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By Gitte Laasby
ELKHART -- Scott Geist doesn't start his workday by counting down the hours until he's off. And he doesn't need to calculate how much he'll earn in a day to get through it.
What counts for Geist is how many of his 23 bustling kindergarten students are smiling in a day because they learned to read a new word.
"I could have been a doctor or a lawyer just as easily. But there's not one day that I don't have a funny story to tell, not one day I don't see a kid excited to be able to read the word 'like,'" Geist said. "It gives you goose bumps once a day. I can't imagine an accountant or a lawyer getting goose bumps."
As a male kindergarten teacher, Geist is a rare and dwindling breed. Only 4 percent of the teachers at Mary Daly Elementary in Elkhart are male. Nationwide, male elementary school teachers make up 9 percent of the total. That's the lowest level in four decades, according to the National Education Association.
One explanation is the salary, the association said. It isn't enough for many men to take on a job with high demands and little prestige. For example, a kindergarten teacher in Elkhart schools starts at $32,265 a year.
"I think that to males in America, the dollar is more important and they don't necessarily want to sacrifice the dollar for their career," Geist said. "You're not going to make a million dollars teaching, or it's going to be over a 35-year period of time."
A 2006 survey by the NEA showed that 43 percent of male teachers who don't plan to teach until retirement blame low pay for their decision to quit teaching. States with higher salaries tend to have the most male teachers, the association said.
Schools would like to hire more men and work with colleges and universities to recruit men. But the pool of applicants is small and school corporations can't offer them higher salaries as incentives to teach, said Pamela Cozort, director of personnel with Elkhart Community Schools.
"You get into some contractual issues if you're offering people more money because they're one group. It's certainly not equitable in that case," Cozort said. "What's the tougher sell is getting them into the school of education in the first place. In this day and age, the career opportunities are so much more varied than in the past."
Traditionally, Elkhart schools have had more male teachers at the secondary than elementary level, perhaps because there's a stigma associated with teaching young kids, Cozort said, adding that the perception is changing.
Kathryn Meyer Reimer, education professor at Goshen College, said sociological factors may contribute to men choosing other areas of education.
"Men have tended to move into administration, which pays higher and also has more power and decision-making ability," she said.
But at a time when the divorce rate hovers around 50 percent and many students come from single-parent families, it's beneficial for children to have male teachers, one parent said.
"I think it's important for boys, certainly, to have male teachers as role models," said Heather Erekson, a parent of four children, including fifth-graders Emily and Will at Trinity Lutheran School. "I have twins that are 11. They have a male teacher and they very much enjoy him. I think they get a different perspective on life."
Children also open up to new perspectives when they have teachers who are different from them, Meyer Reimer said.
Male teachers might influence boys to think about teaching as a career, Elkhart's Cozort said, but the choice to become a teacher is based on a passion for kids and learning -- the kind of passion that Geist has.
"I don't have a lot of money, but I have a fun time with my job every day," Geist said. "I don't think every career, you can really go out there and have fun every day."
Contact Gitte Laasby at firstname.lastname@example.org.