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A shortage, tradition, or what?

Reading specialist Jim Walker is the only full-time male teacher at the South Whidbey Primary School. He is the first- and second- grade reading specialist. Pictured here are first-graders Taylor Morley, Shaylee Crawford and Ian Escobar. - Gayle Saran
Reading specialist Jim Walker is the only full-time male teacher at the South Whidbey Primary School. He is the first- and second- grade reading specialist. Pictured here are first-graders Taylor Morley, Shaylee Crawford and Ian Escobar.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

Jim Walker teaches first- and second-grade reading at South Whidbey Primary School.

He is the only male teacher at the school. Next door, at South Whidbey Intermediate School, there are just three men teaching class, Craig Stelling, Bruce Callahan and Lyn Geronimi. If the four men were looking to put together an all-male recreational basketball team between the staffs of the two schools, they could just do it, since John LaVassar and Cal Edholm teach part time at both schools.

"We are definitely in the minority," said Geronimi recently while talking about the small number of men at his school and his feelings about the situation.

None of this is a surprise, to the teachers at the school or anyone in the education community in general.

Walker, a reading specialist at the primary school, said the male-to-female teacher ratio at the elementary level is an old story. At the moment, he has 18 women colleagues at the school. At no time during 32-year teaching career -- which he has pursued in several school districts -- has he seen male teachers dominating elementary education in terms of numbers.

The statistics agree. According to the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Education, only 16 percent of the 22,000 elementary school teachers in the state are men.

Male teachers have tendency to specialize

If anyone were brave or foolhardy enough to say it, elementary education has long been viewed as women's work. A male teacher in a first-grade classroom can, at times, be offputting on the first day of school, both by parents and students. Men are not generally viewed as being nurturing enough to care for young children.

Walker agrees that women may be more nurturing in general, but he believes that elementary age kids will relate to anyone, male or female who is friendly.

"I don't think kids care whether they have a male or female teachers," he said. "They will relate to whomever shows an interest in them."

Lyn Geronimi started his career in the business world, then began teaching at age 31. When he first considered taking a job as an elementary-level teacher, he found that doing so was economically unfeasible.

"I majored in education in college, but my wife and I had two children and there just wasn't enough money in teaching." he said.

Selling his businesses in Orange County, Calif. made it possible for him to afford to be a teacher. Geronimi has been teaching at South Whidbey Intermediate School for 16 years.

"I'm still teaching because I enjoy kids and it's very rewarding," Geronimi said.

Walker, like LaVasser and Edholm, are considered elementary specialists because they focus in one subject area. Walker, a Title I reading specialist said it's a rewarding field to help 6 and 7 year-olds improve their reading skills. What this means is that there is not a single male homeroom teacher at the primary school, so students do not get used to spending portions or all of their day in a male teacher's classroom until later in their school careers.

This doesn't bother the few male teachers at South Whidbey's elementary-level schools. They enjoy their jobs.

"I like what I do, I found my niche," Walker said.

John LaVasser, teaches technology and computer science to students in grades kindergarten through fifth -grade. He likes to think of all the children in the primary and intermediate schools as his students, even though he might only see each of them for an hour a week.

"I just got so lucky to end up teaching tech I like what I do. I get to see 500 kids in a week," LaVassar said.

It starts in school

Being in the minority does not start when male, elementary-level teachers get their first jobs. LaVassar, who graduated in 1999 from the University of Washington with a masters degree in education, said he was one of just a few men in his class.

"There were 60 students in the masters program with me in 1999, only 12 were men.

According to statistics from the National Education Association Web site, the number of male elementary school teachers is expected to increase by just under 1 percent next year.

On the flip side, in general, fewer women choose secondary education than men.

Just because this male-female ratio at various levels of education has seemingly always been doesn't mean educators always want it to be so. Principals in the South Whidbey School District say they would like to see more diversity in the classrooms.

Primary school Principal Bernie Mahar and South Whidbey High School Principal Mike Johnson agree that students benefit from seeing men and women in a wide spectrum of roles.

At the high school, there 28 male teachers and 14 female teachers. Johnson sees this as somewhat detrimental to the girls who attend classes at the school. This is magnified in math classrooms and in athletics, where female teachers and coaches are rare.

"It would be great to have more women teachers and coaches at the high school," he said. "Women as coaches offer great role models for female students."

Johnson offered one reason why so few women are teaching at the high school level. He said for young women entering education field, going back to high school as a 20-something teacher can be intimidating.

"I think it is a comfort level sometimes, a feeling of safety," he said. "Young women just out of college are 23 years old and may not feel as safe with large, male 18-year-old students."

If he had the opportunity, Johnson said he would hire more women, but the pool of applicants tends to be small.

Role models are important for students of all ages. Bernie Mahar said having both genders teaching in her school is important.

"I would love to have more male classroom teachers," she said.

Money can be a factor

Unfortunately, in many cases, the choice between elementary and secondary education is an economic one, as it was for teacher Geronimi. Female teachers, like second-grade teacher Lynn James -- who is also president of South Whidbey Education Association -- acknowledge this as fact. There's more money to be made at the secondary level, largely due to coaching salaries.

"In many cases it's economics," she said. "Male teachers are attracted to secondary education because of the coaching activities."

High school coaches are paid stipends which range between between $3,500 and $4,500 per season on South Whidbey.

There aren't as many chances for elementary teachers to coach at the high school level because of time conflicts. Release time at the primary and intermediate schools is about an hour later than at the high middle schools.

South Whidbey School district assistant superintendent Dan Blanton agrees that culture and economics are factors in where educators choose to teach.

"It's tough to be a sole breadwinner on a teacher's salary," he said.

In Washington state, first-year teachers at all grade levels have an average income of about $28,300, according to Blanton. With 16 years of experience and no additional degrees, a teacher makes about $34,000. Teachers with masters degrees make $33,000 in their first year.

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