a first year teacher is less than $33,000.
The other hurdle Muse faces as a teacher is that he is an affectionate person. But he must be careful with hugging children because of “legal issues and what someone might think,” he said.
Even a simple phrase such as “I like children” can be taken the wrong way, he said.
A shortage of male elementary teachers is a particular problem. In 1981, it hit an all-time high of 18 percent but has been declining ever since and now sit at 9 percent.
“One reason why a lot of guys don’t go into education is because of gender stereotypes, the idea that nurturing children is a role that belongs to women,” said Bellevue Middle School principal Kevin Malone.
“It’s why so many men go into high school,” he said.
Malone has gone to great lengths to recruit men, even tracking down a potential teacher on a golf course.
Finding strong male role models for students is important, he said, especially when a number of students come from single-parent homes.
“You’re not just teaching a class,” he said. “You are doing so much more. In some instances, you are the primary figure in a child’s life, and you are shaping who they are.”
Though you’ll find more male teachers in high schools, even those usually end up moving into administrative positions for higher pay, said Russell Joy, principal at Germantown Middle School.
“Male teachers are extremely difficult to find and keep,” Joy said.
With three male classroom teachers on his staff, the principal believes low pay is the largest culprit keeping more out of the classroom.
“You can’t raise your family on $30,000 to $40,000 if you want a good middle-class life. It’s almost impossible,” he said.
To make ends meet, many of his male teachers moonlight as real estate agents and clerks in department stores, he said.
During his teaching years, Joy worked nights in the old Goldsmith’s store’s china department.
Before Muse got his degree in education, he says he made substantially more money changing tires at Costco.
But it’s not the money that draws people like him into this career, he said.
Instead, it’s a passion to cultivate children’s minds, Muse says.
“My ultimate goal is to have these kids walk out of here thinking they can accomplish anything they want,” he said.