Jonathan Meyers leans against an open doorway five minutes before the bell rings, greeting students with high-fives and hugs.
Kids are lively, talkative and sweaty from taking off layers of winter clothing. Meyers is getting ready to teach his third-grade class at Chestnut Ridge Elementary School in Chili. But it’s a career path that few men are following.
Men make up less than 10 percent of elementary school teachers nationwide, and the total number of male teachers now stands at a 40-year low, according to the National Education Association.
The percentage of male elementary teachers in New York state has declined since its peak of 19 percent in 1980 to about 9 percent today.
At the Churchville-Chili Central School District, where Meyers teaches, only 20 of the 173 kindergarten-through-sixth-grade teachers are male.
Historically, teaching was one of the first fields in which women earned a paycheck. Men in the field migrated toward higher grades, leaving elementary schools dominated by women.
“I became a teacher because other male teachers made an impact in my life,” said Meyers, 24. “And I became an elementary school teacher because you have a bigger influence on kids’ lives having them in your classroom the whole day instead of just one period.”
Some experts say women simply gravitate toward teaching younger children, while others believe men shy away from molding young minds.
Meyers, who has baby-sat since age 13, talks to children about SpongeBob SquarePants and sports while also caring for their emotional needs. He’s definitely an anomaly. There’s a perception that men go into education to “teach the subject,” while women enter to rear and nurture children, said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, based in Washington, D.C.
“Others see teaching as women’s work that’s not lucrative enough for them to provide for their families, which is very important to men,” added Weaver. But “having male teachers is essential, because for some kids, these are the only men they have in their lives.”
Don Halquist, 45, who taught elementary school in New Mexico for eight years and sees the need for more men in the field, said better salaries would help.
“The salary conditions make you believe that teaching is less valued in our world, and that plays into some people’s decision to stay away,” said Halquist, who now teaches education at State University College at Brockport.
Also, some people are suspicious of men who want to teach younger kids.
“When parents see newspaper articles detailing male inappropriate behavior with students in middle and high schools, some may feel wary about having their small children taught by males,” said Jody Siegle, executive director of the Monroe County School Boards Association.
“And men sometimes become uncomfortable teaching young kids because they don’t want to go into situations where people might question why they are here.”
More than a decade ago, Churchville-Chili considered a pilot exchange program in which elementary teachers would teach some high school classes and vice versa. The plan was later squashed.
“It wasn’t that we were scared to go to high school and teach kids who were bigger than us,” said Ron Herman, a 21-year veteran who teaches at Chestnut Ridge Elementary. “They were terrified of going down to elementary schools and teaching kids that didn’t even reach their knees.”
“Taking care of kids is so physically taxing that at the end of the day, I was ready to take a nap myself,” added Richard Greene, 49, a former third-grade teacher for the Dansville Central School District. “Some male teachers don’t want to deal with that.”
However, even men who want to teach elementary school aren’t guaranteed a job. Eileen Daniel, interim chairwoman of education and human development at SUNY Brockport, said parents come into her office believing their sons will never have a problem being employed.
“Education doesn’t put the greatest value in gender as a recruiting tool,” said Daniel, whose department has 10 percent to 12 percent of its male students majoring in early childhood education.
In a world of No Child Left Behind, the academic achievement gap between black and white students and unfunded mandates, some local officials said other education matters take precedence.
“Given all the issues, the gender of elementary school teachers just doesn’t come up,” Siegle said.
As a former elementary school teacher, Greene, now principal at Jefferson Avenue Elementary in the Fairport district, enjoys seeing the occasional male applicant, yet he knows that can’t be the No. 1 hiring factor.
“We’re thankful whenever we find quality males, but we can’t just say because you are male, we’re going to hire you. We still have to find the best person for the job,” said Greene. Jefferson has 11 men among its 65 teachers.
Benefits of male teachers
But maybe Meyers wouldn’t be teaching elementary school if Churchville-Chili viewed gender as unimportant.
Herman was Meyers’ first male teacher in sixth grade and now his former pupil is his colleague. Experts say the lack of male teachers will remain an issue as long as the state isn’t willing to put money into the problem.
“It’s simple. You raise the salaries like they did in Michigan and more men will be in the profession,” said Weaver. “If you don’t raise salaries like they did in Mississippi, then you will have some of the lowest numbers of male teachers in your state. The sad part is nothing is really being done nationwide to turn the tide.”
Both Herman and Meyers have memories to validate their decision to enter the female-dominated profession.
Herman, 42, a second-grade teacher, remembers a student coming to class the day after her mother died from pregnancy complications.
“At that point, teaching becomes secondary and caring for the child’s mental well-being takes precedent,” he said.
For Meyers, it was breaking through to a third-grade pupil who previously loathed going to school.
“His mother came to me and said, ‘David was really sad that there is a Christmas break because he loves going to school,'” he said. “A lot of mothers thank us because it’s another positive male role model for their children.”
Melissa Mathews’ two sons have benefited from male teachers: Joshua, 8, who is in Meyers’ class, and Patrick, 10, who had Herman in second grade.
“Mr. Meyers was wonderful for Joshua because they both were very into sports. Before Meyers, he never had another male teacher to connect with,” said Mathews, of Chili. “Before Mr. Herman, Patrick was withdrawn and quiet. Now he’s become more social and Mr. Herman was the person who pulled out all the wonderful aspects of his personality.”
Jake Roa, 17, of Scottsville had to wait until seventh grade for his first male teacher and would have preferred that it didn’t take so long.
“In the male world, we don’t really think about taking care of kids and it doesn’t seem like a lot of fun,” said Jake, a senior at Wheatland-Chili High School. “The thought of spending time with little kids can be kind of scary and that’s why I think we have an unbalanced teaching staff in elementary schools.