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Men at School

A funny thing happened at Enders Road Elementary in Manlius in June 2007. Classes were wrapping up for the year, and Vincent Pillari Jr. was saying goodbye to his fourth-grade students—his first class as an elementary school teacher. By the time the afternoon was over, he was in tears. “Actually, the whole class got crying,” Pillari recalls. “It was surreal.”

It didn’t take long for the word to spread among students, teachers and parents that Pillari—“the new guy teacher” with the muscular build and booming voice, a man who once envisioned a career in law enforcement—was a big ol’ softie when it came to his students. And Pillari makes no apologies.

“I think students today need men that are nurturing,” he says. “At the end of the year, I want every student to know that they’ve had a special learning experience.”

Pillari is a walking contradiction of some of the stereotypes that have shadowed male teachers at the elementary school level for decades—and may be discouraging more men from considering early education as a career option despite high demand.

The National Education Association (NEA), the national educators union, in 2004 found that the percentage of male teachers in elementary school classrooms had dropped by half since 1981. It now hovers below 10 percent. At the secondary level, men comprise about 35 percent of the teaching population.

In a 2003 article, The Educational Forum, a peer-reviewed journal, noted the lack of research on the issues relating to the low number of male teachers. And it seems relatively little has been compiled since. Sari Knopp Bilken, professor at Syracuse University’s School of Education, says she is unaware of any specific current research being done on if, or how, gender imbalances at the elementary level influence students. Research has been compiled, however, on how males are influenced by the cultural stereotypes surrounding the teaching profession and gender roles.

But for those men who decide to enter the field, it can be a revelation. The work is rewarding, the schedules are conducive to a busy family life, and—despite the skewed gender numbers—men report having good working relationships with their female co-workers. Those, like Pillari, who are truly called to the profession don’t let attitudes and perceptions deter them.

Vincent Pillari Jr.

Being a positive influence
From the moment he decided to go into teaching, Pillari was deliberate about the kind of teacher he would be. He wanted to be the one the kids would remember. So, instead of taking refuge in the teacher’s lounge or grabbing a quiet bite in his classroom, Pillari often eats lunch with his students. He remembers what sports they play and the television shows they watch; he keeps in touch with their parents; and he even joins the kids on the playground sometimes.

“Everything I do in my classroom is about me developing a close relationship with each student,” Pillari says. “My connecting with them in other ways adds context to the relationship.”

Peter Moore has been an educator for 12 years and teaches fourth grade at Reynolds Elementary School in Baldwinsville. He says although male teachers are still burdened with unfair preconceptions and questions—many of which begin during their training—he remains guided by his own motivations: a love for young people and a desire to be a positive influence.

“Let’s face it: They are so adorable at this age. But kids today are also dealing with a lot of outside influences that can interfere with learning,” Moore says. “Even by this age, they spend a lot of time on the computer, or in front of a television or playing video games. (They) are not outside exploring their world, and they are missing out. They don’t develop important problem-solving skills that other generations did (by this age). It’s even affecting them socially. When you are doing less interacting with peers, you don’t know how to handle disappointment and defeat. So now, in addition to teaching academics, we’re teaching behavior, we’re teaching manners.”

Moore’s career path into elementary education was a traditional route. “Even as a teenager, I was always helping kids in high school (with their school work),” Moore says. “Plus, I’ve always loved little kids, so teaching at the elementary level was more interesting to me.”

For years, Moore was the only male teacher at Reynolds, although popular principal Steven Frey was there until this summer. He says it was inevitable that he would stand out in the sea of female faces. So he has made a point of being particularly visible in the hallway, as students are coming into the building. “I try to get to know them a little bit, even if they are not in fourth grade,” Moore says.

By the fourth grade, administrators and teachers begin to more address students’ particular needs, strengths and potential. Unfortunately for a male elementary school teacher, that can lead to stereotyping. “I would say I probably do get the students who need ‘a positive male role model,’” Moore says matter-of-factly. “But, on the other hand, I’m not authoritative in my teaching style. I use honey to deal with behavioral issues.”

Male teachers often are cast as role models for boys in their charge. “(It’s) an important aspect of my work here; an unfortunate reality of our culture is the high percentage of failed (parental) relationships,” says Joe Palmer, a fourth-grade teacher at Marcellus Elementary School. “This situation often leaves the majority of day-to-day parenting to the mother in many circumstances. I don’t presume to take the place of any child’s father, but to provide an example of appropriate male influence.”

Mark Freeman, a kindergarten teacher at Huntington School in Syracuse, says the expectation for male teachers to act as role models is even more pronounced at city schools such as his. He previously worked in a local suburban district. “There are a lot of boys who need … someone to have confidence in them,” he says. “You’re expected to help (fix) a brokenness that is there. I have sensed that there is some pressure there among the guys in the building. Sometimes it’s the mothers. They want their sons to have the influence of honest, responsible male adults.”

Freeman is one of two male kindergarten teachers at Huntington; Leo Berman is the other. The two men often collaborate and have a natural ease in their professional relationship. Freeman says differences in teaching styles are influenced by gender: “In my room, and Leo’s room, there is more activity. That’s not to say it’s better than that of the women. We respect each other’s approach.”

Palmer says students benefit from being exposed different styles of teaching, whether related to gender or not. “I think that the levels of dedication, abilities and former experiences as an educator are of much more importance than gender,” Palmer says. “The approach in my classroom is different from that of my colleagues. I have a military background that is utilized in organizing and managing the class.

Experiences in the ‘real world’ prior to teaching enable me to bring diversity to the staff and students that would be difficult to replicate otherwise.”

Peter Moore

While the demand for male elementary school teachers is high, the journey to the classroom is not always encouraging. Moore, a graduate of the State University of New York College at Oswego, says he and his male classmates noticed an expectation that they would use teaching as a steppingstone into administration—a “typical” career goal for male elementary educators.

“Really, I sensed surprise that I wanted to be an elementary school teacher—not an administrator,” Moore says.

Freeman was one of two men out of his graduating class of 128 education majors at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. While his professors were supportive, the female students questioned his interest in teaching. “It was a collaborative atmosphere, but the women did wonder about our motivation,” Freeman recalls.

Freeman, father to a baby girl, will begin his fourth year teaching at Huntington this fall. He previously spent two years teaching in another Central New York district, where he felt “more watched” by administrators. “There was an underlying sense of ‘what could happen’ in my previous school,” Freeman says. “I’m very conscious of appropriate behavior. But the thing is, these little guys in kindergarten still need hugs once in a while. It makes me feel bad that, as a guy, I have to always be careful whereas a female teacher would not have to worry.”

Pillari feels comfortable in his work environment, and he respects the various skills and talents his co-workers—male and female—bring to the profession. “Being part of a faculty is an important part of the job,” Pillari says. “The team is a valuable resource. Everyone expects (differences) in style and teaching philosophy—particularly lesson delivery.”

“The fact is, you can meet the requirements for No Child Left Behind, you can bring humor into the classroom and have fun, you can go beyond the lessons. You can do it all: It’s possible,” Pillari says. “We’re just having fun and learning at the same time.”

“Not every day is going to be wonderful. Humility is definitely a requirement for any elementary school teacher,” he adds. “But I do expect a lot of myself. The students deserve that.”

Why so few men?
Researchers may not know exactly why so few men are going into elementary-level teaching, but the men who choose to do so certainly have their theories.

“Gender and ego still have a lot to do with it,” Pillari believes. “It’s still a perception—that women are more nurturing, and therefore, are better at teaching younger students. Gender perception still plays a big role in that. At the secondary level, it’s more academic, less about nurturing.

And that’s why a lot of men decide to go in that direction. But I love what I see at the elementary level. Everything is new and the kids are so curious. When I say I’m an elementary school teacher, I’m very proud.”

Current teachers say changes will happen gradually, as more men go into elementary classrooms. Eventually, expectations may begin to match the wide variety of teaching experiences men offer their students.

“It is unrealistic to assume that the children respond to me as they would a female teacher,” Palmer says. “My voice, interactions with the children and peers, and demeanor are different than the majority of my colleagues.”

Freeman faced his own feelings about gender issues last spring. Two students and their mother lost their lives in a house fire just blocks from Huntington School. The losses hit the school particularly hard, and teachers found themselves struggling to find ways to help ease their students’—and their own—despair.

“I really noticed how the women in the building reacted, and how that affected the students,” Freeman says. “They definitely had more outward, emotional reactions. I began to wonder about my own reaction. Was it appropriate? Should I have been more expressive?”

Male teachers face the pressures of sometimes-contradictory expectations for their behavior—being “the positive male role model” for boys and “the nurturing male” for girls. But, Palmer says, the men who are in the classroom today are setting the tone for more gender-balanced schools in the years to come, and that’s a step in the right direction.

“As more men enter elementary education and experience the rewards of teaching young children, the more accepted males will become in fulfilling those nontraditional roles,” he says. “In this way, children will experience a variety of personalities and backgrounds throughout their school careers, regardless of gender.”

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Michael Davis Photos

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