The number of men teaching in Minnesota declined over the past decade despite the growing desire to diversify the ranks.
As someone who likes to play poker “with the boys” and work his magic around the grill, Doug Sayles is a typical man. What makes him atypical is that he teaches kindergarten at Southview Elementary in Waconia. Sayles would like to see more men in the profession.
Doug Sayles and his buddies routinely get together to play poker, go golfing and grill outside when the weather is nice.
Sometimes conversation drifts toward the Twins or the Vikings. But more often, it's the latest concepts in literacy instruction that gets them jazzed.
Sayles and eight other male teachers at a Waconia elementary are the pioneering members of "Men of the Chalk." Part social club, part volunteer organization, the group also seeks to fill a void that exists in most elementary schools -- male role models.
"It was just one of those things where one day someone looked up and realized there are quite a few men here," said Sayles, a 25-year classroom veteran who now teaches kindergarten at Southview Elementary. "We realized we had a different climate than most elementaries."
Sayles is right. In Minnesota, like the rest of the country, the gender gap is growing in the teaching ranks, especially within the primary schools. The percentage of male teachers in Minnesota has declined over the past decade, from 27 percent to 25 percent. Nationally, men make up 24 percent of the teaching ranks, according to the most recent federal data.
The disparity comes at a time when more school districts are actively trying to diversify their teaching ranks by hiring more men, minorities, immigrants and teachers with different educational backgrounds.
And while it's questionable whether a teacher's gender matters when it comes to student achievement, most everyone believes students -- particularly those that come from single-family households -- should be exposed to more male role models.
That's where male teachers enter the picture. Or at least they should, argues Bryan G. Nelson, the Twin Cities-based founder of the group MenTeach, a national group aimed at increasing the number of men in the teaching workforce.
"Imagine you're a Somali child, a boy, and you look around you and all you see are white European women in your school," he said. "Do you feel like you belong there? Would you dream of being a teacher? Probably not. But we need more good teachers. We need equity. We need more men in the profession."
Does gender matter?
Few programs exist in Minnesota or elsewhere that exclusively target prospective teaching candidates who are men or retain those who already teach. A handful of colleges mostly in the South do have programs targeting black men who are woefully under-represented among teachers. Only 2 percent of the nation's estimated 5 million teachers are black men.
Some studies suggest a teacher's gender does matter in the classroom. A provocative 2006 study by a Swarthmore College professor indicated that boys learned more from male teachers while female teachers had a more positive impact on girls. The key, the author opined, was better communication between men and boys and women and girls.
But most school administrators believe a teacher's gender has no bearing on student achievement. A good teacher is a good teacher, they argue.
Khuzana DeVaan, the principal at Southview, tries to ensure she's got the best of mix of teachers in the classroom regardless of their gender. Still, she acknowledged that ultimately she'd like to dismantle the traditional stereotypes that tend to pervade education: Men don't teach elementary and women don't teach math and science.
"That's how it ought to be," DeVaan said. "That's the dream."
Breaking down stereotypes
Andrew Kellenberger was a University of Minnesota student majoring in mechanical engineering when he realized that the happiest times in his life were spent working with kids as a camp counselor. Being a teacher would be a much better fit.
"From my own experience, I knew that when kids are young, it's an impressionable moment in their life and they can really be helped or hindered," said Kellenberger, now a fourth-grade teacher at Normandale Hills Elementary in Bloomington. "I knew I wanted to make a positive difference and work with young kids."
But stereotypes hold some men back. A MenTeach survey found that the fear of falsely being accused of inappropriate behavior and the stereotype that teaching was "women's work" were the main reasons keeping some men out of the profession.
Nelson said he thought low pay would be the main reason. "It was number three on the list. But don't get me wrong. If you start paying teachers $150,000, you're going to see a lot more men entering the profession," he said.
At Prairie View Elementary in Eden Prairie, the gender gap among teachers has been dramatically narrowed. About half the staff are men.
Principal Carol Meyer believes having a balanced staff made up of teachers of different races, gender and cultural background ultimately benefits students. "Kids need role models who represent who they are," she said.
Still, male teachers admit that not all parents are thrilled to find out they will be teaching their elementary student. Some worry the their child will be physically intimidated, while others subscribe to the stereotype that men can't nurture children. It's an ugly truth, but one that tends to be short-lived, teachers say.
"I have had parents say before the school year starts that their child is a little anxious about having a male teacher," Sayles said. "And by the end of the first week of school, it's not a problem."
Sayles' group is looking for ways to increase their visibility and numbers. Next year, they hope to grant a scholarship to a male high school student interested in teaching. There is even talk of expanding membership beyond Waconia.
Founder Mark Sandfort, a first-grade teacher at Southview, said the group really just started as a way to connect.
"But we also realize that we do have students don't have male role models," he said. "And here are a bunch of guys who are out there walking the walk."
Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469