by Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje - San Antonio, TX Express-News Staff Writer

The 24 pint-size bodies are scattered around the room at various “literacy” centers, engrossed in the hard work of learning to read. Then it’s time to clean up for recess. What looks like controlled chaos ensues, the kids zooming around like hyper-caffeinated kittens.

“Mr. Ghafoor, Mr. Ghafoor, I broke my crayon,” implores one little boy.

“It’s all right, you have plenty of other ones,” the teacher consoles.

The children in Saeed Ghafoor’s kindergarten class at Ott Elementary know the drill. To prepare for recess he turns off the light and the students all converge on the floor on a rug, suddenly very quiet.

Riding herd over a bunch of kindergarteners takes special skill, but Ghafoor, 25, a wiry young man with bleached tips of hair, has the right stuff. He keeps a firm but nurturing hand on his young charges, steering them through that first and crucial year of school.

As a male kindergarten teacher, he’s a rarity. Actually, male teachers are pretty rare throughout elementary school, becoming more common only at middle school and high school. Ghafoor, who is in his second year of teaching, is one of the minority who chooses to work with younger kids. And he can tell you exactly why.

“They’re real innocent and they are kind of mold-able,” says the Chicago native who came to San Antonio on a school internship. “When they come here they’re real fresh; kindergarten is the basis for their knowledge. They also soak everything up, like a sponge. Their minds are amazing.”

According to a recent article in Newsweek magazine, the number of male teachers has reached a 40-year low. In elementary school, only 9 percent of teachers are men, down from 18 percent in 1981.

But Texas appears to be bucking this trend. Kristina Tirloni of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association in Austin says the percentage of males in Texas classrooms has increased slightly or stayed stagnant in recent years. In fast-growth areas such as the Northside and Northeast Independent School Districts, the numbers are on the increase as the number of teachers overall has increased. Still, men continue to make up just a small fraction — 22 percent — of teachers in the classroom.

For men like Ghafoor, the joys of teaching make being in a minority no big deal.

“I wanted a job where I could go home every day knowing I had done something positive,” says Ghafoor, who studied business before switching to education. “In this job I know I’m going to affect (the children) for the rest of their lives.”

So far, Ghafoor has gotten only positive feedback from parents, some of whom were surprised to learn that their child’s kindergarten teacher has a Y chromosome.

“It’s different, but I feel he’s just as nurturing and caring as a female teacher,” says Christine Cardenas, whose son Matthew, 5, is in Ghafoor’s class. “He’s just a very enthusiastic young teacher. He’s caring in a different way, making the kids more strong and independent. He’s nurturing but not in a babyish way. It’s been good so far.”

Ghafoor says that only one student, a little girl, cried that “she wanted a girl teacher.”

“But after a day or two with me, she was fine,” he says. “I make it fun.”

Like a handful of other male teachers interviewed for this story, Ghafoor says he also appreciates that he can serve as a positive male role model in a world where many kids are lacking such a benefit.

“It’s an unfortunate fact of life that a lot of children grow up in an environment where the father isn’t always around,” says Rey Perez, 46, a balding, bespectacled fifth-grade teacher wearing a Hawaiian shirt at Kindred Elementary, where he has taught for 22 years. “I’m often the first male teacher they’ve ever had, except for the coach, who is with them 45 minutes a day.”

On a recent afternoon, Perez led his students through a discussion about which machines they’re happy have been invented (“A riding lawn mower,” said one kid) and then through a high-speed math game where students at the board competed to see who could solve a multiplication problem the quickest. It’s part of his secret, says Perez: Keeping things fun and interesting. That fact that he’s a man might also play a role in the good behavior of his students.

“Being a male, I can raise my voice and that’s it,” he says with a slight smile.

Perez loves teaching because “every day it’s different.” He loves getting to know his kids, who become like “family” over the 10-month school year. He loves it when former students come back to say hello, like the young man who came back 22 years later to pay him a visit.

He’s also gratified that he’s paid a good salary — a little more than $50,000 a year. Susan Kent, director of elementary human resources for Northside, says one reason there are more male teachers today is because the pay is much better than it used to be. In her district, a starting teacher pulls down $43,500 — compared to $8,500, which is what she made as a brand new teacher in 1981.

“Another reason is alternative certification,” she adds, referring to the shortcut toward a teaching certificate for those who already have a bachelor’s degree. “People who want a second career often go into teaching, and a majority of them are male, which is good because we really need the role models. A lot of the alternative certification people are retired military.”

Kent says she “goes overboard” in trying to recruit men into the classroom — that’s how badly they’re needed in a profession that has been feminized since that 1890s and where boys are falling behind girls in terms of graduation rates and reading and writing scores.

A desire to help close the “achievement gap” between Anglos and Latinos is partly why Alejandro Rosa, 36, decided to become a bilingual third-grade teacher in a low-income school, after trying other jobs in construction and the restaurant business.

“It’s like my calling, my mission,” he says, munching on a cookie and sipping coffee while his students are in art class at Price Elementary. “I just want to make a difference with these Hispanic kids.”

A second-year teacher, he says he relishes it when his kids “light up” because they’ve learned something new. He is slowly learning to pull back: Last year he was at school every night until 8 p.m., preparing for the next day, until an older teacher told him he was going to burn himself out. Now he tries to leave by 6 p.m.

“It’s very demanding,” he says. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of multi-tasking, but it’s just awesome. Don’t ever do it for the money!”

Like the other male teachers interviewed for this story, Rosa says he’s careful to do “sideways” hugs with his students and to abide by other guidelines when it comes to touching them. (High fives are definitely OK.) The male teachers were all cognizant of the fears about pedophilia, a subject that’s gotten high-profile media attention, but none so far has experienced a problem. Some male teachers are married; some aren’t. Some have kids of their own, some don’t. All speak about how deeply rewarding a teaching career is. Ghafoor says he plans to earn a master’s and possibly become a principal, but the rest say their place is forever in the classroom.

That would include Daniel J. Shea, a third-grade teacher at Woodridge Elementary School in Alamo Heights. He recently moved here from Houston, where he won a prestigious teaching award. He has been an elementary school teacher for 14 years. That’s where he plans to spend his entire career, he says.

“I’ve always seen myself as a big kid. I was the baby of the family,” says Shea, 40, silver-haired and trim, the kind of teacher who attends his students’ football games and recitals. “In the classroom, even though I’m grown-up, I never stop learning. I learn as much from the kids as they learn from me. My goal is to see what the students can do and then just build from there.”

He says some parents are “somewhat leery” at first to find their child’s third-grade teacher is a male.

“But once they meet me and see what we’re doing in the classroom, then it’s as if I’m their best friend,” he says. “Then they start telling their friends, ‘Oh, your kid’s in the second grade? You have to get Mr. Shea next year.'”