MAXWELL:  Teaching, the feminized ghetto

3/24/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In his new book Jobs Rated Almanac, author Les Krantz uses statistics from telephone surveys, the government and trade groups to rank 250 occupations as super to the pits, according to six criteria: income, stress, physical demands, growth potential, job security and work environment. If you happen to be one of the diminishing number of Americans who still idealize public school teaching, you should know that teaching ranks No. 164, behind teacher’s aide (111), janitor (154) and maid (157).

I am not surprised that teaching ranks so low. Indeed, the income is lousy; the stress level can threaten one’s health; real growth potential is limited; unless one has a continuing contract, job security can be iffy; and, as we all know from recent shooting deaths and other attacks on campuses nationwide, the work environment can be dangerous.

“Much work in this profession, such as preparing lessons, grading papers and attending meetings, is done after the school day has ended,” Krantz writes. “Teachers spend long periods of time on their feet. Working with rambunctious children can be fatiguing and stressful.”

Krantz does not discuss what I believe to be the fundamental reason that teaching is such a lowly profession: It is a feminized ghetto _ a field comprisingmostly women who accept inconsideration as normal. In Pinellas County, for example, nearly 80 percent of the instructional staff is women. In the elementary grades, the percentage is even higher. Men do not teach at some American elementary schools.

In early America, before the government institutionalized the profession, nearly all teachers were men. After the government took charge of teaching, women became desirable because officials were hellbent on paying teachers the smallest salaries possible. Most educated men would not accept such low pay for such difficult work.

Teaching became permanently feminized when the ideal teacher became the spouse of a successful man _ a local businessman, an elected official, a pastor and often a school administrator. Immediately, the woman’s abysmal pay was treated as supplemental income to the husband’s higher salary.

After writing a recent column arguing that teaching will become respectable only when teachers are paid much higher salaries, I received more than 30 letters from teachers throughout the country. Only one came from a man, a high school science teacher and football coach in upstate New York who agreed with me. I was disappointed by the number of women who disagreed.

In a letter that otherwise complimented my column, a longtime Pinellas teacher wrote: “My husband, who was in administration, used to say that it was not good for a teacher’s salary to be too high because we didn’t want “just anyone’ to be a teacher. There’s something to be said for that line of thought, too.”

Another woman wrote that her husband, who has a GED and is a sheriff’s deputy, brags that he earns much more than she does. She ignores his braggadocio, she said, because she did not become a teacher for the money.

These two women and others like them affirm my thesis that as long as teaching is considered a woman’s job _ as mere supplemental income _ the best and the brightest will continue to shun the profession. No one should be surprised that men who become teachers jump into administration _ where the big bucks are _ as soon as possible. Then they become the bureaucrats who see no need to fight for higher teacher salaries. Obviously, if more men were in the classroom, salaries would rise overnight. But men know better than to enter the field in the first place.

We hear tales about teachers who moonlight. Well, guess who the overwhelming majority of these moonlighters are: unmarried women, some single moms, struggling to make ends meet.

Last year, I asked Rod MacDavis, dean of the University of Florida College of Education, to comment on how he would attract and retain a new generation of excellent teachers. Notice his gender specificity: “From the standpoint of recruitment, we need to increase salaries. That’s No. 1. Today, when . . . students look at careers . . . they look at how much they can expect to earn. I think that’s especially true with men. Young men tend not to look at education as a career path because they don’t feel they’ll be able to earn enough money to take care of a family.”

Most men simply will not become part of this invaluable, underpaid, widely disrespected profession.