Peter De Pratto is a white, middle-class man. And he’s a minority.
The 54-year-old is a Grade 2 teacher at St. Luke School in Waterloo. He has been teaching for 31 years and has taught junior kindergarten to Grade 8.
“I enjoy working with younger children. I find it challenging and rewarding at the same time,” he said.
As a male primary school teacher, he knows he stands out. He has been the only man on staff at times. It doesn’t really bother him.
“You’re not going to sit down (in the staff room) and talk about the Bills-Raiders game on the weekend, but it’s still a nice environment,” he said.
But the ranks of male teachers are low and dropping.
According to Statistics Canada, men made up only 31 per cent of full-time Ontario teachers in 2004-05. Between 1990 and 2000, there was a 14 per cent drop in male teachers, even as numbers of female teachers rose 11 per cent.
The differences are even sharper at the elementary level. Of members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, 81 per cent are women.
The Ontario College of Teachers says in 2006, only 11 per cent of kindergarten to Grade 6 teachers were men.
Another fact: as a group, boys aren’t as successful in school as girls.
Ontario provincial testing has consistently showed girls do much better than boys in reading and writing.
More women than men enter university and the gap widened substantially in the 1990s.
Some have tied boys’ relative lack of success to the scarcity of male teachers.
American psychologist and physician Leonard Sax, an outspoken proponent of single-sex schools, has argued there are big differences in how boys and girls learn, even in how well they hear — and that teachers tend to teach to their gender’s ways of learning.
“Anytime you have a teacher of one sex teaching children of the opposite sex, there’s a potential for a mismatch, if only in decibel level,” he wrote in his 2005 book Why Gender Matters.
Female teachers tend to speak softly, discourage competition and avoid confrontation when “many young boys are energized by confrontation and by time-constrained tasks,” Sax wrote.
“Anybody will acknowledge that boys are different than girls, especially young boys,” said retired principal and Waterloo Catholic District School Board chair Wayne Buchholtz.
“They learn differently; they’re much more physical. Oftentimes, you need that kind of (teacher). You need somebody who’s going to go out and play with the kids. . . . Males, for the most part, have more of an interest in the sciences and hands-on kinds of things. Boys need that kind of approach.
“I’m not saying women don’t do that, but they don’t tend to do it as readily. It’s not as natural for them, often.”
Retired chemistry teacher David Lamble of Fergus saw similar patterns of behaviour in high schools.
“I think females are more compliant in the educational system,” he said. “It doesn’t take anybody more than 10 minutes to look in a classroom and see that young ladies are much more likely to do their homework than guys. . . .
“I do think that young ladies (teachers) tend to want things much more structured than guys are prepared for. . . . If you take a look at who gets the detentions most, it’s guys; who gets expelled the most, it’s guys. And who gives the most detentions? It’s female teachers.”
Herb Katz, a retired University of Alberta education professor, said teacher gender may be a factor in many boys’ lack of enthusiasm for reading.
“Boys like the kinds of books that most early years female teachers don’t like,” said Katz. “That’s why you don’t find too many of them in the classroom — because most early years teachers are young women.”
Women tend to choose assignments that suit girls better, Katz said. He was once the only man on a committee to develop assessment tools in literacy.
The other committee members favoured an approach in which students were asked to make journal entries giving their personal responses to selections they’d read or heard.
“From my point of view, this was an approach to helping kids learn to read and write that didn’t fit very well with boys,” said Katz. “Boys often don’t feel very comfortable writing personal feelings down.”
Katz raised his objections but was overruled. It led him to conclude “basically that elementary schools are not boy-friendly,” he said.
“That’s not to say they set out to be hostile to boys. It’s that the fit between the physical and the cognitive development of boys . . . and the way that knowledge is . . . delivered in the curriculum is not friendly to boys.”
But Katz says it’s too simplistic to blame boys’ academic difficulties on female teachers — or even to generalize that boys don’t do as well in school.
“Socio-economic status is the strongest predictor of attitude towards and performance in reading,” he said.
“Boys who come from higher socio-economic levels share attitude and performance levels more with girls from their own socio-economic status than with boys from poorer areas.”
Katz and a colleague did a study in which 180 Grade 3 and 4 boys having trouble reading got one-on-one tutoring. The male and female tutors were university students trained to deliver a “boy-friendly” literacy program.
The boys all improved, and there was no academic difference whether they had a male or female tutor. But the boys with the female tutors generally emerged with more confidence in themselves and their reading abilities.
Some media concluded boys did better with female teachers. But Katz says the main factor wasn’t gender.
The female tutors were third- or fourth-year education students. Because it was harder to recruit male tutors, the men were generally younger; some weren’t even in teacher training.
“It’s not the gender of the teacher that’s important; it’s the competence of the teacher,” said Katz.
“The female student teachers were better trained than the males so of course they had a stronger impact.”
Wayne Martino, a University of Western Ontario expert in gender issues in education, agreed.
“Claims are being made that if we put more men in the elementary school classroom, that boys are going to do better. There’s no research that shows that men actually make a difference in terms of academic achievement.”
All teachers need to be better trained to teach kids to read, said Katz.
“In New Zealand, to qualify as a teacher, you have to take six full courses in literacy, in the teaching of reading. At the University of Alberta you can graduate with one course in what’s called the teaching of language arts.”
Teachers also need more training on the different ways boys and girls tend to learn, Katz said.
“We don’t prepare our students at all for the needs of boys or the needs of girls. We don’t teach them about teaching poor students or rich students. . . . We teach them in a very traditional, narrow way. We lump all kids together.”
Local educators agree teaching skill is far more important than gender. But they also say they’d like to get more good men into the classroom.
“I’d rather take an excellent female teacher than an inferior male teacher,” said Buchholtz. “But if I had two teachers of equal status, if I was a principal today, I’d be looking at a male.”
The reason? “Kids need both male role models and female role models, especially in elementary schools,” the retired principal said.
“Boys want someone to look up to,” agreed Lamble. “But males almost never see a male teacher.”