by Joel Hood - Chicago Tribune

For two years, Chezare Warren taught math at a middle school on Chicago’s Southwest Side, weathering the kinds of situations that keep so many men from pursuing teaching careers at elementary and secondary schools.

There were the usual jokes from friends about his low pay and cushy workday. There were the awkward moments with women who sometimes belittled his profession. There was the occasional whisper or suspicious glance from parents who questioned why a young man would choose to spend so much time with children.

Most troubling for Warren — one of six male teachers on a staff of more than 30 — was the look in the eyes of many of his young male students each semester who, lacking positive male role models at home, seemed to latch on to him for fatherly guidance.

“I learned early on to draw lines and establish boundaries with students,” Warren said. “I needed to instill in them that I wasn’t their father, I wasn’t their social worker.”

Those experiences, educators say, partly explain the ever-widening gender gap among teachers, a four-decade trend that many believe has had a profound impact on the way young boys and girls learn. That’s particularly true in urban communities, where more and more children are growing up without a steady male influence in their lives, experts say.

“You’re talking about something that has had a devastating impact on the academic success of young black men in their formative years,” said Phillip Jackson, president of the Black Star Project, a Chicago-based organization that promotes children’s education.

“Unfortunately, the males that become important in the lives of so many African-American and Latino boys are the gang leaders, the drug dealers, the hustlers — and if that’s all they see, that’s what they’ll become.” While male professors still far outnumber women at colleges and universities, their numbers are dwindling at lower grade levels around the country.

“We want our classrooms to reflect the world as a whole, and we put such a priority on hiring people of color. Why do we ignore gender?” asked Bryan Nelson, director of MenTeach, a Minneapolis-based advocacy group for male teachers. “The message we’re sending to boys is that, not only is teaching a women’s realm, but perhaps education is as well.”

Yet after decades of decline, Nelson and others are optimistic about a turnaround. Over the past year, Nelson said, thousands of men laid off from their careers in business, advertising, journalism and other white-collar professions are taking a fresh look at teaching, attracted by its seemingly stable work environment and the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the next generation.

That optimism is shared in academic circles as well, although officials warn it’s too soon to say whether men really are seeking teacher certification in larger numbers than before. At National-Louis University in Chicago and other area schools that offer such programs, women still make up a strong majority. Officials said that disparity has not gone unnoticed but that their top concern is producing qualified teachers regardless of demographics.

“The optimal thing would be to have a diverse teaching staff at all levels,” said Harry Ross, chairman of secondary education at National-Louis. “But the key is to work ourselves away from the stereotypes that say women are better at certain things or men are better at other things.”

Increasingly, administrators are reluctant to hire a man to teach young children for fear of abuse allegations or outcry from parents. When the men are young, single and fresh out of college, the reluctance is even greater, said Valora Washington, president of the CAYL Institute in Massachusetts, which last fall released a study on the shortage of male teachers.

“I’ve heard from many men that they’ve just felt unwelcomed by their school administration,” Washington said. “Working with children is often not the problem — it’s working with the adults.”

Keilan Bonner, 29, an advanced-placement math teacher at King College Prep High School on Chicago’s South Side, said he connects to the boys in his class on a different level than a female teacher might.

“We talk about a lot of stuff they might not be comfortable sharing with others,” Bonner said. “They know I’m somebody they can talk to outside of class, and I think they appreciate that.”

Mike Schuelke, a fourth-grade teacher at Freedom Elementary School in Plainfield, said he was the first male teacher many of his students had ever had. And, he said, that seemed to bring him a certain respect.

“It may not last long, but you can see it there in the beginning,” said Schuelke, 31.

Warren, 27, said he also noticed that extra measure of respect in the beginning. But after two years teaching eighth-grade math at Calumet Middle School in Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, plus two years at other area schools, Warren left to pursue other interests. He is now enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Illinois at Chicago and hopes one day to teach at a college.

“There’s a lot I really enjoyed about teaching,” Warren said. “But it wears on you, and there’s a lot that can discourage you. I felt like I needed a change.”