11/22/2010 06:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Manliness of Education Reform

The contemporary education reform movement is pushing hard the narrative that teaching is a venerable and rewarding profession. Within that, I've noticed a bit of a trend lately: education reform, with reference to classroom teaching specifically, is home to a new kind of "muscular pedagogue." Take, for example, the Department of Education's recent initiative to recruit teachers. Go to this link and tell me what you notice. I'll wait.

I see a reasonable diversity in terms of race. No way to tell if various social classes or those with same-sex orientation are represented. Only a handful are elementary teachers it seems. Am I crazy, or are 13 of the 18 individuals shown in the yellow tiles men? Wait a tick: Overall, roughly one out of every four teachers are men and the proportion drops precipitously as the age of the student decreases. Only one out of every 10 teachers are male at the elementary level. The portrayal here of "who teaches" seems contrary to our present social reality.

As one follows the education reform discourse, the primacy of male figures is obvious. Numerous leaders in education, many of which only tangentially related to the profession, hedge fund managers, charter school founders, philanthropists, legislators, and politicians are largely men. Even many of the classroom teachers profiled throughout this conversation, so-called "game changers," are men. What is going on here?

The demographic prevalence of women in the classroom has persisted for the last century or more. During the turn of the 20th century, many men either left the profession altogether to pursue higher-wage industrial jobs or, if they stayed in education, took leadership positions. There is a misconception that men once dominated the classroom and women for some reason took it away. There was neither an organized system of education nor an actual teaching profession when men supposedly ruled the chalk face. As the demand for schooling and educational access increased, certification standards and rules increased, thereby eliminating the possibility of teaching as seasonal work. A new cohort of educated young women, with fewer career options, were the only ones able to fill new classrooms and the ones men left behind. Yet, reformers at the time seemed perfectly content to hire these women at a third of the cost and charge male principals or superintendents with their care.

In order meet demand and attract women, a clever narrative of domesticity and feminine virtues was conflated with teaching that continues to this day. Many men report several reasons why they do not see teaching as a viable career option: challenging masculine stereotypes, low status, low salary relative to other occupations, and physical contact with children. Regarding gender stereotyping, teaching is not viewed by many in our society as a manly thing to do. If some men do end up teaching, it's safer to work in a high school, stick to traditionally masculine subjects like science or math, and coach a sports team.

Our society operates on a system of strict gender enforcement. That is, social interactions and the media police boundaries between what is acceptable for men and women. Several masculine stereotypes in which we all condone in subtle ways discourage men from teaching. If a man is perceived as head of household, taking care of his family, then he will be less able to perform that duty on a teacher's salary alone. Working with or caring for children is viewed as women's work; thus, women are better equipped for teaching, especially in the elementary grades. There is also a dangerous and erroneous association of same-sex orientation with pedophilia, which is a reported issue with men choosing to teach.

For all of these reasons, I am frequently surprised to see so much male participation in the education reform debate. Many of the voices, from bloggers to school leaders to film makers, are men and oftentimes viewed as heroes. In fact, we should all apparently be waiting for Superman, who is perhaps the epitome of white male heroics. As a male and former elementary teacher, I think it's great for men everywhere to see themselves in classrooms. I would encourage a more inclusive teaching profession. Yet, we must be careful not to valorize the teaching that men do at the expense of all the great things women teachers have already done and are doing. Inasmuch as I would love to see more men at the chalk face, perhaps it is also time to seriously consider what it is about teaching that repulses many men so much. As demonstrated by the spread, we can't just slap a bunch of male faces up there while ignoring the large elephant in the room. With a 90-10 ratio of women to men in elementary classrooms, mere coincidence cannot be the reason.