Teacher in a Strange Land: Where the Boys Aren’t: Why is Teaching Still a Female-Dominated Profession?
Last week, the Michigan Department of Education named Candice Jackson, a third grade teacher and instructional coach in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the 2023 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Hearty congratulations to Ms. Jackson, and my heartfelt wish for an awesome year, packed full of opportunities. In my (admittedly unasked-for) opinion, teachers in Detroit have been beaten up for decades, but are a talented, determined bunch—teachers with a mission. It’s especially wonderful to see one of them recognized, and their work showcased.
What I found interesting is that all ten of the regional finalists are women. They’re a diverse bunch, too, teaching across the K-12 spectrum in multiple subjects and contexts.
I’m old enough to remember when hiring men to teach in elementary schools was a district goal—we thought that men would serve as role models for younger children and were ecstatic when our new varsity basketball coach was hired to teach kindergarten.
Hiring women as administrators and in secondary jobs that usually went to male candidates (like—cough—band directors) was seen as progressive (by some school boards and hiring committees, anyway); the percentage of women in formerly male-dominated education roles has steadily crept upward. Over half of school principals are women, in 2023, and a quarter of superintendents are female, a 12% jump over the past two decades.
There’s some research that suggests blended teaching cultures benefits students—that veteran teachers and novice teachers have much to teach each other—and there’s research that supports learning gains when students have teachers of the same race. But what about gender?
The K-12 teaching force has grown increasingly female, although slicing and dicing the numbers is tricky. States where teacher unions are still strong tend to have more male teachers, especially secondary teachers—which may be a function of higher salaries. In Southern, right-to-work states, the percentage of male teachers is lowest—about 18% of the K-12 workforce in Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana.
An imprecise but useful stat: about three-fourths of K-12 public school teachers are women, across the United States. Interestingly, there are more men (white men, anyway) teaching in private schools than in public—and for considerably less money.
You may not have noticed, but this week is both National Nurses’ Week as well as Teacher Appreciation Week. A cynical person might wryly suggest that it’s efficient to double up these “honor women” weeks, get all this female recognition nonsense over with and let them get back to their underpaid service jobs.
But something has been happening in nursing careers. There are more men training to become nurses—nearly doubling their numbers from 2008 to 2021—and salaries are rising fast.
As we consider how to stop the hemorrhaging of the teacher workforce, the question might be: What is happening, in K-12 public education, that makes women stay—and excel in—teaching and aspire to school leadership positions? What is driving men away from education jobs? And why would men decide to pursue nursing, but not teaching?
I have some thoughts about that—but need to preface them with a disclaimer: None of this is hard evidence, let alone causal evidence, but it’s pretty clear that the female-dominated teaching profession, once the refuge of intelligent women who wanted interesting careers and couldn’t find them elsewhere, is in trouble.
Money is one obvious reason—although male teachers in the U.S. make about $2200 more than female teachers. Teaching is, always has been, a low-paying job, and it’s getting worse. As a society, we’ve moved away from the idea of a male breadwinner and female secondary income—the “my wife is a teacher so she can be home with the kids in the summer” syndrome.
When teacher unions began lobbying (and striking) for more (fair) pay, decades ago, the never-ending source of a low-cost, qualified female workforce for public education dried up. The response was not acknowledging the importance of public schools in building society, and paying up, but pushing back and even vilifying the unions.
But it’s more than salaries—because blaming it all on low salaries implies that women, more than men, are more willing to be servile, working for peanuts because women have always worked for peanuts and a good feeling. When you look at the puff pieces around Teacher Appreciation Week, it’s important to note that Americans have accepted the idea that public education programming and materials (not just salaries) are funded by goodwill, generosity and Donors Choose– and that’s OK.
The United States is also an increasingly technocratic society. We have not gotten over our love affair with STEM education, although it’s clear that fabulous STEM jobs have been way oversold. We don’t value the humanities or important work with very young children, two things that are absolutely dependent on skilled teaching and judgment. In fact, we’ve embarked on yet another wrong-headed reading war with the mislabeled “Science of Reading,” a triumph of misplaced faith in a one-size-for-all, science-will-save-us method for the ultimate individualized task, learning to read. A task, it should be noted, that is overwhelmingly accomplished by women.
I think teaching, despite a lot of empty rhetoric, has steadily lost social prestige. This is ironic, because (trained and certified) teachers today are better prepared and more skilled than teachers of yesteryear. There were enormous strides made, pre-NCLB, in teacher professionalism: increased education, greater selectivity, mentoring, innovative curriculum development, pilot programs in teacher ladders and a marvelous new tool—computers in the classroom.
All of that turned around, c. 2001, and the public education focus shifted from mastery to accountability. Good teaching was less about creativity, community and judgment and more about test scores and competition. If you were looking for autonomy, mastery and purpose, you were less likely to find it in a public school—this might explain why white men still teach in higher numbers in private schools, despite lower overall salaries: because their personal work is acknowledged as central to student success.
You would think that a global pandemic—which was devastating to nursing– would have sent more people out of nursing than teaching, but nursing is a growing profession, with more candidates than the available programs can handle. And more of them men, willing to do difficult, important work.
The pandemic has upset occupational norms, goals and rewards. Anyone who’s passed a McDonald’s advertising $21.00/Hour jobs understands that it’s a brave new world, a re-ordering of priorities.
The people who will be standing in front of classrooms in the future, the Gen Z educators who assume schools are for testing and competing, not nurturing, those fully accustomed to shooter drills and recurring violence—will they be willing to just follow orders?
Will we eventually lose the dedicated and talented female education workforce, too?
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