Lisa Kiner, a seventh grade language arts teacher at Richfield Middle School, counts grammar among her favorite subjects to teach. "Grammar is almost mathematical," she said. "It's fun to teach because so many kids are surprised at how well they can understand it. Kids who never think they are good in English suddenly find themselves participating."

Just as some kids excel in reading and others excel at math, all students, Kiner said, relate to teachers in different ways. "Kids need to be exposed to both male and female teachers. I think it's really important that students see both sexes working in a school. They need to see that men can be English teachers and women can be science teachers. They need to know that they can't treat men and women differently, that they have to behave in a respectful manner to both."

Male teachers are becoming more of a rarity. In the 2005-06 school year, the Minnesota Department of Education reported just 29 percent of the state's full-time public school teachers were men. According to National Education Association (NEA) data, the situation nationally is even more dire: The number of male teachers across the country is at a 40-year low with men accounting for just 25 percent of the nation's 3 million teachers.

Where are the men?
Kiner attributed the decline in male teachers to a few factors, in particular, low salaries. She noted, too, that men are more likely to "move up," that is, to teach older students. "I think it's a prestige thing, especially if they are coaches," she said. "They want to coach varsity sports, so they are always moving up to the high school ... [and] the salary probably turns a lot of men away."

Judy Schaubach, president of Education Minnesota, the state's largest teachers' union, agrees. "I think the lack of male teachers truly does have to do with salary," she said. "Minnesota had always been near the top when it came teachers' salaries, but not anymore." In 2004-05, that national average, according to the NEA, was $47,674. That same year, Minnesota's average teacher salary was $46,906.  

"It used to be that male teachers got paid more than their female counterparts if they were head of the household. It used to be that women had to quit their teaching jobs if they got pregnant. We fought hard to get rid of those antiquated ideas," Schaubach said.

"We were doing quite well. In 1980, the state's percentage of female teachers was 57. That's as close as we've ever come to a gender balance in Minnesota."

Fewer benefits, more stress
It's not just salary that's lagging behind other professions. According to Schaubach, the teaching jobs that offer good benefits are a thing of the past. "Co-pays are going up everywhere and it's worse in small districts. In fact, six districts have dropped health coverage all together," she said. Stress is a factor that can make teaching a less than attractive career. Class sizes are increasing. High stakes testing requires extra record keeping. Budget cuts mean duties once performed by paraprofessionals, like lunch patrol and detention supervision, are now performed by teachers during their prep hours.

Schaubach said that because of budget cuts and resulting teacher layoffs, teachers with certain licensures are hard to find. "If salaries don't increase and class sizes don't decrease in the next 10 years, we will have a serious teacher shortage," she predicted. And she worries about teacher burnout. "Men tend to walk away whereas women tend to stay, try and make do," she noted. "Maybe it's the way we're wired. Maybe it's a caretaker mentality."

Inspired to teach
Yet ask a teacher why she chose education, and you won't hear her say summer vacation, Schaubach said. "Again and again," she said, "teachers tell me they went into teaching because they were inspired by a former teacher who really touched their lives. They say they really care about kids, they say they want to make a difference."

Lisa Kiner knew she'd be a good teacher, even though she tried to fight the feeling. "The lack of money and prestige were definite turn offs," she admitted. She initially chose to major in psychology, then followed her heart and switched to teaching. This year marks Kiner's eighth in the profession.

It was, she said, the right choice. "I like the noise of teaching. I like both the predictability and the unpredictability of my days. I get to be active, chatty, spontaneous. I think kids are a hoot. I like sharing what I've learned. I like the challenge of keeping up-to-date with all there is to know. When I stop to think about it, teaching really does hit on most of my talents and that makes me both happy and proud," she said.

Kiner counts the bureaucracy of teaching and the stress of budget cuts as negatives. But for her, there are more positives. "Do I want to stay in teaching? Yes, but I wouldn't have said that a year ago. It was a tough year," she confessed. "But that's the thing about teaching. You can have a bad year, but you always get to start over. Every year, you have an opportunity to redeem yourself."

Musical mission
Marilyn Bengtson will be starting over next year. After 36 years as a teacher, she will retire in the spring. She teaches choir in Long Prairie, a rural community in central Minnesota. Most of her day is spent at the high school, but she also teaches middle-school choir. "I probably wouldn't have stayed in teaching for so long if I didn't teach music," she said. "I don't have the paperwork that other teachers deal with, but I do have pressure. Performance-based classes are assessed at a competition by a judge or at a concert where the public gets to decide whether you're worth your salt." Bengtson's co-choir teacher at the high school is a man, and while she says her school's staff now feels equally divided between the genders, it wasn't always so.

"It used to be that there were so many more men than women teaching in the high school," she said. "I think a lot of men teach so they can coach," she added. "I've seen principals hire coaches who happen to be teachers. You'd hope it worked the other way around." Bengtson cited salaries as a reason fewer men choose to teach. Ironically, though, it was a male teacher who inspired her career choice. "Music was my favorite subject and my music teacher was a real influence in my life," she said. "He suggested I be a music teacher. It made sense. It was easy to see that music would be a path I followed."

Looking back over her career, Bengtson said she'd probably enter teaching all over again. "The teaching life suited me," she said. "As a parent, I loved having the same vacation time as my kids, and I loved having my kids as students. And I got to do something I love everyday-music."

Salary's a concern
Latanya Daniels also thinks she made the right choice by going into education. A sixth-year teacher at Folwell Middle School in Minneapolis, she originally attended college to study engineering. While a student, however, she worked at the Connection Center, a Minneapolis support school for kids who'd dropped out. She felt good about the work she did there and after graduating, went straight on to earn a master's degree in education and start teaching. Since then, she's earned a specialist degree in educational leadership with thoughts of going into administration. In the private sector, a woman with Daniels' background would pull in good money. Is salary a concern for her? "Sometimes it bothers me," she confessed. "When I started, I actually considered leaving. I was being recruited as a pharmaceutical sales representative, but I didn't do it."

After four years as a math teacher, she is now a teacher on special assignment. She mentors other teachers in her building and helps implement new curriculum programs.

The gender disparity among teachers in her school is noticeable. She counted seven full-time male classroom teachers to 15 full-time female classroom teachers. What does she think keeps men away from the classroom? Salary.

"Especially for African American men," she said, "salary is a concern. If they are going to go to college, they want to earn money. They want to be accountants, engineers, MBAs. In my social circle alone, the men half my age are earning $65-75,000. Teaching won't give them that. It does come down to salary."

"How I make up for it, how I compensate myself," she said, "is that I love what I do. My excitement for the job comes from the amount of passion I have for what I'm doing. At the end of the day, I know I have exceeded my expectations and that maintains my enthusiasm."

Freelance writer Kelly Westhoff is a former 8th grade teacher.