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Sex Imbalance in Teaching

The latest attempt to explain the low status of teachers in this country involves the overwhelming number of women in the field ("Why Don't More Men Go Into Teaching?" The New York Times, Sept. 7).  Although more than three-quarters of all teachers in K-12 are female, I don't buy the explanation.

Other countries, where the numbers are similar, accord teachers great respect.  For example, in Finland and Singapore teachers are viewed on a par with doctors.  Moreover, high-school teachers in the U.S. don't enjoy significantly higher status than elementary-school teachers, even though 42 percent of the former are men.  Obviously, something else explains the situation here.

I think the history of education in this country is a good starting point.  Until the early part of the 20th century, normal schools enrolled young girls, often with only a 6th- or 7th-grade education, to prepare them to teach.  (These normal schools subsequently became regional state colleges, with lower admissions standards than state universities.)  Teaching was considered an "extension of mothering and should be regarded, like motherhood, as part of woman's sphere" (Preparing America's Teachers, Teachers College Press, 2007).

So from the beginning, teaching was not considered a profession in the way medicine and law were.  Instead, it was largely seen as a "romantic calling" or "philanthropic vocation" (The Teacher Wars, Doubleday, 2014).  The history of education abroad was different.  In Germany and France, male teachers constituted half of the faculty. 

Then there has always been the prevailing belief that anyone can be a teacher.  That's why I doubt that recruiting more men into K-12 will change the attitude of most people. They resent short teaching days, long summer vacations and goldplated pensions, despite evidence that teaching remains a tough job.  The best teachers I had in K-12 public schools were women, some single and some married.  I wish they were still alive so that I could tell them how much they meant to me.

I think the single best way to change how teachers are regarded is to require critics to teach for a week in a public school.  I know that will never happen, but until they walk around in a teacher's shoes they'll remain clueless.


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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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