Elementary schools are full of kids making noise, smiling, laughing, learning — and a visit to a neighborhood elementary school will show plenty examples of each throughout the day.
But one thing that’s a rarity in the average elementary classroom is a man. At ABC News, Susan Donaldson James attempts to answer a complex question, the answer to which leads to a female-dominated K-5 education: Why don’t more men teach elementary school?
She profiles a teacher named Philip Wiederspan whose career has seen him spend decades teaching elementary school starting with first grade. Wiederspan says that when he first began teaching, parents scheduled classroom visits just to come see him in action. They weren’t sure what to expect.
Wiederspan detailed his approach:
“I am definitely not a mommy figure,” said Wiederspan, who, after 17 years, moved up to third-grade. “Boys are a challenge. I try to draw them out. I use humor a lot and sometimes, when a kid is really shy, it’s going to take a while for them to warm up.”
The importance of having men like Wiederspan in elementary classrooms is receiving a considerable amount of attention. Some focus on the rift between our current system and approaches that are most effective with boys; others point to a growing trend of single parenting and a lack of male role models — a niche male elementary teachers can fill for young boys without fathers at home.
According to MenTeach, an advocacy group that promotes the presence of men in the teaching corps, the number of men in elementary and middle schools hovers around 16-18%. For kindergarten and first grade, the number is closer to 2%.
Psychologist and author Michael Thompson wrote a book, “Raising Cain,” arguing that society isn’t geared toward the development of boys — and he finds the lack of men in elementary classrooms to have a
“Girls can sit still more easily and are more efficient at processing language. Many female teachers have a “pretty low tolerance” for boys, who are more active and like competition, according to psychologist Thompson.”
But men who go into elementary classrooms often face a great deal of suspicion — a factor that, along with potentially lesser pay than they could earn in another sector, makes the career an unappealing choice.
“”It’s very hard to change the suspicion of men who are going to elementary education when there are so few of them,” Thompson said. “Schools ask me to talk to men on their faculty and when I sit with them behind closed doors, they say the moms look at them like potential pedophiles. “
It takes a committed, patient man like Wiederspan — who says he’s never faced an issue of suspicion like Thompson describes — to pass over the difficulties of the job and focus on the positive aspects. Organizations like MenTeach and greater attention to the effects of our educational approach on boys might encourage efforts to close the gender gap in schools that few talk about: the one that persists with adults.