Sunday, October 24, 2004

Men defy stereotype, find joy in teaching

By William Croyle
Enquirer staff writer

Matthew Schulz, a first-grade teacher at Fort Wright Elementary School, reads to (from left) Dakota Freeland, Emily Eliot, Karim Asad and Billy Schmitt.

FORT WRIGHT - Matthew Schulz has a lot of confidence in his child-nurturing skills. He has to, in a field dominated by women.

"I give out a lot of hugs," said Schulz, 30, a first-grade teacher at Fort Wright Elementary School. "I can deal with a loose tooth or a sick pet. Even a lost pencil can be a traumatic experience."

He's in a popular profession - just not for men.

The National Education Association says only 21 percent of public school teachers in Kentucky are men, 4 percent below the national average. In elementary schools nationwide, 9 percent are men, half the number two decades ago. Locally, many elementary schools have no male teachers.

The percentage of public school teachers who are men ranges from state to state but isn't higher than 38 percent in any state, according to figures from the 2002-03 school year.
Rank/State/Percent of male teachers
1. Massachusetts 37.9
4. Indiana 31.6
18. Ohio 26.8
44. Kentucky 21.4
51. South Carolina 17.5
Source: National Education Association
Schulz is only the third or fourth man Margaret Hoffman recalls hiring in her 17 years as principal at Fort Wright. Today, she has two men and about a dozen women teachers. She'd like a better mix, but male applications are scarce.

"I think it's just a perception that this is for women," said Hoffman. "It's not uncommon at all for men to teach high school or middle school, but if you're teaching elementary school, people will ask why."

Many experts agree that perception is because most children grow up with female teachers.

"I think men are unaware of it as a profession for them because they don't see men (doing) it," said Cary Buzzelli, chairman of the department of curriculum instruction at Indiana University. "They don't picture themselves doing it and we're missing out on a lot of good teachers."

The National Education Association is trying to attract males to the profession through programs like Future Teachers of America and Teacher Cadet, but not much has changed locally.

At Northern Kentucky University, there are 205 men and 832 women in the undergraduate elementary education program. Paul Pelgen graduated in 2001 and is teaching first grade at Beechgrove Elementary School in Independence.

"I think there are misperceptions about men teaching at this level, but I think I'm as nurturing as any female," said Pelgen. "When parents first look at me and see a male teacher, they're a little hesitant. But once they get to know me, they want their kids in my class."

Besides the perception that it's women's work, the scarcity of men can also be attributed to fears of sexual abuse claims. Doris Martin, professor of early childhood education at James Madison University, said those accusations are harder for men to defend.

"Good caring of children involves closeness," said Martin. "Men will be more susceptible to those kinds of suspicions than women. It's just the way society is."

Buzzelli agreed. "In our classes, touching young children is an issue we deal with, but it's heightened for men, and that's unfortunate," he said.

Pelgen doesn't let those perceptions affect his job. "Males are still looked at as outsiders in education," he said. "But I don't even think about it. If I did, I couldn't do what I do."

Another factor keeping men away is low pay, education experts say. If a woman wants to be a stay-at-home mom, it's hard for a man to support his family financially as an elementary school teacher.

In Northern Kentucky districts, the average salary for first-year teachers is $29,714.

Eric Johnson, 43, teaches fourth grade at Fort Wright. He was a market researcher for 13 years before changing careers seven years ago. The husband and father of two took a pay cut to be a teacher and could not have done it if his wife didn't work outside the home.

"I just felt like I needed to do something more worthwhile in my life," said Johnson. "Nobody does this for the money."

Schulz agreed. He had the opportunity to take over his family's jewelry business but decided to stick with his first-graders. "There are rewards in this profession that you can't buy," he said.

While the biggest reward to Schulz is watching the kids grow, there are some small perks that the kids think are pretty cool. Schulz uses those to encourage the kids to consider teaching one day.

"They'll say, 'Hey, why do you get to cut to the front of the lunch line?' and I'll kid with them that it's because I'm a teacher," said Schulz.


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