The green rubber ball with 50 flimsy tentacles is tossed between the half-dozen students. Everyone is silent except the 6-foot 7-inch giant towering over them.
It’s called silent ball. Their teacher is known for it, and for turning “hell raisers” around. Getting their grades up. Improving their academic focus. He’s like a father — or a big brother — to them.
Jan-Michael Apostol is the only male teacher at Heights Elementary School in South Fort Myers. He’s one of 228 male elementary school teachers in Lee County. Compare that to 2,124 females.
The disparity between men and women in the classroom is not centered in Lee or Collier counties. It’s similar in almost every school district of the country.
A 2005 study done by the National Education Association found 24.9 percent of U.S. teachers are male. Florida is lower, at 22.3 percent, and Lee and Collier numbers are lower still.
The percentage of men to women teaching in Lee is currently at 21.9 percent. In Collier it’s 21.6 percent, with 667 males and 2,418 females working as educators.
Debbie Terry, Director of instructional staff and recruiting in Collier County, said the ratio has been similar since the beginning of education.
“It’s been that way forever,” Terry said.
Apostol has little explanation for the numbers. All he knows is that he’s doing what he loves: working with kids.
“I knew I wanted to work with children one way or another,” he said.
The 23-year-old Florida Gulf Coast University graduate has been working with children since the age of 14. Then he was a camp counselor. When he entered college, he wanted to be a child psychologist. Later, a friend in the education program convinced him to switch majors.
From the beginning, Apostol noticed. All his professors were female. There were only a handful of men in his graduating class of about a hundred. Clearly, this is a woman’s profession. Or is it?
Men once ruled the schools. As early as 1994, the U.S. Department of Education reported only 34.5 percent of principals were women. By 2000, the number had jumped to 43.7 percent. Today in Lee County, women make up 56.1 percent of administration.
Nonetheless, like many teachers, Apostol is looking to “move up the rank.” Get his master’s degree. Become a principal. And, perhaps, be a breadwinner. “Personally, I’d like to be able to support a family,” he said.
Maybe it’s his fatherly appearance, or the fact he’s so tall. Somehow Apostol is able to quiet rowdy students some of his female co-workers have been unable to control.
On multiple occasions, Apostol said, students have been sent to him with a warning of behavior problems. A female student who throws fits over homework in her other classes quietly finishes her work while in Apostol’s. He said another male student teachers warned him about is perfect in his company.
“I don’t even know if it’s so much because I am a male or because I am a younger teacher,” said Apostol, who had a male fifth-grade teacher in his native Massachusetts. He said students look up to a male teacher “because we’re not used to having a male tell us what to do in school.”
Terry said male teachers like Apostol are appealing and wanted for these same reasons.
First and foremost we have to look for quality teachers,” Terry said. “We continue to look for males in the school because they are great role models. They give students someone to look up to.” And being 6-foot-7, that’s especially true for Apostol.
One of his students, 11-year-old Javaris Wilson, said male teachers are better “because they’re more strict than a female teacher is … they make sure you get your work done.”
Wilson said Apostol helped him move his grade from a C to an A. “Everybody else wishes they were in Mr. Apostol’s class,” he said, adding that he relates better to male teachers.
Patricia Wachholz, an associate dean at FGCU’s College of Education, said it doesn’t matter if they’re male, female, black, Hispanic, young or old, diversity in the classroom is important “so that children have good role models across the board.”
“I think because there is a shortage of male teachers, particularly in elementary schools,” said Wachholz, “I think well qualified male applicants can have a better look.”
The school district’s coordinator of staffing and recruiting, Michelle Cort-Mora, said she is always looking to recruit male teachers, but they just aren’t out there.
Cort-Mora said she is especially interested in having more men in elementary schools with a high percentage of low income students. The students might look up to the men, she said, because of a lack of male role models at home. “We’d love to have more male teachers,” she said, “but we can only hire what comes.”
Terry said Collier County is seeing more men coming to education as a second career thanks to the alternative certification, which allows people to teach without having to major in education.
Terry believes to find future male instructors educators are going have to look outside the normal college track.
“I think to recruit them into teaching we are going to need to go to the universities and look in the other departments,” she said of finding more male teachers. “We need to go to the math and science departments to find them. We need to give them a second career alternative.”
Ky’Asia Crawford, a 10-year-old student in Apostol’s class, said the only differences she notices about him are the way he looks and the fact he frequently plays sports in the classroom, like silent ball. She thinks female teachers are nicer, because Apostol is hard. “We got a lot of work to do,” she said.
Apostol has a distinct teaching style.
“If there is a problem that arises, I fix it right away,” he said. “If a kid acts out, I give them a warning … once you can control them, then you can teach them.”