At 6 feet 5 inches tall and nearly 300 pounds, Jonathan Maiden of Lexington, Ky., is hardly the image that comes to mind of a typical preschool teacher. But ever since his childhood spent on Chicago's South Side, working with young children has been a calling for this father of two.
"My mom was a teacher. I come from a long line of teachers. Grandmother's a teacher. All my aunts and uncles are teachers. My sister's a teacher. So it was only fitting that I became a teacher as well," Maiden said, smiling.
Maiden studied child development in college and got a master's degree in teaching. He put his experience with young children to good use at an early education program in Lexington, where he works primarily with preschool kids.
The children's love of this big, playful, strong man is evident from the minute one walks into his classroom. Tiring and demanding as the job may be, Maiden treasures his role.
"When you see a child actually writing their name and you taught them that, I mean, it's the best feeling in the world," Maiden said.
But Maiden is a rarity. The number of male teachers in the United States is at a 40-year low. Out of the 3 million teachers in the United States, only one-quarter are men, according the National Education Association.
"Right now, we know that there's about 4 to 5 percent men in early education, about 9 percent in elementary education. And in high schools, we have about 14 percent," said Bryan Nelson, the founder of MenTeach.org, a nonprofit organization working to increase number of men working in schools.
Nelson cites three main reasons for the absence of male teachers.
"The first reason is stereotypes. People believe men aren't nurturing. The second reason is fear of accusations of abuse. People are afraid men are going to harm children. And the third reason is low status, low pay," he said.
For Maiden, the most challenging hurdle has been gender bias, which drove him from several previous jobs. He recalls very clearly the hurtful reactions he often gets from parents the first time they see him with young kids.
"I know they're thinking, 'He must be a predator or something. He must be some type of pedophile. Why is he in here? He should be working for the city, dumping trash, a janitor or something of that nature,'" Maiden said.
According to Nelson, the idea that children are at risk around male teachers is simply wrong.
"The data shows that a child is more likely to be harmed by somebody in their home than they are by somebody in their schools, so children are safe with their teachers," Nelson said. "That's not to say that abuse doesn't ever happen. It does, and it's terrible when it happens, but the scrutiny we have of men teachers is over and above what it really should be."
Both Maiden and Nelson agree that the need for male role models is particularly acute in communities with large numbers of single-parent homes, but all kids benefit by having men in the classroom.
"We need more male teachers just to be a role model to the children that we're serving," said Maiden. "It's very important that we're there guiding those children every step of the way, giving them positive examples, showing them how a man interacts, how a man carries himself and what to expect from a man."