By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 3, 2011
As Todd Oldham’s class tackles a math test on fractions, one of the youngsters raises his hand. The two talk quietly.
“It looks like you are off to a fine start, my friend,” said the teacher before moving to another raised hand. “Genius,” he said, knocking his knuckles against a desk for emphasis.
He walked around the classroom, decorated with posters of negative and positive numbers, geometric shapes and an American flag. A statue of the Blessed Mother looked over the room from a pedestal.
Later, fourth-graders arrived for a multiplication test.
“Put your stuff away, big dog,” joked the 38-year-old.
Oldham, who goes by Mr. O, is one of two male teachers at Our Lady of the Assumption School. There are 43 educators at the Atlanta Catholic elementary school.
Education in elementary grades is primarily a woman’s world. Some 86 percent of full-time staffers at Catholic elementary schools in the archdiocese are laywomen. Only 12 percent are men, and sisters and priests make up the rest of the staffs.
Focus Is On Getting The Best Teachers
School leaders don’t focus too much on increasing the number of men. Their focus is on getting the best teachers in front of the classrooms to boost student achievement.
As the cultural arts assembly in the school gym ended, the presenter of Native American culture told the group of students to follow their “honored women” to return to classes.
Oldham shakes it off.
“I just let it roll,” he said. “Normally, they’ll say, ‘Thank you, ladies.’ I understand that’s just the norm.”
Oldham comes from a family of teachers. His mother serves as a superintendent outside Chicago. His older brother and sister-in-law also teach.
A former actor, Oldham has taught for nine years. He started at an inner city public school in Chicago, and he arrived at Our Lady of the Assumption three years ago. His wife’s job brought the couple here. He taught middle school science at the school first, before switching to math.
Elementary age children are a fun group and are eager to learn, he said.
“I love it when they go ‘oooh.’ They are just at the age when they are discovering stuff and tell you how amazing it is,” he said.
“I’m probably not as tender. But I’m a little louder,” he said.
The other male teacher is David Coheley, the music teacher. Coheley, 48, has taught at the school for seven years.
“All of us that are at Our Lady of Assumption really enjoy teaching. I don’t feel intimidated,” he said.
When it comes to teachers’ genders, the Catholic school system mirrors public education: Few men go to work in the schools.
In fact, in North Georgia the number of men in Catholic schools is a little higher than the public school average.
In all the North Georgia Catholic schools, including the high schools, there are 277 men among 1,126 employees. In other words, one out of four school workers are men. (The numbers do not specify whether the men work in the classroom or in administration.)
In the state of Georgia, men make up about 20 percent of public school staff. There are 22,312 men out of 113,358 teachers, according to figures from the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.
The National Catholic Educational Association reported in its 2009-2010 findings that men make up 10 percent of the professional staff in Catholic grade schools nationwide.
Male Teachers As Role Models
Catholic Schools Superintendent Diane Starkovich said her focus is on the quality of the teachers, not gender. She doesn’t know of any research showing students learn any better because the teacher is a woman or a man.
“Since we seek those teachers who can best meet the needs of our students and the schools which they serve, our hiring practices are gender-neutral,” she said in an e-mail.
Anita Nagel, the principal of Our Lady of the Assumption School, said more men teachers would be nice, but her focus is on getting the most qualified applicant.
“It is always good to have male role models for the students,” she said in an e-mail. “It is wonderful having both male teachers. Mr. Oldham teaches fourth- and fifth-grade math. It would also be nice to have another male teacher in the middle school. However, it is most important to hire the most qualified candidate.”
Nagel said she’s heard boys say that if they cannot be a baseball player, they could be a math teacher.
“(It) demonstrates the impact that Mr. O is having on our students,” she said.
Fighting The Misperceptions
Notre Dame University’s Alliance for Catholic Education is shaping future teachers for Catholic schools with its Service Through Teaching program. The teaching program works to strengthen and sustain Catholic schools.
Aaron Wall, a former middle school teacher and currently the associate director for ACE Service Through Teaching, said the lack of male teachers is the reality in Catholic and public school systems.
Part of the issue is how grade school is more often seen as a place for women teachers. “We’ve probably come a long way … with a long way to go,” he said.
The program aims to have a gender balance in its 180-student placements. There are always a few male teachers interested in working in elementary schools, he said. Many of them come to the program wanting to teach younger students after working in after school programs or have nieces or nephews at that age, he said. But the majority of male applicants want to work in high schools, he said.
Wall spent two years in an Arizona middle school through ACE. A male teacher won’t necessarily run a classroom different than a female teacher, he said.
“It’s not anything you do, it is simply being a male teacher that is a unique experience for students,” he said.
The lower pay for grade school teachers may serve as a disincentive for men. Teachers in Catholic schools usually earn less than public school teachers, but at the high school level teachers can have an opportunity to boost their income by coaching or serving as a club’s faculty advisor, he said.
Oldham said some men might feel working in a Catholic school and earning a modest amount is “emasculating” since they are supposed to be a family provider.
“I never cared about it,” he said.
The archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools does not release its salary range for elementary school teachers. But Starkovich said Catholic schoolteachers make between 80 to 85 percent of their public school counterparts.
Starkovich said another reason male teachers seem to prefer high school is it gives them an opportunity to focus on particular content. Teachers can specialize in one area of study and work within that field, she said in an e-mail.
Also, male teachers fight the perception that grade schools are a place for women, she said.
“Every one of our grade schools has male employees on staff who serve as good role models for all of the children we serve,” Starkovich said.
Back in Mr. O’s classroom, students prepared to take the math test. Oldham offered words of encouragement. “Make sure you have a sharp pencil. Make sure you are ready to rock and roll.”