by Judith Kleinfeld, University of Alaska Fairbanks, AK - USA

A worried school principal stopped me in the hallway after I had given a talk on how boys were falling behind in school.

The principal wanted to know the answer to a practical question.

The search committee at her school had to make a choice between hiring a male teacher or a female teacher. The female teacher understood the importance of making teaching more boy-friendly.

But shouldn’t her school choose the male teacher? Wouldn’t he be a good role model for the boys?

I ducked the question. I didn’t know anything about the particular applicants.

But new studies are helping us answer her question. This is the bottom line: Schools need both — more male teachers and more female teachers who understand how to teach boys.

Some evidence supports the importance of male teachers, at least in junior high school, when boys are thinking a lot about how to become men.

Using the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, with a national sample of almost 25,000 eighth-graders, Thomas Dee, a Swarthmore economist, compared boys and girls who had both male and female teachers. You can find the study in the August 2006 issue of Education Next.

In general, girls learned more with female teachers and boys with male teachers, although the results depended on the subject.

“A large fraction of boys’ dramatic underperformance in reading is linked to the fact that their reading teachers are overwhelmingly female,” Dee concludes.

Moreover, the female teachers were significantly more likely than the male teachers to see the boys as disruptive.

The boys liked having male teachers. They were more likely to report that they did not look forward to a subject when that subject was taught by a female teacher.

Female teachers, on the other hand, were good for girls in subjects like science. If they had a female science teacher, the girls believed that science was a lot more important to their futures.

But female teachers can be just as good for boys as males.

Take this study of reading, which Peg Tyre describes in her forthcoming book, “The Trouble with Boys.”

A male and a female researcher read aloud to groups of second-grade boys using different kinds of books. With one group, they read standard school books, some of which had a girl as the main character. With another group, they read the kind of books that guys like — with lots of action and a boy as the main character.

When they listened to the standard schoolbooks, the sex of the teacher didn’t matter. The boys were turned off.

When they listened to the action stories read by a female teacher, the boys liked school better. When the male teacher read the action story, the boys did not think school was a “feminized activity.”

Getting more male teachers into the schools and getting more men to read to boys makes sense.

“Inside our nation’s classrooms, male students — especially in the lower grades — have been all but abandoned by adult males,” Tyre points out.

“According to the National Education Association, the biggest teachers’ union in the country, the number of male teachers is the lowest it’s been in 40 years. In 1981, the percentage of male teachers in elementary schools reached 18 percent.

Today it’s half that — around 9 percent.

“The number of male teachers in secondary schools stands at about 35 percent, the lowest it’s been since the NEA started keeping statistics.”

These studies make me even more glad that I ducked the principal’s question about whether her school would be better off hiring a male role model or a female teacher who knows how to teach boys. Both would be good choices.

Come to think about it, my older son’s favorite teachers, the ones he still talks about 20 years later, were all female.

Judith Kleinfeld is director of northern studies and a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.