In the NYT Motoko Rich asks “Why Don’t More Men Go Into Teaching?“, and he gives a variety of answers but not an important one: any male teacher is only one accusation away from having his entire career derailed and a potentially lengthy, onerous police investigation. I thought about going into teaching, but stories from existing male teachers were persuasively dissuading.
At the K-12 level, men have the (many) problems that all teachers face—obnoxious “do something” administrators, angry parents, medium- to low-status occupation, etc.—plus the need to teach defensively and to think about how any words or actions can be interpreted in the worst light possible. Being one-on-one with a student is dangerous. It’s often normal to touch someone for emphasis, or hug someone in a non-sexual manner, but that can’t happen. In short, many of the little things that are part of normal human interactions are forbidden or dangerous.
William Deresiewicz just published Excellent Sheep, a polemic about education and what students need; one excerpt, “Students crave emotional mentorship from their teachers that their parents can’t give them. There’s nothing wrong with that,” describes how students want and need mentorship: male teachers can’t really provide that at the K – 12 level any more, because the risk is too high. School policies and culture are ironically curtailing what is arguably the best part of education. It’s been said that guys in foxholes no longer fight for their country or their ideals, but for the guys next to them. I suspect that many students—and I’ve experienced this—don’t try to excel in a given class for the specific skills or the subject or the future job. They excel because they’re compelled to by the person in front of them. Yet that person can’t form a genuine connection without being able to spend at least some one-on-one time with some students. What’s left? Going through the motions.
The dangers are real and the cultural feelings are pervasive, though they rarely rise up to the level of official discourse. Still, check out the stories in “Teachers of reddit, have you ever had a student try to seduce you? What happened?” Or see the stories in numerous similar threads. They reveal a level of well-founded paranoia on the part of male teachers.
Teachers deal with hundreds of students every year. One grandstanding neurotic, to use Camille Paglia’s phrase, can create a huge amount of work and a level of gossip and innuendo that could take years to dissipate—if it ever does.* At worst, one grandstanding neurotic can cause job loss or imprisonment. Who wants that danger?
The paranoid attitude is also not limited to K – 12. When I was a first-year student at the University of Arizona, I was driving to L.A. to see my family for Thanksgiving and told some students, many of whom were from Southern California, that if they wanted a ride they could hitch one. That ride could be worth hundreds of dollars, relative to a flight. I also went to school three thousand miles from home, where I got a lot of help with matters like this—mostly from my cross country coach, but to a lesser extent from professors and others. I can appreciate what it’s like to show up somewhere and have no resources.
Nonetheless, I told some other grad students that I’d told students they could get a ride to California, and the other grad students were shocked. That’s so dangerous! Are you crazy? What if something…happens? Would you give a ride to a woman? That’s super risky, dude. Can’t believe you did it.
It was as if I’d jumped into an enemy pillbox during war and somehow lived to see the sunset. They’d internalized the defensive mindset (and a mindset that portrayed a lot of latent sexism for a supposedly feminist group). Their reaction helps explain why so much teaching is so poor. And I was dealing with legal adults, most of whom lived autonomously! Nonetheless, the other grad students were expressing a real fear—a variant of the fear male K – 12 teachers live with, which is legitimate and governs their behavior. And it dissuades men from teaching.
Why put up with the usual problems teachers face if a teacher can’t even do the job really well? Answer: Don’t.
* Paglia writes that she favors campus efforts to deal with genuine sexual harassment and rape, but that “I was concerned about the possibility of false charges by grandstanding neurotics, with whom I’d had quite enough contact at Bennington. Every sexual harassment code should incorporate stiff penalties for false accusation, presently rarely mentioned.” In 2014, stiff penalties for false accusations are still never mentioned.