John Babcock plops his sturdy frame into a wooden rocking chair in his kindergarten classroom at William Marvin Bass Elementary School.
He leans forward. Students sit on the carpet in front of him, legs crossed, eyes wide. They look up to their very own friendly giant.
This morning’s lesson is about the five senses. It’s a common topic in public school kindergartens, but finding a male teacher singing about “hands to touch” and “eyes to see” isn’t likely.
Babcock is the only male kindergarten teacher in Lynchburg City Schools.
“Every year, you know, I run the gamut of moms and parents that say, ‘Oh good; I want my kids to have a man. I think he needs that or she needs that.’ But I also get the looks … they kind of question me,” he said during a recent teacher workday.
Babcock represents a small portion of men working with young students. Male teachers make up only 2.3 percent of those working with preschool and kindergarten students, according to 2006 Department of Labor statistics.
During the past two decades the number of men in the classroom has been steadily declining. Nationally, men comprised 20 percent of teachers in 2006, the lowest level in 40 years.
Area school districts reflect the trend. It is especially pronounced at the elementary school level, where male role models are crucial for young boys — particularly for the large subset from single-parent homes without a father.
At a time when school systems are evaluating personnel needs and hiring for next year, the question arises: Why aren’t there more male teachers?
Bryan Nelson, MenTeach.org director and founder, said three main issues account for the lack of male teachers: the notion that teaching is women’s work; the low pay and status associated with teaching; and the false fear men will hurt children.
“Men are concerned about always being suspected,” said Nelson, whose organization serves as an advocacy group and information source for male educators. “There’s always that threat there.”
Babcock initially had misgivings about teaching. During his last year at Liberty University, he changed his major from education to youth ministries.
“The reason I switched was there was a lot of stuff about men and kids and abuse and stuff and that really kind of scared me,” he said.
Now a nine-year teaching veteran, Babcock relishes the opportunity to ease unsure parents.
“I feel like I win them over pretty easily because they see pretty quickly I take care of the students,” he said.
Bass principal Leverne Marshall, who started his career in education 27 years ago as a kindergarten teacher, said some parents were skeptical of a male teacher with their daughters.
“These are young parents. This is a new experience for the parent. They have to trust that this teacher is going to put their child first,” he said.
On a recent field trip to Peaks View Park, Babcock was the lone man except for a couple of dads along for the outing. He handled frogs, toads, tadpoles and whatever else could be found in one of the park’s streams. Babcock gently convinced uneasy students to hold a frog he fished from the creek.
“Come on man. Charles, you’re not afraid of a frog,” he said.
The frog jumped. So did Charles.
“You can do it,” Babcock said. “It’s just a little frog.”
Monica Womack, another Bass kindergarten teacher, said Babcock refutes the notion that men aren’t capable of nurturing in the
“Most people I think have this perception that elementary teachers have to have a mothering quality because they are working with younger children and when people think of mothering they think of a woman,” she said.
“Men of course are fathers and particularly with John, he’s such a good father. A lot of experiences he provides for students here he’s provided for his daughters as well.”
Both outside on field trips and inside his classroom, Babcock’s command of the students is striking. It comes naturally and looks easy, even though there’s nothing simple about managing the behavior of a dozen kindergartners.
He towers over his students in their blue and khaki uniforms. Bass, one of six city schools using uniforms, used to struggle with mediocre achievement. In recent years, though, it has consistently reached full state accreditation and achieved the federal measure known as Adequate Yearly Progress.
More than half of Bass’ students qualify for free- and reduced-price meals. It also is the only city school to operate on an extended-year calendar, meaning students don’t have the traditional long summer break.
Marshall and his staffers acknowledged many Bass students do come from single-parent homes where they lack a male role model.
Christen Ramsey, who also teaches kindergarten at Bass, said because of that Babcock plays a critical role.
“He’s great to have for the kids because a lot of these kids don’t have a positive male influence, so it’s nice to see the man can be caring and loving,” she said.
Marshall said men were in demand during recent teacher recruiting trips. He said schools especially scoop up men qualified to teach elementary school.
“They can get a job very easily,” Marshall said.
At Bedford Hills Elementary, principal Barbara Hayth shook her head trying to recall the last time her school had a male classroom teacher. She guessed it’s been at least five years.
Currently, Bedford Hills has one male music teacher, Troy Mearkle.
He spends half his time at Bedford Hills and half at Paul Munro Elementary. Mearkle is one of three men at Paul Munro.
Both Hayth and Mearkle also said the lack of male teachers is linked to low pay and the perception that teaching is for women.
Women who are “secondary bread earners” have dominated the field, Hayth said. Men bypass the profession in part because of society’s view that they should be the primary breadwinner, Mearkle said — and that’s hard to do with the pay earned by teachers.
He said with summers off and consistent work hours, he’s afforded the flexibility to pursue outside interests. He also enjoys the rewards of working so closely with students.
“To me it’s not about the money,” Mearkle said, instead his drive comes from seeing students’ “sense of wonder and awe.”
Hayth said school divisions need to encourage men to teach.
“I know there’s a push for more minority teachers here in Lynchburg and I understand that, but there should be a bigger push for the males,” she said.
Without enough men in classrooms, especially in younger grades, many wonder what affect it will have on boys.
A 2006 study by then-visiting Stanford University professor Thomas Dee suggested a teacher’s gender does affect learning. The study in Education Next, published by the Hoover Institute, said boys learn more from men and girls learn more from women. The findings sparked debate about how much gender matters.
Nelson, the founder of MenTeach.org, cautioned against making a definitive statement on the impact of gender. Instead he raised the question of what message is sent to young boys when they don’t see anyone like them in classrooms.
“Let’s be practical,” he said. “If you’re a young man, do you feel like you belong in a school if there are no male teachers?”
Back at Bass, during Babcock’s five senses lesson, his students learned that even without one sense, they can still identify objects using another.
“Some of the things we can see, we can also touch,” he said.
Babcock covered students’ eyes with a blindfold clad in feathers and fur, asking them to use their sense of touch to identify objects placed before them. The magenta and lavender mask was left over from his daughter’s birthday party.
Eventually, the class broke into song.
“We’ve got our eyes to see, we’ve got our tongue to taste,” the students sang.
Moments like these tell Babcock that the kindergarten classroom is where he belongs.
“The hardest day of teaching,” he said, “is better than the best day I’ve had in any other job.”