Gender equality is often thought of as women entering male dominated fields, particularly in STEM, and several initiatives in the last few years have started to address the lack of diversity in those fields.
However, there are many careers where men make up a very small minority. One field that lacks male representation is elementary education.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, 77.9% of elementary and middle school teachers in 2017 were women. For preschool and kindergarten teachers, that figure was 97.2%.
At Missouri State University, women outnumber men in the elementary education program. Sophomore elementary education major Michael Chapman said in many of his degree-specific classes he is one of the few men.
Chapman said he is the only male in the room when he attends his introduction to elementary education course.
Minor Baker, assistant professor in the college of education, specializing in elementary education, said no more than 10% of the students he has worked with over the last two years have been men.
There are several ways to explain the lack of men teaching younger grades, Baker said. One is simply historical context. In the early 20th century, elementary education was one of the professions society deemed acceptable for women. They’ve had a strong presence in the field ever since.
Baker said many men might feel disheartened to go into this area of education, choosing instead to teach middle school and high school because none of their early teachers were men.
“The unspoken message that many of those students may hear is that this is a specifically gendered place for women, and there’s not necessarily a place for male teachers because so few males go into education,” Baker said.
Chapman, who started at MSU as a vocal performance major, cites this as one of the reasons he moved away from teaching despite his passion for it at a young age.
Because there is little representation of men in elementary education, men may shy away from the profession. Chapman said the odd looks and “why-are-you-here” stares he got while working in a first grade classroom for a high school internship made him feel like he stood out too much or they thought he had some other purpose for being there.
There are a number of benefits men interested in elementary education might find by entering the profession.
For one, Rhonda Bishop, clinical instructor in the childhood education and family studies department, said male elementary teachers are highly sought after.
While high quality teaching skills are still important, Bishop said male teachers have substantial marketability because many schools are trying to balance their faculty gender ratio.
Denise Cunningham, head of the department of childhood education and family studies, said having more men in elementary education might help eliminate the stereotype that men are not nurturing or good elementary educators.
Increasing male presence in elementary education is important for the sake of diversity. Bishop said, with changing student populations and family dynamics, it’s important for both men and women to be represented.
Chapman said there are many kids who, for one reason or another, might not have a father figure present in their lives, and it’s important for their cognitive development that they see both strong men and women in the classroom.
When it comes to diversity in the classroom, the lack of a general male presence isn’t the only concern for some. Both Baker and Cunningham said that there is an overabundance of white female perspectives in most schools.
Both Baker and Cunningham said it is important to consider changing racial, ethnic and gender demographics in the classroom as well as faculty representation.
“We want those kids to be able to relate to the teacher that’s in the front of the room,” Cunningham said. “And the best way to do that is to have someone that looks like them, that talks like them, that can understand their backgrounds and where they’re coming from.”