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The Unchanging Face of U.S. Teachers

The typical educator is still female, survey finds. Also, fewer males now join the profession.

August 28, 2003|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Remember your elementary school teacher from 1961? Chances are, she was probably white, married and in her 40s. She taught you how to read and write, and probably how to add and subtract as well.

Turns out, she's not much different today.

The face of the typical American teacher has changed little in four decades, according to a new survey by the National Education Assn., the nation's largest teachers union. Ninety percent of teachers are white, a number that has held relatively steady.

However, the number of male public school teachers is at a 40-year low, having dropped steadily over the last 20 years.

Only 2 in every 10 teachers is male, according to the NEA, which surveyed 2,100 of the nation's 3.6 million public school teachers, a representative sample. The NEA conducts its survey every five years.

"The diversification of the teacher workforce is not keeping pace with the changes in the student population," said Margaret Gaston, co-director of the Center for the Future of Teaching & Learning.

In 2000, for example, about 61% of public school students were white, the National Center for Educational Statistics found. That number has been declining steadily since 1972.

Gaston said that in California, the numbers are slightly more reflective of the student population. According to statistics from her group, in 2001, the same year the NEA study was undertaken, 73.7% of the teacher workforce was white or non-Hispanic. And 28.3% of California public teachers were male.

Nationwide, fewer men are entering teaching -- at least in part because the "respect is not there, the support is not there," said NEA President Reg Weaver. "And as a result, they decide they are going to go into other areas that will pay them better, show them more respect."

USC sociologist Michael Messner said several factors explain the decline. Teaching has traditionally been viewed as a female role, with less status than other higher-paying professions, such as law or medicine, he said.

In fact, men have long shied away from jobs perceived as being feminine, especially if they are relatively low-paid. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, almost 93% of registered nurses are women.

Josh Brady, an English teacher at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, said that economic pressures definitely are a factor for many men thinking about becoming teachers.

"I think it's deeply bred in," said Brady, 28. "There's a desire that a guy has that he'll be able to support a family. And whether they are right or wrong, they feel that that's what [eligible] women are looking for. It could be an antiquated concept, but when you go to college, and spend all that money on your education, the assumption is that you'll go into business."

Meanwhile, men who do take teaching jobs often are expected to become administrators in what one sociologist referred to as "the glass elevator effect."

Messner said he was especially concerned about the drop in the numbers of secondary school teachers. In 1961, men accounted for 57% of U.S. secondary school teachers; in 2001, that figure had dropped to 35%.

The loss of men among the nation's teachers could have significant implications in a country that over the last quarter century has sought to impart the value of gender and racial equality to students, educators said.

"It's a good socialization experience to have men and women authority figures as teachers and coaches," said Messner, a professor of sociology and gender studies. "It better prepares [children] for a world as adults."

Weaver of the NEA agreed: "I think that [the shortage of men in teaching] denies young people ... the opportunity to have contact with males who could very well be good role models."

Victoria Medellin, 17, a senior at Jefferson, said she notices differences in the way male and female teachers relate to students: "A female teacher won't mind getting personal with the students. A male teacher keeps his space. He doesn't like to get too personal or be seen as doing something improper with the students."

Jeff Moore, 36, a kindergarten teacher at Cahuenga Elementary, thinks it is important for children "to have a male figure in the early education of their lives" -- but he also relies on a female assistant to help him strike a gender balance in his classroom. "As a maIe kindergarten teacher, I am even more of a minority," he said. "But do I feel any different from other teachers? No."

Still, at Cahuenga, male teachers make a point of spending time together -- in part, for a cherished bit of male connection.

Times staff writer Duke Helfand contributed to this report.

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