Friday, June 17, 2005

Decline of male teachers in public schools.

The June 6th, 2005 edition of The Boston Globe has a story on the decline of male teachers in public schools. The usual caveat of the link may expire shortly applies. As of this post, Lexis-Nexis had not picked the article up. Being an educator myself, and male, this is the sort of article that grabs my attention right away. It is also the type of article that gives me mixed feelings because, to be honest, if a young boy or just a guy wanting to switch careers asked me for advice, I would advice against a career as a school teacher. This is in spite of the fact that I had some very rewarding experiences as a high school teacher; I also had some not so pleasant moments.

The article points out that only one out of every five public school teachers in the nation is a male. The article also states that "in Maine, the Department of Education says just 17 percent of the state's elementary school teachers are men, down from 31 percent in 1980." This is clearly a significant decline, and given the situation in public schools this is not about to improve. Historically, teaching has been a female-dominated profession, much like librarianship is. So, for some guys, they may feel a teaching career is not for them. Other usual reasons for men not choosing teaching careers are the low salaries, the low status of teaching, and the nurturing aspect, especially in elementary schools. I personally know that I am not in education for the money. If money were the issue, I would be doing something else. The same with status. I think people go into education more interested in the intrinsic rewards. Maybe they go looking for those epiphanies, moments of revelation when a teacher sees a little glimmer in a student's eyes that reveals he has learned something. People become teachers because they care about students and young people, but in these days we live in one has to wonder if such rewards are enough.

The low status of teachers often means the parents lack respect for their children's teachers. They come in expecting a teacher to change a grade for no other reason than they think they are entitled somehow. During my time as a teacher, I faced various parents who simply could not see their student had done anything wrong. "Yes, Bob did not turn in any of his assignments. Yes, he was told repeatedly what he needed to do, it was in writing on the syllabus, and there were constant reminders. Here is his progress reports. . .etc." As usual, the parents would simply rather turn a blind eye and pressure the teacher than actually let their child learn the consequences of his or her choices. Add to that the fact that principals usually side with the parents no matter where the teacher stands, and I can see why guys would not want to go into teaching. I certainly would not encourage it under those conditions. Teachers get to deal with a lot of "crazy" parents; there is even books on the topic. I reviewed one such book here that, though written by a professional educator, seems to simply apologize for parent misbehavior, often making it sound like it is the teacher's fault. Last thing an educator needs is to have another educator who decided to become a consultant stab them in the back. That is what publications like that book boil down to: "parents are too stressed to be civil, therefore, if they lash out at you, it is ok." Not, it is not ok. They should know how to behave civilly like the rest of us.

Along with the low status of teaching go measures like the No Child Left Behind Act. The NCLB pretty much assures that teachers will be teaching to whatever standardized tests there are. True teaching and learning, the fostering of critical thinking skills, empowering students to be problem solvers, these are all gone when teachers have to teach to the test. This is something I have written about before, and the many reports on students being left behind give proof that NCLB is not doing what it is supposed to do. Now, would I encourage a potential teacher to go into a situation that is not challenging and stimulating but rather rote repetition? Not likely. I will add that I was a teacher before NCLB, and I am very happy I got out of public schools before I had such lack of true standards rammed down my throat.

And then, we have the molestation and impropriety scandals. As if the fact that teaching, especially at the elementary level, is a nurturing profession were not challenging enough, we get these cases to make matters worse. I will say up front that any teacher at any level that is involved in such behavior should be punished harshly and to the fullest extent of the law. No ands, ifs, or buts. But I will rush then to add that if an accusation is made, it better be a solid one with complete evidence. In addition, if it turns into a fals allegation, by the same token, the accuser should be punished harshly and to the fullest extent of the law. That is only fair given that such accusations destroy lives. Even if a teacher manages to prove his or her innocence, the stigma of such an accusation follows the person, and usually the false accuser does not even get a slap on the wrist. Unfortunately, with the Catholic Church scandals and the headlines of teachers having affairs with their students, the society is extremely sensitive to this. When I was in teacher training, many years ago before anyone even thought of accusing the Catholic Church, it was already drilled into us never to touch a student. It did not matter if the student had lost a parent, they started crying in your classroom, and your first impulse was to hug them. The bottom line was that you did not touch them. . .period. . .end of story. Send them to the counselor's office if necessary. No career was worth showing even a bit of compassion. Do readers think this is cold? Heck, I thought it was cold when I heard it in my undergraduate days. But I learned fast that no student is worth ruining your life over. I am thankful everyday that I never faced such an accusation, but I constantly lived with the specter one of my students might actually say something if they did not like a grade. You learn to document everything, to never meet a student alone, to have witnesses for everything and to be able to cover your movements at any and all times. It basically is a form of automatic paranoia, and I was a fairly popular teacher; most my students liked me. It is a harsh lesson to learn, harsher if you happen to be the victim of a false accuser. And there are enough of those. These days all a student has to do is claim something, anything, because they may dislike you or disagree over a grade. Right away, the teacher is removed from the classroom, and the principal takes the parents' side. Even the teacher union will abandon a teacher facing such an accusation, even if it is proven false, and these cases do happen more than people are willing to admit. Don't believe me? Mary Ann Manos' book Rumors, Lies, and Whispers: Classroom "Crush" or Career Catastrophe? (2004, ISBN 0275978346) details the process of what happens when one of these accusations surfaces. It is not a good picture for any teacher, innocent or otherwise. The book should be required reading for any person even considering going into teaching, especially for men. These days, this is probably the main reason I would discourage a guy from going into teaching in public schools. Even in college where I am now, a professor can never be too cautious. True, there is a little more "wiggling room" since students are usually adults by then, but again, the whole authority thing makes things tense. I think to a large extent this is why I prefer to be an Instruction Librarian than a professor. I get to teach and work with students individually, but I don't hold grades over them. It can be quite liberating. While I do value the fact that I have a teaching degree, and it has made a difference in getting the job I had, if I had to do it in the current climate, I would not become a public school teacher. The bureaucracy, the lack of respect for what is a noble job that anyone who would not dare step in a classroom thinks they can do, the NCLB, the more strict certification requirements (which tend to be pretty meaningless overall), and the specter of an accusation are more than enough to keep any guy out of a public school classroom.

And for me, the only sad thing is, I love to teach. I loved teaching high school. The students were fine. People say all these horrible things about teens, and the fact is, teens will often surprise you and rise to expectations when you challenge them. What I hated was disrespectful parents and unsupportive administrators. In this case, the cons outweigh the pros. I can do a lot in my current position without the baggage. So, there is a shortage. Kids will likely miss on having a positive male role model, but if a guy asks me, "do you think I should go into teaching?" I would honestly have to say, even if I think they have what it takes, "no. It's not worth the risks and aggravation." So, we are likely to see more articles like the one from The Boston Globe.


Erin Monahan said...

As a parent with 4 children in various grades, who has been horrified at the news everytime a student was molested by a teacher, I am still very saddened by the idea that we live in a society where (or maybe WHEN is a better word) teachers feel compelled to follow a 'hands off' rule.
I think students these days are less willing to meet the challenges a teacher present because they feel less cared about than in previous generations.
Of course, I can completely understand the position of the educators who have a reputation and a career to maintain, it's just a(nother) sad developement in todays society.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

It is sad indeed. I have a daughter myself, and I count myself fortunate that all she has had so far have been very good teachers. I think it is a combination of what children see in society, some not so good parenting, and people who would not dare put a foot in a classroom dictating things. As a teacher, I could tell back in my day a lot about a student the moment I met their parents. The nice note is that at times the kids were good in spite of their parents.