Tim Vesco loves his job and it shows.

It’s after lunch when Vesco, a fifth-grade teacher at Frontenac’s Frank Layden Elementary School, dives into a math lesson involving fractions.

The students sit in small groups, scattered among a variety of bean-bag chairs, benches and high tables. Vesco pivots between the white board, where he illustrates the math problem, and the class, engaging the students in a rapid, problem-solving conversation. Hands fly up. Questions are answered. They move on.

“This is my 16th year,” Vesco said. “I still love doing it!”

As one of two male elementary teachers in the school, Vesco is part of a small, but perhaps growing cadre of men who choose to teach our youngest students. Although teachers colleges have tried for many years to encourage more men to consider teaching at the elementary level, the numbers have been difficult to move above 10 percent.

Alice Sagehorn, chair of the Department of Teaching and Leadership in PSU’s College of Education says the college has worked for a long time to encourage male students to consider elementary education. She’s pleased that recently a number of men have chosen elementary education, although women in the program still outnumber men more than 10 to 1.

This year, out of the 286 PSU students who are elementary education majors, 25 are men.

Nationally, researchers cite factors like prestige, salary and stereotypes about male and female roles as some of the reasons men have not come to elementary education in greater numbers.

But Vesco said his decision to enter elementary education was not based on salary or prestige.

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher in 6th grade,” Vesco said. “I grew up in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where I had an amazing 6th grade teacher, Pauline Meyer. She was so kind. She made you feel special. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to be like her.’”

Adam Brown, a fourth-grade teacher at Lakeside Elementary School in Pittsburg was also inspired by a teacher.

“I had a really good fourth grade teacher,” Brown said. “That’s when it first came into my head that I thought it would be fun to be a teacher. I’ve actually written to my fourth grade teacher to tell her she was my inspiration. Now that I’m teaching fourth grade, I remember some of the stuff she did and I incorporate that into my own classroom.”

Destry Brown, superintendent for USD 250 in Pittsburg, began his teaching career as an elementary teacher in Mound City, Kan. He said he, too, was inspired by a teacher.

“I went to school in Fulton, where we had combined classrooms,” Brown said. “My teacher (for) third and fourth grade, was Welcome Van Sickle (Life Certificate 1928). She was always very positive and she told us, ‘you’re going to grow up and be somebody.’ That’s probably what hooked me, because I loved learning and she let us fly.”

Brown said part of Van Sickle’s legacy is a long list of students who went on to become teachers and administrators.

 

Why elementary?

Many men may say they feel called to teach, but few seem drawn to the early years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, 42 percent of U.S. high school teachers are men, but just 2.3 percent of kindergarten and pre-K teachers are men. A little more than 10 percent of elementary teachers are men and by middle school it’s around 20 percent.

Those men who do choose elementary say they like teaching the primary grades because of the kids and the opportunity they have to make a bigger impact in a child’s life. Many found they just have a knack for working with younger students.

Adam Brown

Fourth grade teacher Adam Brown says teaching “is a work of the heart.”

“We’ve been learning about all that elementary kids can learn,” said Luke Lee, a senior who is doing his student teaching at Meadowlark Elementary School in Pittsburg this spring. “And elementary students love school!”

Destry Brown said he discovered he liked working with youngsters through sports.

“Our next-door neighbor was the rec commission guy. (He) asked me if I’d coach a T-ball team. So I did that and I loved it,” Brown said.

Then Brown began volunteering at the elementary school during his lunch breaks.

“I’d walk over to the elementary school and work lunch time out on the playground,” Brown said. “I loved working with kids.”

 

Does it matter?

Does it matter that few elementary teachers are men? Research is mixed about any correlation between the gender of the teacher and students’ academic performance, even for troubled boys, who often struggle with learning.

Destry Brown says the district doesn’t set out to hire male teachers, but instead looks for the best teachers.

“Sometimes those happen to be men,” he said.

However, he does believe that it’s important to have diversity in the teaching staff and that includes gender as well as ethnicity.

“I think it’s important to have men and women teachers in the same way that it’s important to have teachers of different races,” Brown said. “I think it’s good for students to see men working alongside women as colleagues and as equals. It’s good for students to see men and women treat each other with respect.”

Tim Vesco

Tim Vesco says he sees little miracles happen every day in his classroom.

Role Models

Male elementary teachers say they are well aware of their status as role models and most embrace it.

“You see more and more children growing up without a strong male presence in their lives,” Vesco said. “Sometimes we can provide that influence for those kids.”

John Paul Juarez Garcia, an elementary education major from California, said he believes he has a lot to bring to the classroom and one of those things is his own personal experience.

“I was raised by just my mother,” Juarez Garcia said. “A lot of kids have that same experience. I want to give them a positive male role model.”

Adam Brown, at Lakeside Elementary, said he agreed that many children needed positive male role models in their lives, but he thinks the issue extends beyond gender.

“I lived a very fortunate life,” Brown said. “I had really good parents and I wanted to be that positive role model – not just male role model – but that positive role model in their lives.”

Luke Lee

Luke Lee, PSU senior, is student teaching at Meadowlark Elementary School in Pittsburg this spring.

Encouraging Others

Not surprisingly, men who are so passionate about teaching elementary students encourage others to consider following in their footsteps and they have some advice for men that applies to women, as well.

“Teaching’s a hard job, but you won’t find anything more rewarding,” said Vesco. “It is so rewarding to see all of the amazing things that happen literally daily, minute by minute in the classroom. You honestly see miracles happen every day. There’s always just something that can take your breath away that’s so impactful. If more men, or anybody, saw and understood that part of it, I think we’d get more of our best and our brightest to become teachers.”

Adam Brown said men shouldn’t be afraid to love their students.

“You have to be willing to bring your emotions into it and you can’t be afraid to make relationships,” said Brown. “You have to be able to open your heart, because teaching is a work of heart. It’s more than just math, reading and writing. Don’t be scared to open yourself up and love these kids.”

Vesco agreed, adding, “Be prepared to give lots of hugs and lots of high fives. For many kids, that’s the only ones they’ll get all day. It’s just so rewarding. I just love it.”

Howard Smith, former dean of the College of Education and a former elementary school teacher said he tells students to be prepared to work hard and continually learn.

“Don’t get in it if you don’t want to work,” Smith said. “Good teaching takes  time and effort. No one class or student is the same, so you must be a continual learner to be a good teacher. You also need be adaptable and flexible with a positive disposition to be good and today I also emphasize how important it is to be a strong communicator.”

Destry Brown said the advice he would give to a man considering elementary education is the same as that he’d give a woman.

“I don’t think there’s a better job out there. The reward’s so great,” Brown said. “Doing this job is life-changing. If you really want to change lives, if you really want to make a difference, this is the job for you. You’re not going to make a lot of money, but you’re going to change the world.”