Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Gender and Cohort Differences in University Students' Decisions to Become Elementary Teacher Education Majors

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Gender and Cohort Differences in University Students' Decisions to Become Elementary Teacher Education Majors

Article excerpt

From 1980 to 1988, Lynn Nielsen, one of the authors, taught second- and third-grade students in a midsized town in the Midwest. He was the only male primary teacher during that period and one of few males among all elementary teachers in the building. A laboratory school instructor, he also supervised teacher education students. He often asked the few men under his supervision how they came to choose elementary education as their university major. Over the years, he began to notice a pattern. When he asked them to describe how, as children, they thought about their lifework, they almost never described teaching elementary children as part of their goals. Their professional aspirations as children were circumscribed by traditional male occupations such as sports star, doctor, lawyer, coach, and firefighter. They often reported that they started their university experience majoring in business, the sciences, physical education, or the like and changed their major to elementary education because of an intervening experience working with children in such contexts as summer Little League coaching, a camp, or a club. Nielsen found a similar pattern of responses in his conversations with male secondary majors when he asked if they had ever considered majoring in elementary education. His inquiry was typically met with one of two responses--either shock, as if he had launched an attack on their masculinity, or a receptiveness to elementary education due to their recent field experiences in elementary settings.

To follow up on these anecdotal observations regarding how men came to choose elementary teaching as a major, Nielsen (1995) conducted an a exploratory survey among 153 sophomore elementary education students who were completing their first major field experience in spring 1994. He found that men and women elementary education students differed in three areas: the time at which they decided on this career choice, with men more frequently deciding while in college; the mediating factors that fostered an interest in teaching, with men more frequently citing prior experiences working with children as a major deciding factor; and the long-term professional aspirations each group held, with men more frequently expressing an interest in administration.

In this article, we discuss the findings of a follow-up study conducted to establish the replicability of Nielsen's (1995) findings. We used a cross-sectional survey design to examine whether other gender differences and similarities emerged or faded away as students moved through their teacher education program.

Gender Disparities in the Teaching Profession

Some clear and persistent disparities exist in the representation of males and females at various levels of the education profession. For example, in a survey of Iowa school administrators for the 1994-1995 school year, women represented 3% of superintendents, 6% of high school principals, 14% of middle-level principals, and 34% of elementary school principals (Nielsen, 1995). Data from four representative universities with strong traditions in teacher education and with memberships in the Renaissance Group had similar gender-based patterns. Two percent of early childhood majors, 11% of elementary majors, 31% of middle school majors, and 45% of secondary teacher education majors were males (Nielsen, 1995). These figures are comparable to those reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, in which men made up 15% of the elementary teaching force in 1984-1985 and 12.4% in 1987-1988 (Wood & Hoag, 1993). These figures suggest that men should be considered a group to be targeted in current efforts toward having a teaching force representing the social diversity of the larger society.

Problems arising from the absence of male teachers in the elementary classrooms have not gone unnoticed. Hansot (1993) noted a historical fear that too many women in teaching can create a feminized environment in which boys cannot prosper. …

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