Like most elementary school classrooms in Columbia, the environment in Clint Darr’s room at Cedar Ridge Elementary School caters to children. The air smells of glue and markers. A border of red and yellow apples runs the length of each wall. A reading corner has a couch and beanbag chairs.
As the school day winds down, children clean up their desks in preparation for the final bell. Darr stands at the door as his fourth-graders file out, hunched slightly under their book bags.
“Bye,” he says. “See you tomorrow.”
Darr is the only male teacher at Cedar Ridge. In his eight years there, he has only had a male colleague once, in his first year. Similar male-female ratios play out at elementary schools across the country. The National Education Association reported in 2003 that the number of male elementary teachers was at an all-time low, reporting that only 9 percent of elementary school teachers were men.
To address that, Roy Fox, chairman of the department of learning, teaching and curriculum in MU’s School of Education, has begun a program that will encourage more men to become elementary teachers.
“There has been, overall, a disturbing lack of male influence in the lives of young children,” Fox said.
To get started, Men for Excellence in Elementary Teaching will focus on members of the Teaching Fellows Program, which places certified teachers in classrooms.
The Men for Excellence program is open to qualified men who have a teaching degree but who wish to pursue a master’s degree in elementary education during their first full year of teaching.
Fox says men in elementary education will benefit from there being other men around in an overwhelmingly female environment.
“There is strength in numbers,” he said. “They can give each other support.”
Fox hopes the program will reach the level where members go to high schools to speak with and encourage young men to pursue a career in teaching. He wants to change the stereotype that elementary education is a profession for women.
Fox said a number of factors contribute to the lack of men in K-12 education, especially in elementary schools. They include the perception that the profession is unmanly, concerns about being accused of child molestation and comparatively low salaries.
Darr was a Columbia firefighter when he started thinking about becoming a teacher. He used to present fire safety programs at elementary schools.
“Teachers used to tell me, ‘You’re so good with the kids — you should be a teacher,’ ” Darr said. “And one day I thought, yeah, I should.”
Darr, who graduated from MU with a business degree in 1980, got his teaching certificate in 1997 and his master’s in education in 1999.
Finding work was easy. “Schools are always looking for male educators because there are so few of us,” Darr said.
John Gerhart, who teaches fifth grade at Field Elementary School, was looking for a new adventure when he left a 24-year career in the dairy business. Now in his second year in the classroom, he’s glad he made the change, and he’s quick to credit is female co-workers with easing him into the job.
Gerhart said he was drawn to teaching because he wanted to be a positive role model to children.
“Sports players should not be our children’s role models; they are sports players,” Gerhart said.
Like Darr, he is the only male teacher at his school. He acknowledges there are differences in the way he must interact with students.
“I am very aware of the fact that people could misconstrue the way I touch my students,” Gerhart said. “I put my hand on their shoulders when they are working, but I’ll never hug a student the way that a female teacher could.”
On the other hand, male teachers can offer a positive image that many students need.
“An increasing number of children do not have a male role model due to (the) increasing number of single-family homes,” Fox said. “Boys and girls too often don’t get to see men reading, men writing, men painting or men singing. They see men in the media blowing up cars and shooting guns.”
This problem is self-perpetuating, Fox said: Boys do not see male teachers, so they do not become teachers. They do not associate the role of teacher with men.
“Our society has just expected that females are supposed to be elementary teachers,” said MU senior Matthew Roach, an elementary education major. “I guess we have taken it as the norm.”
Currently, 15 of the 345 undergraduate elementary education majors at MU are men, said Sonya Nistendirk, executive staff assistant to the dean of the School of Education. It’s no surprise, then, that Roach is the lone male in his current education classes.
“At the start, it was obviously very weird,” Roach said. “But overall it was good for everyone, because I could give a different perspective on certain issues.”
Steve Tatlow, whose daughter Chelsea is in Darr’s class at Cedar Ridge, regards Darr as an asset to the school in part because he brings a “balanced perspective” to his child’s education.
Chelsea, like many of her classmates, looked forward to having “Mr. Darr” for fourth grade.
“It’s the first time I’ve had a man for a teacher,” the 10-year-old girl said. “He’s funny, and he makes sure we have fun when we’re learning.”