ROCKPORT, Maine — After sitting at their desks to color a map of Europe’s Allied and Axis nations, four sixth-grade girls stood up.
“Ready?” one whispered.
They nodded, stood and pushed their chairs to their desks.
“Company attention!” they yelled together.
With that, Camden-Rockport Middle School social studies teacher Jim Morse hopped over.
“At ease, soldiers,” he said as he began looking through the maps. “Good job. Make sure your name, class and date are on there.”
Morse is one of the men that make up 27 percent of Maine teachers. According to data released by the National Education Association, that put Maine at No. 12 nationally in 2011 for its percentage of public school male teachers.
Topping the list was Kansas, with men accounting for 33 percent of teachers. At the bottom, Virginia’s public school teacher staff is only 17.5 percent men.
The percentage of male teachers has dropped dramatically over the last century. In 1882, 42 percent of teachers were male, according to research by Indiana University. That dropped to 21 percent in 1921 before rising and then dropping again in the 1960s.
“An influx of women into teaching is closely related to periods of industrialization and urbanization, when a wealth of new higher paying industrial jobs drew men away from teaching, leaving women to fill the void,” researcher Shaun Johnson wrote in the 2008 report, which noted that a lack of male teachers is not unique to the United States.
The report cited low pay, lack of prestige and the suspicion of men working closely with young children as prime reasons few males become teachers.
Johnson, who is now an assistant professor of elementary education at Towson University in Maryland, said that the lack of availability of jobs and the job market in more rural states may explain why there are more male teachers in these locales.
“Teaching is not on [men’s] radar in terms of a career,” he said. “But if there are few careers for them to choose from, maybe they’re more likely to choose teaching.”
Many male teachers are “career switchers,” people who have been laid off from a job in another field or men who are looking for a mid-career change.
It’s important to have men in schools, Morse said, because sometimes they’re the only male role models a child sees regularly.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to kids who have lost their fathers or their parents divorced and the father went away. They need that role model in their lives. It’s good to have a mix of the genders in a school,” he said.
Conrad Crans, 12, of Camden, loves having Mr. Morse as a teacher.
“Men teach differently because they know how boys act,” he said. “They know what you’re going through in life when you’re going through stuff.”
“And they get guy humor,” added classmate Zac Collins, 12, of Camden.
The other aspect of Morse’s class that the boys like is how much they get to move around. Morse, by his own admission, can’t sit still. As he talks to his students, he is always moving.
“Boys can’t sit still,” said Emily Pratt, a blonde girl with freckles. “So boy teachers make class active, like this.”
In the social studies classroom, students call Morse “General Morse” to keep with their World War II theme. A slip-up of simply calling him “Mr. Morse” earns a student 10 push-ups.
“This is my first year ever having a boy teacher,” Emily said. “I like it. Boys are talkative. They want to know what’s going on. I like having both — I’d like to have more boy teachers.”
Morse isn’t sure if how he teaches has anything to do with being a man.
“The way I teach is ingrained in me and my experiences. I think I teach the way I do more because I’ve been a camp counselor than because I’m a man,” he said.
Being a camp counselor is what made him realize his love for teaching children, he said. He has been teaching for 17 years.
His superintendent, William Shuttleworth, said Morse is his star teacher.
“He is awesome — one of the best teachers I have ever seen,” Shuttleworth said.
Shuttleworth doesn’t know why more women than men are drawn to teaching, but he thinks the smaller the gender gap, the better.
“I strongly believe we need more male teachers. So many kids today do not have the strong male role models in their life and boys especially need to see that men are also invested and committed to lifetime learning,” Shuttleworth said.
On any Thursday afternoon, physical education teacher Gary Spinney can be found skipping rope with first-grade girls at Camden-Rockport Elementary School.
“It’s important to have male teachers in a school. It’s good for kids to see men are nice and will care for them, not just women,” Spinney said. “Some of these boys don’t have a male in their lives — no father.”
Spinney, 65, of Rockport can sympathize.
“I was a state kid,” he said.
Spinney spent his younger days at Opportunity Farm because his parents could not take care of him.
“That made me want to be a physical education teacher. There were 45 boys and we always played sports. I went to the Army, then college. I always wanted to teach PE,” he said. “I’m living my dream.”
Anne Pooler, dean of the University of Maine’s College of Education, said there are many reasons women have dominated the teaching field since the 1800s. For one, teaching was one of the only jobs women historically could do in America.
“And you often find a schedule nicely fits a family situation for a mother. She can be home with the children when they’re growing up,” Pooler said. “A third reason has always been the salary issues where the teaching profession has not been lucrative.”
Pooler started working as a teacher in 1966 and has seen the teaching field even out a bit more, which she says is encouraging. She also has seen more women take leadership positions in schools.
Decades ago, Pooler applied for a superintendent job, which she did not get. Years later she said she ran into the man who interviewed her.
“He said, ‘I’m sorry Anne, but I could just not see a woman doing that job.’ That was in the early ’70s. It’s just what was. There have been big changes since then,” Pooler said.
Pooler doesn’t expect to see an even gender divide in school staff anytime soon. In UMaine’s education program, most of the teachers-to-be are women.
“But it’s changing today. If we are 12th in the nation as far as number of men in the classroom, I think it’s a good sign.”