by Howard Buck, Columbian Staff Writer

Remember your first male teacher?

Peter Chan does. More so, he remembers the lack of one during his own grade-school years in the 1980s.

“I think I would have related better,” said Chan, 32, who teaches fifth grade at Vancouver’s Harney Elementary School. For instance, he just “wasn’t into” his sixth-grade teacher, who tried to engage students with her fondness for aerobics and drama. Now in his third year at Harney, Chan works to provide a counterbalance. He folds his hobbies, mountain biking and skateboarding, into lessons and discussions.

Lanky and engaging with his students, Chan stands out: Out of 19 classroom teachers at Harney, he’s the only man. Across Clark County, in Washington state and nationwide, his isolation is far from unusual.

In 2004, 16 percent of elementary teachers in U.S. public schools were men, according to federal data. It’s also the norm in Washington: One male per six women elementary teachers.

In Clark County’s largest school districts, the ratio is more like 1-to-10.

“I don’t know if it’s a dying breed,” said Rich Allen, currently the only man teaching at Battle Ground’s Glenwood Heights Primary School, home to more than 700 pupils.

In 24 years at Glenwood, Allen has always sensed the vast imbalance. At districtwide meetings, “You pretty much know the (male) teachers, because there’s not that many of them to know,” he said.

So, what does this mean for elementary schoolchildren? Does it affect performance or discipline — for boys or girls?

Education professionals in Washington cannot cite studies that definitively link a dearth of male teachers to poor outcomes. But they agree the disparity can’t be good, and say they see pupils’ hunger for male role models.

“I’m not so sure it isn’t close to a crisis,” said Michael Henniger, associate dean of the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Along with Central Washington University, WWU is the state’s top producer of new teachers.

“There’s pretty good evidence” of a role model need, Henniger said. “From watching kids in school environment, men are just kind of like magnets in schools. If a man goes into a school, (he’s) pretty much swamped with kids.”

At Harney Elementary, school psychologist-counselor Steve Zimmerman said the male influence is critical for young boys. Many come from single-parent homes where the father is absent. Teachers balance the “unhealthy” violent male characters who dominate television, video games and other media, he said.

“A real male who can effectively solve problems without aggression is extremely helpful,” Zimmerman said. A steady presence carries weight, he said. “Kids respond to what we do and how we act, more than to what we say.”

Why do men shy away from elementary teaching?

Interviews with male teachers and teachers in training, plus other education leaders, paint a few strong threads.

Socialization: ‘Why are you here?’

Bellyaches. Untied shoelaces, lost jackets and bathroom accidents.

Fair or not, women have been intrinsically and culturally linked to the “nanny” aspect of teaching young children. Men often see themselves as much less adept.

“You have to be ready to put up with runny noses and germs and little kids coming up and hugging you with tomato sauce on their hands,” said Dave Warner, in his sixth year teaching at Fruit Valley Elementary School.

“I don’t think I was at a point (entering college), as a male, to deal with young children,” said Paul Crossley, a teacher-in-training inspired by guiding his own children. “That’s a big thing, a lot of young men aren’t ready to deal with young kids. There’s a lot of young fathers who aren’t ready to deal with their own kids,” he said.

Even pupils are surprised to see men in their midst.

“I was kind of a foreign concept,” said Crossley, who often volunteered at his children’s Maple Grove Primary School in Battle Ground. “It’s interesting how many times a kid would ask me, ‘Why aren’t you at work? Why are you here?’ ”

Stigma: Some ‘uncomfortable moments’

For male elementary teachers, the elephant in the room is public concern over potential abuse of young children: the pedophilia factor.

Men are acutely aware they must act diligently and must avoid any hint of suspicion, underscored by sordid episodes and improved job training. But surely some avoid younger grades, where the scrutiny is highest.

“(Men) have a little bit more on our shoulders,” said Wade Webberley, who teaches second-graders at Yacolt Primary School. “It’s a little sad, but it’s for the protection of people around us. We have harassment seminars every year. We always talk about what we should do or shouldn’t do,” he said.

High-fives have replaced pats on the back or shoulder. Only a “side hug” is permitted.

“I remember the time that a kid came out of the bathroom asking me to zip him up — something you wouldn’t think twice about as a parent,” said Warner, father of two, who teaches Fruit Valley fourth- and fifth-graders. Instead, he led the boy down the hall to collect a witness before helping him, he said.

“(Students) probably sense it, too,” Chan said. “They can’t be as touchy with a male teacher as a female. They sense that in our society.” Even so, there are “uncomfortable moments,” such as when a pupil wants to hold his hand, he said.

“It puts you in a funny place,” said Chan, father of 7-month-old Zoe. “It doesn’t stress me out, because I know my motives are pure. But it’s a funny place.”

Pay: Reality check

In the 1800s, when most public schools flipped from a “headmaster” norm to the “schoolmarm” model, it became cheaper to hire women who had fewer career options and pay them less. Especially at the grade school level.

The trend continued until pay equity for teachers kicked in during the 1960s.

Still, beginning male elementary teachers earn lower starting pay than do their college-graduate male peers: About 25 percent less (see chart).

“The first time I opened up my paycheck in Montana, I thought, ‘What the heck have I got myself into?’ ” Dave Warner said.

Many male teachers look to supplement their salary by coaching athletics or some extracurricular activity — options easily found at middle or high school. Often, coaching first draws them to the profession.

Under Washington state teacher salary grids, all grades are paid the same. But there are sweeteners, such as state and federal pay bonuses for teachers who take on high-demand subjects of math or science, or lead Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes. Grade school teachers miss out.

“As a guy, it was all about making money and trying to get myself started,” said Crossley, 40, who went straight from college into Silicon Valley public relations work. He never seriously considered teaching.

Now, he’s able to switch gears thanks his wife’s steady income, he said.

“I can choose what my career is, and this is what I’m choosing to do the rest of my life,” Crossley said. “It doesn’t pay a great deal, but it’s something that’s necessary.”

Specialization: Narrow focus common

Teachers’ college leaders, school district recruiters and other educators say more men desire to teach in one subject area — say, math, science or language arts — than to be a jack-of-all-trades elementary schoolteacher.

“There’s a kind of self-selection that happens … it’s a century old,” said Larry Lashway, certification program specialist with the Washington state schools office in Olympia.

“We typically have more men who are looking at the secondary level (grades six-through-12),” said June Canty, director of college of education programs at Washington State University Vancouver.

Each year, WSUV turns out more than 100 teachers who complete undergraduate or master’s degree programs. A small minority pursues the elementary track.

But several Clark County men said teaching across all topics was, in fact, a big attraction.

“I didn’t want a specialty. I think I’d get bored doing one thing,” Dave Warner said. “You have a little more flexibility in the elementary situation, and it fits my personality better.”

At Lincoln Elementary, longtime home-room teacher Scott Anderson feels the same way.

“I know colleagues who teach the same thing five times a day. There’s no way I could do that,” Anderson said.

Prestige: Reputation persists

Few male elementary teachers haven’t been asked by friends or teaching peers why they stick with younger students. The perception persists that upper grades and tougher classroom material offer more challenge.

“It’s things like, ‘You’re so smart, why would you waste yourself as an elementary teacher?’ ” said WSUV’s Canty. “It’s an old-fashioned view of elementary education, that you’re sitting around cuddling, reading stories and playing ‘Duck-Duck-Goose.’ ”

Instead, the elementary teacher’s job has changed dramatically. The federal No Child Left Behind Act and the Washington Assessment of Student Learning mean grade-school teachers must focus on student assessment, team teaching and new learning methods gleaned from brain research.

And, elementary teachers are “expected to maintain their competence in all those different (subjects),” Canty said. “It’s a real hard job.”

That hasn’t quieted the skeptics, many male teachers say.

” ‘Don’t you want to teach high school?’ ” Chan said he’s been asked. And, ” ‘You’re a deeper thinker — you should be teaching some AP course, or things above the level of an elementary kid,’ ” he said.

Fuzzy future

Is there progress, toward making the male elementary teacher less of a stranger?

The issue is on the radar, but not nearly as high a priority as attracting ethnic minority candidates to meet increasing student diversity, experts say.

“We’re trying to let the students see the community in their classrooms,” said Starla Manchester, a teacher mentor for Vancouver Public Schools.

A shrinking pool of male applicants hasn’t helped. The last three years, men have made up 9, 12 and 5 percent of new elementary teachers hired by the Vancouver district.

At Western Washington, the percentage of males to earn an elementary endorsement in 2006-08 — from an average 250 program graduates per year — was 13, 11 and 16 percent.

Entering the pipeline? The number of males starting WWU’s elementary program dropped from 18 to 13 percent over the same time.

WWU has launched a “future scholars” program to aggressively recruit 30 incoming freshman students who’ve shown interest in teaching. Emphasis is on high-need areas, including special education, English as a Second Language, minorities — and men.

But there’s no greater focus on elementary grades than on men interested in secondary school jobs, said Henniger, the associate dean.

“We believe they’re scarce at both levels,” he said.

In Salmon Creek, WSUV’s Canty believes recruiting should start as early as middle school. The more male teachers to serve as role models for the next generation, the better, she said.

Right now, nine of 100 undergraduate junior and senior students in the WSUV teaching program are male.

And Paul Crossley is among only five men out of 32 WSUV graduate students currently on the elementary track. The male faces stand out from rows of women who dominate class photos posted on the department office wall.

At Harney Elementary, Peter Chan doesn’t dwell on being rare, or steering career choices. He’s just busy having fun with his fifth-graders, he said.

“I like this level,” he said, relaxing in his colorfully decorated room after a recent school day. “I like the wonder of this age, the awakening of their minds.”

Read about some more male teachers.