HAGERSTOWN – The kindergarteners at Conococheague Elementary School gaze at their teacher during attendance, oblivious that his shirt and tie, short dark hair and deep voice are not the normal attributes of a kindergarten instructor.
To them, Michael Pavlik, who enjoys impromptu outbursts of song during lessons, is simply the teacher who demonstrates how to make a proper letter “V” or directs them to pick up puzzle pieces scattered on a multicolored carpet.
But some adults pause when see a middle-aged man teaching 5-year-olds.
“All the storybooks have cute, little, petite women that are going to be in charge. . . . Then they see me,” said Pavlik, the only male kindergarten teacher in Washington County.
Teachers like Pavlik — men who teach elementary school — are still an anomaly, despite efforts to recruit more men into the classroom. Nationally, only about 22 percent of elementary school teachers are men, according to the National Education Association. In Maryland, just 10 percent of elementary school teachers were men in 2002, state officials say.
The numbers lag even though male early education teachers, especially minority men, are in greater demand than ever, as the number of children from single-mother and minority households increases.
Yet, according to the Maryland State Department of Education, Maryland colleges graduated only 18 men certified in early childhood education — pre-kindergarten through third grade — in 2002.
Not much has changed since Pavlik’s first days on the job 30 years ago. He began his career in 1973 in West Virginia as his school’s only male kindergarten teacher, a fact that attracted the media. Some of his colleagues were “put off” by the ruckus the media created simply because he was male.
At Conococheague, the staff is not fazed that a man teaches kindergarten, but “sometimes I feel like I’m intruding on a sorority,” Pavlik said. The only other male teacher at the school teaches in the gifted and talented program.
Parents and advocates are pushing for more people like Pavlik because they say it lets children develop positive relationships with men before they reach middle and high school, the typical places where male educators take jobs.
Alan Simpson of the National Association for the Education of Young Children said men like Pavlik are important not because their teaching styles differ from women’s, but because children, especially those without male adults in their lives, learn to unconsciously associate men with learning.
“There a lot of children today who will benefit from a male role model in their lives,” Simpson said. “It can be a . . . very encouraging experience for children.”
Male teachers also show children that not all men fit the negative depictions in the media, said Bryan G. Nelson, director of MenTeach, a Minnesota-based advocacy group dedicated to increasing the number of male teachers in elementary schools. He said young children need to see men “nurturing, caring and solving problems with words,” not violence and weapons.
But getting men in the classroom is tough. While the profession is working to shake its female image through recruitment and scholarships, low salaries and stereotypes about the job continue to make men shun the career.
“Men are avoiding teaching because that’s seen as a woman’s work,” said Nelson, who, at 6-feet 3-inches tall, gets a mixed reaction when he tells people he has changed diapers and taught toddlers. “We have women creating a new dynamic about who they are. I think boys and men are trying to figure out what our role is now.”
Donna Wiseman, associate dean for teacher education at the University of Maryland, College Park, said it is even harder to attract and retain minority men. Elementary schools are becoming more diverse, she said, but the teaching population is not.
At College Park, men account for just 203 of 1,100 students preparing to be teachers, about 18 percent of the class, Wiseman said. The number is smaller still for men who are pursuing early childhood education.
In 2002, men of all races represented only 3.4 percent of the state’s early childhood hires, according to the Maryland State Teachers Association.
“They’re honestly treated like kings because everyone’s so excited to see them there,” Wiseman said. “If I had a group of African-American elementary men teachers, it would be amazing. I think more men would do it if there were models. It’s sort of a catch-22.”
Pavlik said he is uncertain if some of his students consider him a male role model.
“I think of a couple instances early on, when I was young and single, that kids were looking at me that way,” he said.
Pavlik said he chose kindergarten because young children enjoy learning. He feels at home while reading or writing with the kids, and the kids are comfortable, too. If men want to be “where teaching happens,” he said, kindergarten is the place to be.
“For some reason, creation decided we needed two parents,” Pavlik said. “Whether men have abdicated their role (in education) or lost it, I’d like to see them take it back.”