by Norman Draper, Star Tribune - Minneapolis, MN USA

Jan B. Hansen’s 8:30 a.m. class at the University of St. Thomas has 27 students, all aspiring teachers. Many are headed for their first student-teaching experience next spring. When they get their licenses, they will be qualified to teach grades K-8.

There’s another thing … they’re all women.

The number of men in Minnesota classrooms has been dwindling since the 1980s, according to teacher statistics and interviews with educators. That mirrors the national trend of a shortage of male teachers. The National Education Association teachers union found in 2003 that the percentage of male teachers had dropped to a 40-year low.

While such decreases are relatively small from year to year, the cumulative effect has turned the male teacher into an endangered species in many schools, especially at the elementary level, and in many college teaching-degree programs.

For instance, at Edward Neill Elementary School in Burnsville, one out of 18 classroom teachers is a man. Of the 27 licensed teachers in the school, four are men.

At Pinewood Elementary School in Mounds View, one out of 22 classroom teachers is a man. And while men probably never achieved parity with women in elementary schools, their numbers used to be greater.

Sally Standiford, dean of the college of education at Winona State University, has statistics going back five years that show little change in the percentage of men — about 25 percent — pursuing the teaching path. But a story she heard during a school visit could be more telling.

“Yesterday, I was talking with a teacher who related a story about sitting around in the teachers’ lounge,” she said. “One of the teachers looked around the lounge and said, ‘Where have all the men gone?'”

Role models needed

Even in high schools, where male teachers are far more common, their percentages are dropping. “We see that fewer men are attracted to teaching as a career,” said Susan Huber, dean of the St. Thomas College of Applied Professional Studies, of which the School of Education is a part. “It bears out the stereotype that teaching is largely a female profession.”

Educators fear fewer male teachers means fewer positive role models for boys. That could result in a diminished interest in learning. It could also perpetuate the trend of fewer boys looking to teaching as a career.

“I could see that boys could associate that school is a woman’s thing,” said senior Claire Bercham, from St. Paul, one of the 27 women in Hansen’s “methods for teaching science and healthy, active living” class.

What do the men have to say about all this?

Bjorn Anderson, an Edward Neill Elementary science specialist, thinks the school should have “50 percent male teachers,” but has some theories why it doesn’t. He thinks, for one thing, that men are more fearful of being sued by lawsuit-inclined parents who might equate the slightest gesture intended to help or nurture a child with child abuse. Plus, men worry that teaching won’t pay a big enough salary to raise a family.

“My thought going into teaching was, ‘How can I provide if my wife wants to stay home?'”

For some, the love of learning

Some educators think such men often turn away from teaching. By contrast, some educators say men of the ’60s and ’70s were more likely to go into teaching out of public spiritedness.

Still, the drive to teach sometimes trumps all those concerns.

“I love working with children,” Anderson said. “And learning has always been an important part of my life. I enjoy passing it on to the kids.”

Some say that, whether it’s because men are more rare or because they represent authority figures to many children, behavior problems tend to drop off in a male teacher’s presence.

“What I found out is that, as far as discipline is concerned, the children seem to respond quicker to me,” Anderson said.

At St. Thomas, education school students say there seems to be a divide between men, who are more interested in making money, and women, who are already thinking about having families and figure it will be relatively easy to move between teaching and child rearing.

“Maybe it goes back to the motherly instinct,” said Shannon Sand, a fifth-year teaching student from Grand Forks, N.D. “If you’re a mother, you want your summers off. I have heard that a lot.”

Enrollment figures from Minnesota State University, Mankato, as well as Winona State, show the number of men in teaching programs staying the same over the past several years. But there are signs that the male teaching population is aging, and that there aren’t enough young men to replenish the ranks. Sue Grissom, Burnsville schools’ human resources executive director, has noticed a far higher number of district male teachers ages 41 to 60 than those ages 21 to 40.

Educators say little is being done to boost the number of male teachers, though some suspect that men nowadays might find it easier to land jobs in male-starved schools than their female counterparts.

“We would like to have a balance of candidates within our schools,” said Bill Book, Pinewood Elementary’s principal. “But, ultimately, we seek the best candidates to educate students. Due to the disproportionately low number of males in relation to females, sometimes it’s difficult to make it all work.”