by Derrick Z. Jackson - Boston Globe Columnist

PATRICK Cunningham taught my youngest son a decade ago in first and second grade at the Cambridgeport School in Cambridge. Now 59, he still teaches the same grades at the same school, one of the relatively few men in the nation working with children so young. In 27 years of preschool and early elementary teaching, he has felt none of the cultural pressures that stop men from even thinking about such a career. more stories like this

“Maybe it was just Cambridge, but from the beginning, from the first job I applied for, the day-care center director and all the other teachers and parents told me they were thrilled to have a man,” Cunningham said. “That’s the message I’ve received every place I’ve been. To tell you the truth, I didn’t start in early education as a career. It was something to do until I decided what to do with my life. I had so much fun so early, I fell in love with working with young children.

“It’s not until I go to some large gathering of elementary teachers and I see that I’m one of maybe six men in a room of 200 that I feel like an oddity.”

The oddity of Cunningham tells a cruel truth about the low status of elementary schools. According to the National Education Association, 9 percent of elementary school teachers are men. Education researcher Shaun Johnson of Indiana University says low wages and prestige relative to what men can find elsewhere, plus notions of masculinity, fears of being accused of sexual abuse, and even undercurrents of homophobia dissuade men from the craft.

“There are so many elephants in the room with a man in a classroom of young children,” said Johnson, 30, who was a fifth-grade teacher in Washington, D.C. “Token males routinely say they are under higher scrutiny by principals and parents. Men get the message something is wrong with them, from being told they can’t change diapers in child care to you must always leave your classroom door open. Even when they are valued, it often comes with a stereotype. I’ve heard men teachers complain that they’re always sent the problem students because people see them as the disciplinarian who strikes the fear of God in them.”

Recently, the Cambridge-based Schott Foundation for Public Education held a conference at Cambridge College on this issue. Bryan Nelson, director of MenTeach of Minneapolis, said the problem is not that boys need men for academic achievement – little data supports that. He said the lack of men in the lower grades reinforces an endless cycle of inequality in men’s and women’s roles.

“We are missing so much,” said Nelson, 50. “For instance, there is a playfulness about men kids desperately need at a time the system is so absent of play. I know one man who turned around some kids by simply throwing a tennis ball at them to call on them for answers. The kids got into wanting to have the ball thrown at them and started to prepare better.”

This rings true to me. I had male teachers in the third and fifth grade in Milwaukee in the 1960s. My fifth-grade teacher had many “action-oriented” tricks to inspire learning, such as taping a solar system along a wall. Every student had a rocket that “traveled” throughout the system based on spare-time reading.

Cunningham said he particularly is drawn to the type of learning such as taking “an old radio or fan and take it apart and put it back together again.”

But male teachers also nurture. I once saw former Cambridgeport fourth-grade teacher Frederick Park create a safe environment for a girl who was called names on the playground to tell the class how hurtful that was. He coaxed a classroom discussion where nearly everyone came to the girl’s emotional aid.

That is a good argument to coax more men into the profession. “The problem is, for both men and women,” Cunningham said, “is that this is a job where too many people ask, ‘Why would anybody do this?’ It is almost like becoming a priest or nun or something like that.”