A Male Teacher's Story - "My Road Less Traveled"

by Todd Hayden - Wisconsin

"The students are so lucky to have you" is something I heard over and over when I was teaching elementary school. While I believe this is true, I also felt lucky to have had the students. I know that I learned every bit as much from my students as they did from me.

I compare my thirteen year career teaching elementary school to the poem: "The Road Less Traveled", by Robert Frost. At the end of the poem, the narrator states that he is telling about his choice with a "sigh." Let me explain this--as only a teacher would. Just as I taught my third graders, we must look for clues from the text to determine the author's meaning and purpose (making inferences). Even after discussing this very poem in Literature Circles (yes, third graders are capable of evaluating Robert Frost), many of the students came to the same conclusion that many adults do: it is nearly impossible to know for sure whether Frost intended the sigh to be a disappointed sigh or a happy sigh. I believe this poem was written to reflect the reader's own purpose. That is to say, that Frost is allowing the reader to use his/her own text-to-self connection--another skill I taught my students--to determine his/her own meaning.  (Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is not measured on "high-stakes" tests).

While I must admit there have been both kinds of "sighs" in my teaching career, I can only be thankful that I chose the "Road Less Traveled" by being a male in the elementary field. I had originally set out on my journey to teach high school Marketing and Business. I was fortunate to have gained experiences working in summer youth programs and had others, including two male elementary teachers, convince me to get an elementary teaching licensure. I remember my feelings of success working with children aged 5-12 with positive "sighs" as young children took to me always instantly being mixed with "sighs" of awkwardness. These "sighs" came from toting around puppets, big books, etc. around campus and back to my off-campus apartment. My roommates—who would tease me playfully--were construction and engineering majors who carried hammers and "manly" materials to and from classes. The irony is that I have seen them come full-circle. Many are tender fathers, many of whom volunteer at their children's schools and/or coach their children's sports teams. I often visit with them when they are at the library picking out Dr. Seuss books. Now they tend to "get it" (though they still don't know how hard it is to be "on" all day long and come home and be "on" as well).

I am proud of how many of my fellow males have "stepped up to the plate" and been more hands-on fathers. I have seen some examples of grandfathers who have been freed-up by social expectations and have been, in some cases, more involved and tender with their grandchildren than they may have been with their own children. This was a connection I had as a teacher as well: I felt as though the fathers and grandfathers felt more comfortable at school as a result of my presence. Another connection I had to grandparents was that I was raised by my grandparents, who happened to be low-income. This led to many great questions from curious students and gave me greater insight into challenges that families of all kinds face.

There are a few misconceptions about men in elementary school, however. One is that he is "cool." It has never been my goal to be popular, fun, or cool. It has always been my goal to be effective. If pushing myself hard to be perceived a certain way in the child's eyes helps that student learn and feel connected at school, then yes, I will try to be seen as "cool." I have tried to keep my lessons hands-on because as a young boy, I knew that was my preferred learning style. If the data supported my methods, I would continue to teach in that manner. If the data did not, however, I (and many other teachers I knew), would find other ways to get the expected results. At times, my friends would tease me about how much I would play kickball or football at recess. Though I love sports, playing at recess was simply not a leisure activity. Trust me, I had a great deal of grading and lesson planning that got pushed into my own time because I chose to model fair play and sportsmanship at recess. I knew that my role was to help scaffold recess issues so that students would eventually be able to play fairly and come back to class ready to learn.

As a male, I also felt compelled to do extra things. For example, I often would be the one to dress up for a skit. I did this for the kids. Believe me, I did not dress up as Rapunzel, Dora, or the Cat in the Hat for my own gain. (Note: there is nothing scarier than a Rapunzel with a 5 o'clock shadow on his face and bald spot on top of his head). It took a great deal of extra time and energy to practice lines, write scripts, and be in extra events, but I did it for the students because I knew it impacted their school experience and ultimately, their learning. 

Another common statement is that it is so good for boys to have a positive male role model. While I agree with this, I think it is also important for girls to have a positive male role model. It is important to have positive role models of all genders and backgrounds. While curriculum is vital, there is no more powerful way of teaching than through modeling and daily interactions. One area I felt I made a huge difference in was helping young boys see the value of reading, through modeling, picking "boyish" materials (usually with blood, guts, and lots of action--interestingly many, many girls preferred these books, too), and finding ways to make the books come alive (reader's theater always worked well for boys--and girls--who wanted movement).

There are other misconceptions associated with being a male. For example, that students automatically respect men more and see them as an authority figure. I can still remember my 60 year-old, 4 foot something, 100 pound teacher from my elementary days. She commanded respect, so much that she practically could have led the invasion of Normandy.  Males are not automatically authority figures. Not all households are set up that way. Just as often, however, I have had to overcome a child's negative fear of a male. In some other cases, young children may originally perceive me as being hands-off or wanting to joke around a lot (like a playful uncle). In addition, I was proud to show young boys (and girls) that it is okay for grown men to show a tender side. I tended to have a sense of humor and focus on "not sweating the small stuff," although it would be a misconception to assume that this is a trait of all males (or that females can't bring these traits to the classroom).

One of the most frustrating comments I heard was that I got hired "because I was a male." I can't speak about other men in elementary education, but I can speak for myself. I am convinced that I got hired because of my experiences and work ethic. I had spent several years working directly with elementary-aged children through the city's youth recreation department, as well as the local school district. I had spent a considerable amount of time volunteering in the local schools, too. I reached out to others to help me along my path, asking for advice again and again. I will not apologize for developing a resume that was filled with experiences, nor for my relentlessness searching for jobs. I worked many, many jobs along the way to "get a foot in the door" including substitute teaching, coaching, and working as an educational assistant.  

I am thoroughly glad that I have taken the road that I have. My path has allowed me a great opportunity for reflection (an important trait for all teachers) and inquiry (a trait students' need, which I feel we need to honor more in education). It has been adventurous journey. I continue to hope that more men go into education in general, especially elementary education, art, and music. I also believe it is vital to have female teachers in STEM fields (and others) and minorities in the teaching profession. It saddens me that cities like New York City have such an under-represented population of African-American teachers, for example. I believe a minority teacher is valuable to all races and genders.

I feel fortunate to have learned so much in my teaching career. I am glad that I have taken "The Road Less Traveled." I am concerned about the dwindling numbers of men in education and am concerned that fewer men may be inclined to go into education as a result of recent changes in education (i.e. more teaching to the test and taking of tests, reduced recess/physical education, compensation plans that are not keeping up with costs of living, etc.)

I hope that men follow the trail that I have followed. I certainly wasn't the first to take it, nor am I the only one on it. I can tell you that it is less traveled, but worth it. If you are in teaching for money or because it seems "fun", you may be in for a lot of bad "sighs". If you are in teaching because you want to make a difference in the lives of countless numbers of students, then you are likely to have far more good "sighs". I can say it is not a career (or should I say, lifestyle) for everyone. But I can tell you that it is a career/lifestyle that is for people who want their work to be meaningful, women and men of all backgrounds alike. And--to quote Dr. Seuss--"Oh the Things You Will Learn" along the way. I could list a million things that I have learned along my way (in rhyme if I had the time), but the most important thing I have learned is how to be the best man that I could be. So, in conclusion, should the students feel lucky they got me as a teacher? You bet they should! But should I feel just as fortunate? You bet I should—AND I DO!