Looking for a Few Good Men?

The “hunt is on,” at least according to the Boston Globe.  After generations of misguided thinking that teaching was somehow “women’s work,” school districts — particularly those in our urban areas — are recognizing the importance of male teachers, and male role models, in the classroom.

In Massachusetts, for instance, less than one quarter of all K-12 teachers are men.  The number is about the same nationally (25%), according to the Globe, representing a 40-year low.  The full story can be found at: www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2008/11/18/hunt_is_on_for_more_men_to_lead_classrooms/  
For years now, we’ve been discussing the “problem with boys.”  As the legend goes, young women are making significant gains in the classroom, achieving at higher levels, graduating at higher levels, and going on to postsecondary education at higher levels.  And despite what former Harvard University President Larry Summers may have intimated, they are even going into the math and science fields, as they cement their roles at the center of educational and economic innovation and opportunity.
But what about those boys?  In looking at ways to boost high school graduation and college-going numbers in Maine, for instance, state leaders immediately targeted middle school boys.  Young men are seen as the weak link in the chain, more likely to drop out, more likely not to take their educations seriously, more likely to face the challenges before them only half-prepared.
Eduflack understands the premise behind this hunt for male teachers.  The logic goes that struggling male students are in need of strong male role models.  If they have a male teacher (or heaven forbid, teachers) involved in their daily lives, taking interest in them and building lasting relationships, then student achievement will improve.  And yes, the research does show that teachers who take an interest in their students and their personal lives are more successful in the classroom.
When I reflect back on my K-12 experience, there are a handful of teachers that stand out for me.  Two of them are male (Mr. Wolf in second grade and Mr. Ertmer for 9th and 10th grade social studies).  But the real standouts were my female teachers, led by Mrs. Lee (AP U.S. History) and Mrs. Sowers (AP English).  They stand out not because they were women, but because they were really good teachers.  They took an interest in me and my passions.  They related the content in a way that sparked curiosity in me.  And they continually pushed me to do more, do better, and expect more, both of myself and of my education.  The same could be said of Edu-mom, a tough high school teacher I carefully stayed away from in the classroom, but who has guided my learning from my formative years right up to today.  And she continues to do it through strong relationships and that constant push to do better and try my best.  Those are the qualities that are found in good teachers, whether they be male or female.
If the search is on, it shouldn’t be for more male teachers, it should be for more “better teachers.”  We are expecting more from our students than we ever have.  That requires a teacher who understands both content and pedagogy.  A teacher who relates to students and to school administration.  A teacher who seeks to boost student achievement, but is empowered to try alternative and innovative ways to get us there.  Teaching is no longer simply about being qualified.  It is about being effective, and it is about building relationships.  It is about becoming a learning partner, of sorts, with the student.
Yes, it is important that we get more men into teaching.  But this is far more than simply getting a Y chromosome to stand up in front of a classroom.  We need to get passionate, effective educators in the system, regardless of their DNA.  We need to acknowledge that some people are destined for greatness in education, and some are simply not cut out to be effective teachers.  We need to demonstrate that education is a noble profession, a leadership profession, a lifetime career where the individual can excel and make a lasting difference on the community.  We should be recruiting the best men and women possible to the field, give them the tools to succeed, and then reward them for their success.
A few good men?  Sure, if that’s what the situation calls for.  I’d settle for a whole lot of great teachers.  Demographics are shifting and a sea change is coming with a slew of teacher retirements on the horizon.  Now is the time to focus on getting the best educators in the classroom, particularly in those classes that need them the most.     

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