The Ottawa Citizen

As the debate continues regarding the reasons fewer men are entering teaching, a larger question looms: Does it matter? Roger Collier found that while the education experts aren’t so certain, some parents have no doubt that it does.

Brown’s troubles are drawing giggles from the 18 students in St. Rita Elementary School’s Grade 2 class. One student, however, sympathizes with the suddenly milkless farmer.

“If the only thing you had for breakfast was cereal,” says a dark-haired boy, “that would be insane.” It’s story time, a common part of a typical day in any elementary school. What’s not so common anymore are teachers like the one at the head of this classroom: A man, 43-year-old Charlie MacAdam.

Male teachers are becoming increasingly scarce in Ontario elementary schools. Last year, 21 per cent of primary-junior teachers aged 55 and over were male. Of teachers younger than 30, males accounted for only 11 per cent, reports the Ontario College of Teachers.

Nineteen per cent of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s 2,743 elementary school teachers are male. For the Ottawa-Carleton Catholic School Board, it’s about 16 per cent.

St. Rita, a Catholic elementary school in Carleton Heights, has three men on a teaching staff of 21. Mr. MacAdam, who once taught high school, has been teaching Grade 2 for five years. The most rewarding part of his job, he says, is watching young minds develop over the course of the school year.

“Some of the kids don’t read very well when they come in,” he says. “By the end of the year, they’re writing half a page.” The disappearance of the male teacher is not unique to Ontario, or even Canada. The percentage of males among U.S. teachers is at a 40-year low. In Australia, a third less men were teaching in the primary grades in 2005 than there were in 1985.

Of course, women have long dominated the ranks of elementary school teachers. However, the ratio of male-to-female teachers was predictably consistent. In the 1980s, that changed.

According to one popular theory, the number of male teachers began to decline as women flocked to universities. (Since 1981, women have accounted for 75 per cent of enrolment growth in Canadian universities.) This meant more competition for spots in education faculties.

“Girls tend to do better in school than guys,” says Julian Hanlon, deputy-director of the Ottawa-Carleton Catholic School Board. “It’s very difficult to get into teachers’ college today.” In 2005, males made up 27 per cent of total enrolment in Ontario education faculties, according to the Ontario Universities Application Centre.

One reason men are becoming harder to find in elementary schools in particular, though, has nothing to do with academic opportunity. Many educators believe society is suspicious of men who enjoy being around small children. Some men fear accepting a job in an elementary school is an invitation to accusations of abuse.

“They just don’t want to put themselves in that position,” says Ruth Kane, director of teacher education at the University of Ottawa.

Some educators believe low starting salaries are also holding men back from entering the profession. Although a teacher can eventually earn more than $80,000, they start at about $35,000.

While there continues to be ample discussion in education circles regarding the reasons fewer men are entering teaching, a larger question looms: Does it matter? Ms. Kane isn’t convinced. “I think it’s important that children have really good teachers. I don’t think it matters if they’re male or female.” For years, many education experts believed the shrinking number of male teachers was linked to the growing literacy gap between young boys and girls. However, the findings of a study recently conducted by professors from the universities of Alberta and Winnipeg suggest that boys struggling with reading respond better to help from women.

Even if they don’t provide an academic advantage, some experts believe men still benefit the classroom.

“The point of public schooling is not just to instil basic notions of literacy, but it’s also to instil a kind of social literacy, an ability to function in a common democratic society,” says Timothy Stanley, a professor with the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education. “That involves dealing with many different kinds of people.” Many parents believe male teachers serve as good role models for boys, particularly those without fathers in the home. In fact, this is the reason why, at St. Rita, some parents request that Mr. MacAdam teach their sons.

“They feel really great about having a guy teacher,” says Mr. MacAdam.

A recent British survey lends weight to the role-model theory, indicating that boys aged eight to 11 behave better when their teachers are men.

Joanne MacEwan, an Ottawa mother of three, saw evidence of this when she volunteered in a male-led Grade 5 class at Holy Family School.

“I went into this classroom and I was totally amazed,” she says. “It was so organized and everyone was so focused. I had seen the class the year before and it was out of control.” Ms. MacEwan says the male teachers at Holy Family were also good role models to her own two sons, who are now 12 and 14. She believes elementary schools need to attract more men.

“You need that balance.” Some countries have made efforts to boost the number of male teachers in their schools. A U.S. non-profit group called MenTeach has been encouraging men to become teachers since 1979. In 2004, Australia’s education minister announced a plan to offer $2,000 scholarships to male primary education students.

A 2004 Ontario study commissioned by Jean-Luc Bernard, director of education for the Conseil scolaire de district du Centre-Sud-Ouest, resulted in a report entitled “Narrowing the Gender Gap: Attracting Men to Teaching.” Some of the report’s recommendations include mounting a province-wide marketing campaign to promote a positive image of teaching, developing male-specific recruitment materials for education faculties and setting up a mentoring program for male teachers.

A few of the recommendations have been implemented, says Mr. Bernard, but the hoped-for results have yet to be realized.

“There’s been an increase of people going into teaching,” he says. “But I can’t say there’s been an increase of males going into teaching.” For Mr. MacAdam, becoming a teacher was an easy decision. His father was a college professor. Five of his siblings, including four brothers, also became teachers.

On this morning, as Mr. MacAdam finishes reading the tale of Farmer Brown and his hard-bargaining animals, and 18 tiny faces smile back at him, it’s easy to see he loves his work.

“Was it a funny story?” Mr. MacAdam asks the students, who sit cross-legged on multi-coloured foam squares.

“Yes!” they reply in unison.

It’s also a story with a happy ending. The ducks get their diving board. The cows get their blankets. Farmer Brown gets milk for his cereal.

The story of the disappearing male elementary school teacher might also have a happy ending, says Mr. MacAdam, if young men realized the rewards of the profession.

“If they were only aware of the impact they were going to have on kids, opening up their minds to what they can learn and seeing the wonderment in their eyes. It’s pretty amazing.”