Vincent Thomas laughs when he recalls one of the biggest drawbacks of his first years as an elementary school teacher.

There wasn’t a men’s restroom, Thomas said.

A lot has changed for the Pontiac Elementary School music teacher and others in his profession.

In a career area once considered a woman’s world, more and more men are taking over elementary school classrooms. But local educators say schools still don’t have enough male role models for elementary students.

“I think I realized that while I student taught,” said Thomas, who is in his fifth year of teaching. “But that really wasn’t one of the things I looked at in my preparation for becoming a teacher. I was more concerned with being qualified than being a wanted minority.”

But for Thomas and other male elementary teachers, the minority status is an overwhelming reality.

Fourteen of the 363 elementary school teachers in Richland Two are men. Blaney Elementary School in Elgin and Lugoff Elementary have none.

Statewide, the story is much the same. Of the 24,390 elementary teachers in South Carolina, 2,097 or 8.6 percent are men, according to the State Department of Education.

But despite their small number, many male elementary teachers say they welcome the burden of filling a role many students don’t see at home.

“I think that’s extremely important, especially in this day and age,” Thomas said. “I think it’s important for kids to see male figures, pulling out all those positive things in life.”

For Thomas and others, filling that void often has created an additional hurdle.

“Many students come from a broken home and may have a particularly bad taste in their mouth as far as their father figure,” Thomas said. “There is a certain amount of ice-breaking to be done, and I try to do that by first of all letting them know that I am their friend. I think they need someone who they can trust in and someone who will believe in them and encourage them.”

Steve Hefner, Richland Two associate superintendent for instruction, said attracting more male elementary school teachers is a very high priority in the district.

“That’s been a goal of ours for several years,” Hefner said. “So few little boys see a male functioning in an educational role other than as a principal. They don’t have that context.”

Among Richland Two’s published list of priorities are increasing the number of minorities and the number of male elementary teachers.

Tim O’Keefe, a second-grade teacher at Nelson Elementary, sees both positives and negatives to being the only male teacher at his school.

“I do feel it, at sort of a personal level, to be a good role model,” he said. “On a professional level, I feel a little more scrutiny. I don’t mind any additional attention, because if I can get attention for whatever reason, I’d like to turn people on to some different methods of teaching.”

Jim Garrison, who teaches fifth grade at Conder, said he finds his job as an educator very challenging and wishes more men would discover the rewards he has.

“We have (male) students who will respond to a female teacher, and then when they come to me they respond as entirely different children,” he said. “This is the first time some of these students have had a male teacher. So they’re having to adjust to that also. Perhaps if there were more men, more needs could be met.”

The male teachers agreed that while balance is important, getting the most qualified teachers, regardless of who they are, is more important.

“Ideally, I think we need the best people in there for their profession,” O’Keefe said. “That’s the most important thing to me. It would be nice if there were more men, but the most important thing is to make sure we have good teachers.”

Added Garrison, “They need positive male and female role models, and guidance.”

Blaney Elementary School Principal Rose Sheheen said although the school has no male teachers, efforts are made to involve men in the education process as volunteer readers and tutors or during career days.

“We don’t want boys to think that teaching and learning is sissy stuff,” Sheheen said. “We need boys to see males in successful roles. I can tell you lots of sad stories about boys who have no successful role models. I wouldn’t say that the women couldn’t do it, but there is a balance to life and it is important that children see that balance.”

Administrators say that trends are changing, and more men are pursuing careers in elementary education.

“We’re seeing more and more males are coming to work in the elementary school,” said Pontiac Elementary Principal Richard Inabinet. “What we’re finding is the attitude about male teachers in the elementary school appears to be shifting. I think we as educators have to do a better job of convincing both males and females to enter the teaching profession.”

And while the percentage of men is still less than ideal, Heffer said it’s much higher than it was years ago.

“I see it as been vastly important. I’m excited that we’re making inroads in that particular area. I hope that we’ll see more of that in the years ahead.”

Thomas, for one, says he couldn’t have made a better career choice.

“It’s the best thing that I’ve ever done,” he said. “It’s the most rewarding career choice. It’s good to have a job where you don’t mind going to work every day. I can proudly say that I love what I do.”

September 19, 1991  State (published as The State)  
Columbia, South Carolina
Page 72
September 19, 1991  State (published as The State) 
 Columbia, South Carolina
Page 76

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