Oct. 20, 2008 — -- 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."
But do young children really notice that there is a dearth of men in school? "Children are no dummies," says Nelson. "When they see no men in a school, they get a message. And that message is that men don't care or men don't belong here."
That's a message Jonathan Maiden never wants the kids in his class to believe. And while he may be part of a dying breed, he's inspired and determined to realize his dreams.
"When I started this job, I knew I wasn't going to make a lot of money. Do I want a million dollars? Yeah! But it's not that important to me," he said.
"Just seeing the positive impact that I'm making on these children on a day-to-day basis, the change that I see during the school year. I mean, that's my million dollars right there."
According to research, the presence of a male teacher in the classroom has an impact not only on boys' self-esteem but also on their academic performance. One recent British study from the Training and Development Agency for Schools found that the presence of a male teacher in the classroom for a year closed the achievement gap significantly between boys and girls, especially in English and social studies, subjects that girls tend to do better in than boys.
If your child's school is short on male teachers, there are several ways parents can help.
Fathers can often step in to fill the void, volunteering in the classroom, joining the PTA and showing their kids that they value the school.
Talking about the important job teachers do and encouraging boys from an early age to consider a career in education is another easy and critical way to change the often negative attitude society has toward male teachers.
Provide ways for boys to interact with young children -- either as mentors or baby sitters -- and praise their nurturing side. If your child does have a male teacher, go out of your way to make him feel welcome.
And, most important, advocate for increased pay for all teachers. It's no coincidence that Michigan -- which boasts the highest teacher salaries -- also has the highest percentage of men in its schools.