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Male and Female Teachers in Elementary Schools: An Ecological Analysis

by Patrick C. Lee - 1973

The questions which this essay shall raise and try to answer are these: Why are the vast majority of elementary teachers women? What are the contextually imposed constraints upon the sex of the teacher as an operational component of classroom life? What are the consequences of the sex of the teacher in context, particularly the unanticipated consequences?

In the 1970-1971 school year, 85 percent of public elementary school teachers were women, down less than 2 percent from 1959-1960.1 While many educators might yawn at such a statistic, this author has counted approximately twenty articles in professional journals over the last four years which have considered this phenomenon, often with a growing sense of alarm. This small but vocal body of commentary maintains that elementary schools are "feminized," that female teachers are primarily responsible for the feminization of schools, that this sex imbalance has detrimental effects on young school children, particularly boys, and that corrective measures must be taken before further harm is done. Different authors have prescribed different solutions, for example, changing teachers' sex-linked expectations of children's behavior,2 segregation of children by sex,3 and delaying the entry of boys into school.4 But the solution most frequently offered is that male teachers should be introduced into the early elementary grades in increasing numbers in order to restore sex-role balance to the schools.5

These observers have not, for the most part, developed elaborate conceptualizations of their concern, but what they have offered is a simple formula: the characteristics of elementary schools correspond with, and are often precisely the same as, those characteristics ordinarily associated with the female sex role in our society. A look at Table I serves to confirm this correspondence, as well as to underscore how little intersection there is between school characteristics and the typical sex-role behavior of young boys. This listing of characteristics does not pretend to be exhaustive. It is presented simply for the purpose of illustrating the argument.


A Comparison of Some School Characteristics with Sex-Role Characteristics of American Girls and Boys

Characteristics of School6

Politeness, neatness, obedience, and cleanliness are promoted.

Strong emphasis on language and symbols. De-emphasis on things.

Speaking is discouraged, listening is encouraged. Learning is sedentary and passive, not active.

Teacher is dominant figure.

Strategies for figuring out the teacher offer more success than strategies for learning.

Characteristics of Girls and Boys7

Girls: Polite, tactful, neat, conforming.

Boys: Physically aggressive.

Girls: Verbally competent.

Boys: Object-oriented, competent in physical activities.

Girls: Submissive, passive, dependent.

Boys: Independent, aggressive, strong interest in gross motor behavior.

Girls: Submissive.

Boys: Dominant, aggressive.

Girls: Person-oriented, affiliative.

Boys: Object-oriented.

If we do not accept the argument at face value, but break it down into its component parts, we are left with three pieces of datum:

1. There is an extremely high percentage of female teachers at the elementary grade level.

2. Elementary schools appear to promote and favor passive, docile, and teacher-centered behaviors on the part of children.

3. These behaviors are included in the traditional sex-role repertoire of girls, but are largely alien to the boy’s repertoire of sex-typed behaviors.

It is tempting to string these pieces of circumstantial evidence into a simple cause and effect sequence. Female teachers create femininized schools, which, ipso facto, become congenial settings for girls and conflict-ridden settings for boys. But there are other ways of stringing the pieces which make equally good sense, for example: schools presume that passive and docile children are disposed toward learning and easy to manage. For this reason, schools hire women who, because of their own sex-role socialization, are themselves more manage able than men and more likely to transmit such attitudes to children. The transmission of these attitudes apparently evokes resistance from young boys and cooperation from girls. With some imagination the various pieces could probably be combined in other ways as well.

What is needed is a systematic and coherent analysis of sex of teachers within the context of the school as an institution. As a model for such an analysis, we refer to the ecological investigations of schools done by researchers like Jack son8 and Sarason.9 These investigators, while their reportage may at times appear to be discursive, are guided by a fairly consistent ecological model. First, they identify and describe a persistent regularity in the school, in this case the female sex of most teachers. Then they place the target phenomenon into context in several different ways. It can be placed in contemporaneous context, that is, considered as it interacts with other salient variables in its surroundings. The phenomenon can also be considered as an effect, that is, in terms of which variables have caused it and sustain it as a regularly occurring event. Finally, it can be conceptualized as phenomenon-as-cause, that is, in terms of its consequences, particularly its unanticipated consequences. The value of this approach, as Jackson and Sarason have found, is that it preserves the multivariate quality of human experience while imposing some degree of rigor upon the investigative method. Moreover, if one's intent is to change the target regularity, it identifies other regularities which will either resist or facilitate the proposed change.

Given that seventeen out of every twenty elementary school teachers are women, it would seem fair to view the female sex of teachers as a regular aspect of classroom life. Moreover, since the teacher is the single most important per son in the classroom's ecosystem, and since sex-role is a nuclear component of human personality,10 there would seem to be considerable value in examining sex of teacher as an ecological phenomenon. The questions which this essay shall raise and try to answer are these: Why are the vast majority of elementary teachers women? What are the contextually imposed constraints upon the sex of the teacher as an operational component of classroom life? What are the consequences of the sex of the teacher in context, particularly the unanticipated consequences?


There seem to be three causes for the current preponderance of female teachers at the primary grades, one historical cause and two contemporary sustaining causes.

The United States has a tradition of using women as teachers of young children. The "schoolmarm" became normative during the latter half of the nineteenth century because, at that time, it was generally believed that women understood and managed children better than men did. Since women spent so much time with young children, it followed that they would be better prepared to introduce them to the first rigors of formal learning. With the advent of graded classes, it was possible to assign women as teachers of young children, while reserving men for the more difficult disciplinary work with older children. Moreover, in those Victorian days women were believed to have better moral character than men, thus having a more uplifting influence during the impressionable years of early childhood. While these sentiments provided the philosophical justification for using women at the early grades, the American Civil War provided the teaching jobs. As men went off to war, often never to teach again, state education offices began to issue reports marveling at the increased number of female teachers. These reports continued to be published over the decades, until toward the end of the century, it was accepted as doctrine that "for this occupation, woman is endowed with peculiar faculties. In childhood the intellectual faculties are but partially developed—the affections much more fully. At that early age the affections are the key of the whole being. The female teacher readily possesses herself of that key, and thus having access to the heart, the mind is soon reached and operated upon."11

Clausen12 and Bagford13 have underscored the depth of this tradition, now about a century old, by noting that people reflexively refer to elementary teachers with the feminine pronoun "she," although the masculine form "he" is always used when referring to human beings of unspecified sex. Evidently, women have come to have proprietary rights in the area of elementary teaching, so much so that the occasional male elementary teacher, especially if he teaches at the earliest grades, is viewed as an interloper at best and is often suspected of deviance.

A brief reading of first hand reports written by male teachers of young children illustrates clearly why there are so few men teaching at the primary grades. Arnold,14 for example, noted that the parents of his pupils questioned the appropriateness of his being a kindergarten teacher, and Murgatroyd15 recounted his experience of being rebuffed and regarded "as not quite normal" for wanting to teach first graders. Johnston,16 a kindergarten teacher, claimed that "people . . . began to wonder about my mental stability, academic ability, moral character—or all three." Triplett,17 in interviewing several male kindergarten-and first grade teachers, found that they felt there was a "stigma attached to men working in elementary schools," which Nolte18 aptly labeled "the Ichabod Crane stigma." Wilson, et al.,19 in discussing the general absence of male teachers in the first grade, suggested that they "are suspected of something people aren't supposed to talk about in our society—homosexuality," and Burtt20 mentioned that female teachers responded with "humorous skepticism" when told that a male teacher would join the staff of a day nursery school. The present author, whose primary interest is in early childhood education, has repeatedly had feedback similar to the above from male teachers, and experienced some of it himself during a five week stint as a substitute nursery school teacher. It seems clear that widespread attitudes such as these would act as a deterrent to male teachers moving toward the early primary grades, unless they be rather impervious to social innuendo.

They also have to be impervious to the low salary and prestige of the elementary teacher, this being the third reason for the small number of men at the primary grades. As Clausen21 noted, "elementary teaching is a highly respectable, but not a highly respected, occupation," and this is reflected in the generally low wages with which society chooses to compensate teachers for their work. Several other authors have commented recently on the poor pay, poor working conditions, and negative image associated with elementary teaching, and that these are hardly calculated to attract ambitious and competent professionals, whether they be men or women.22 According to statistics compiled by the NBA Re search Division,23 secondary teachers made an average of $550 more than elementary teachers during 1970-1971. During 1971-1972, the average difference was $595, indicating that the gap was not closing. This salary difference, coupled with the higher prestige of secondary teaching, is probably a primary reason for so few men choosing elementary over secondary positions. When one looks, however, at the differences in salaries between teaching and non-teaching jobs, one begins to question why men would go into teaching at all. In 1970-1971, the average starting salary for male teachers with the bachelor's degree was $6,847, while the average starting salary for male college graduates in other occupations was $9,361, a difference of 37 percent.24 Clearly, the monetary incentives for teaching at any level are not outstanding, and teaching at the elementary level involves even greater financial sacrifice.

In summary, it would seem that the basic causes of the predominance of female teachers at the elementary grades are first, that there is a tradition which holds them to be more appropriate than men as teachers of young children; second, that this tradition is sufficiently long-lived that, unless one delves into history, it seems always to have been this way; third, there is no stigma or loss of prestige attached to their working with young children—on the contrary, it is popularly considered to be quite natural; and fourth, that women are, at this time, unable to command wages at parity with men, which provides the educational enterprise with financial incentive to continue hiring female teachers.


As mentioned above, an adequate analysis of sex of teacher requires that it be appreciated in its proper context. This would involve some analysis of the school as an institution and of society's attitudes about sex-role identity and socialization. There appear to be three sets of limiting conditions on the teacher's classroom behavior which touch on this matter: those imposed by the school as an institution, those incorporated in the teacher's sex-role identification, and those imposed by the emerging sex-role identities of school children.

The first condition, the objectives, structure, and workings of the school as an institution, suggests that, rather than ask if the schools have been feminized by female teachers, it might make better sense to ask if teachers (female and male) have been "schooled." In other words, the school socializes its personnel to suit its own functions—this places severe constraints on the behavioral options of teachers, whether they be men or women, and may account for much of what recent commentators have called the "feminization" of the schools. The second condition, sex-role identity, refers to an end point of socialization, which differentiates specifically between most biological males and females. Male and female teachers, like anyone else, have themselves undergone socialization to sex-role identifications, which often results in observable differences in behavior under the same conditions. What is being suggested here is that, within the limited range of behavioral options imposed by institutional constraints, male and female teachers may behave in critically different ways. This is largely an empirical question and evidence related to it will be presented below. Finally, there is the condition imposed by children's sex roles. The evidence is quite clear that boys and girls are well differentiated into separate sex-role tracks at least by five to seven years of age, and probably even younger.25 The importance of this consideration is that to the degree that the school or teacher favor female over male sex-typed characteristics, they shall promote conflict with (and within) boys, and procure cooperation from girls. Moreover, the short- and long-term effect for boys and girls is more complex than it appears to be on the surface.

There are two realities about elementary schools and a third about the teaching profession which have a profound effect upon the teacher's attitudes toward classroom behavior. The first reality is that, since we have universal, compulsory, publicly supported education in the United States, the schools have no control over the selection of their clients (students), nor do their clients have any choice about attending schools.26 Even in the case of private schools, the client often has no choice in the matter—his parents decide which school he'll attend. In this sense, schools begin to resemble some other institutions, such as prisons and public mental hospitals—what Goffman has described as "total institutions."27 Such institutions cannot screen their membership so as to admit only those who show promise of positive response to the institutional folkways, nor can they assume that their clients desire to participate in the institution. The school, in other words, is required by law to pursue specified educational and custodial objectives with clients whom it may not favor and who in turn may have less than enthusiastic attitudes toward school. For this reason, pupil control is a salient aspect of school life, since teachers are the on-line socializing agents of the school, they are expected to impart the disciplines and regulations which are required for adjustment to institutional life. This indoctrination of pupils to institutional routines begins, evidently, as early as nursery school.28 Thus teachers typically promote docile, compliant, obedient, quiet, and subdued behaviors and attitudes on the part of pupils and vigorously oppose any departure from this basically passive stance. They represent the school and the school demands compliance, this presumably being the only way it can preserve order and achieve objectives with a non-voluntary clientele.29

A second fact of institutional life is that schools are organized in terms of grade levels. What this means to the teacher in concrete terms is that she receives a group of children in September, moves them through two semesters of curricular material, and delivers them to the next grade in June. She constantly thinks in terms of covering a prescribed amount of material in a fixed period of time. This requires rather strict adherence to schedules and a quick and unmistakable socialization of children to an attitude of respect and obeisance to the schedule.30 The conscientious teacher, of course, makes every effort to insure that the children learn enough to be prepared for the next grade, but for many students and teachers learning is often subordinated to covering the year's curriculum. Again, these pressures require the teacher to keep the children in a receptive, passive, and compliant posture. She really cannot afford, in a sharply graded system, to let children move at individual rates; she feels she must control their movement and uses the schedule as a prod to enhance, and an index to measure, the efficacy of her control techniques.

A third factor is derived from the nature of the teaching profession. Unlike other professions, for example, medicine, law, and architecture, teachers do not move through gradual steps of apprenticeship and responsibility. The new teacher, after a relatively brief academic preparation, walks into a classroom and is expected to be a fully functioning professional. "We can hardly speak of career progression where, as in teaching, a brand new teacher can replace, without disruption, someone who has taught for forty years."31 Once they start working, teachers receive amazingly little instrumental help. Generally they spend about two years working toward a teaching style of professional caliber in isolation from other adults.32 Managing twenty-five to thirty children in one fell swoop, and doing it essentially on one's own, probably makes for two results. In the young teacher, there is likely to be a considerable amount of self-doubt and anxiety. As Fuller33 has observed, inexperienced teachers are concerned primarily with their own adequacy and only secondarily with how children learn. The anxiety probably encourages the young teacher to be overly rigid in her insistence upon control and adherence to the schedule. This is presumably the only way she can insure the orderly and predictable movement of twenty-five children through their curriculum and, simultaneously, of herself through the trial and error of beginning teaching. For the older, more experienced teacher, this early baptism by fire has probably made for conservative attitudes toward change once she has mastered, through enormous personal investment, the art of teaching.34 She will not easily abandon those elements of structure which got her through the chaos of her first months and the uncertainty of her first years in the classroom. Moreover, she will be inclined to judge the adequacy of new teachers in terms of their ability to maintain control of their classes, and she will probably evaluate other school personnel, such as counselors and administrators, in terms of their contribution to the maintenance of her hard earned authority.35

Consideration of institutional and professional factors such as the above begins to place the variable of teacher sex into context. It is too simple to say that schools have too many female teachers and that the proof of this is that schools promote values and standards of behavior ordinarily associated with the female sex role. The schools may indeed have too many female teachers, but other reasons will have to be found to support this argument. Apparently, the school as an institution socializes teachers, irrespective of sex, to place a high premium on pupil control. Moreover, the step from teacher training to full professional performance is so sudden that teachers develop primary concerns about classroom control and personal adequacy, and may take several years to become skillful in the facilitation of children's learning.36 Teachers become, in the most pejorative sense of both terms, "schooled" and "professionalized." The amazing side of all this is that so many teachers actually become effective, conscientious, and humane practitioners of the art of teaching.

There is a modest amount of evidence indicating that teachers of different sex behave differently in the classroom, despite the homogenizing effect of institutional constraints. There is also some evidence that sex of teacher serves as a constraint upon the imitative behavior of children.

Of the few studies done on differences between male and female elementary teachers, most have focused on outcome variables, for example, school grades37 and achievement test scores,38 and have not generally found significant differences. It may be that the institutional effect washes out such outcome differences or that they are essentially irrelevant to sex of teacher. Outcome studies, more over, make little sense from a research strategy point of view. In an under-re searched area, such as the present one, first priority should be placed on the identification of process differences between male and female teachers, and these latter should be suggestive of outcomes which are worth investigating.

Some authors have written impressionistic reports of process differences and generally have noticed that male teachers tolerate more noise39 and rougher play40 on the part of children, are themselves more aggressive and physical than female teachers,41 promote more male-typed activities,42 and tend to resist socialization to standard classroom procedures.43 Some of these impressions have been substantiated by two carefully executed observational studies of teacher behaviors. Tolbert44 observed fourth, fifth, and sixth grade teachers, and although he found no significant differences between male and female teachers for the most part, he did find that male teachers promoted significantly more physical play, and that female teachers made more extensive use of community resources to supplement the school curriculum. Lee and Wolinsky,45 who observed teachers from preschool through second grade settings, found more extensive differences in their sample of teachers. They found that male teachers assigned leader ship positions to boys about four times as often as to girls, and that female teachers designated girls as leaders twice as often as boys; that female teachers are about twice as evaluative of children as male teachers are (that is, pooled approvals and disapprovals); that female teachers disapprove of boys more often than they approve of them, while the opposite tendency holds for girls; that male teachers are equally approving and disapproving of boys, while they hardly evaluate girls at all; and that male teachers were inclined to relate to male sex-typed activities, while female teachers focused on "neutral" activities.

The above studies seem to indicate that, while male and female teachers be have rather differently in the earlier grades (kindergarten through second), their behaviors tend to converge in the middle to late elementary grades (fourth through sixth). This may be due to the increasing structure one ordinarily finds in higher grades. To put it in other words, the more severe the institutional constraints on teacher behavior, the less manifest are sex-role constraints. It would seem that sex of teacher is a more significant operational aspect of classroom ecology in the earliest grades and that, if male teachers were to be introduced into the elementary school, they would have greatest impact at these grades. Ironically, it is the earliest grades which have the highest proportion of female teachers and are the least attractive to male teachers. One other point should be made: when they make a difference, male teachers seem to create a classroom atmosphere more congenial to young boys than female teachers do. That is to say, when institutional constraints are less powerful, as in the early grades, there appears to be an interaction between sex of teacher and sex of child. This interaction is manifest on the child's side through his selective display of imitative behavior.


Sex of teacher apparently places constraints on the imitative behavior of children. That is, children are inclined to imitate only teachers of the same sex, although there are some interesting qualifications to this general rule. Portuges and Feshbach,46 for example, found that third and fourth grade girls imitated filmed female teacher models significantly more than boys did. They also found that there was a significant positive correlation between dependency and imitation in middle-class boys, suggesting that only dependent boys are inclined to imitate female teachers. Unfortunately, no male teacher models were used to test the converse effect, but in another study Madsen47 investigated the modeling value of male teachers for nursery school children. He found that young boys imitated the aggressive behavior of familiar male teachers significantly more than girls did. But he also found that girls were instigated to more non-imitative aggression than boys; that is, girls translated their aggressive actions into more "feminine" forms. Instead of punching, hitting, and throwing a Bobo Doll, they pushed, shoved, batted, slapped, pinched, and squashed it.

One should be cautious in making too much of these studies,48 but what they suggest is that children from nursery school through fourth grade tend not to imitate opposite sex teachers in the absence of either mitigating circumstances (excessively dependent boys) or behavioral adjustments (girls' non-imitative aggression). Apparently children in this age range have already been socialized to an awareness that opposite sex teachers are generally regarded as inappropriate models. Thus even within institutional constraints, sex of teacher places further constraints on the behavioral options of young children.

The discussion in the previous section indicated that, where institutional constraints permit it, both teachers and children seem to be locked into sex-typed behavioral patterns. That is, teachers appear to bias classroom conditions to ward children of the same sex, while children seem to imitate teachers of the same sex. This uncanny chemistry serves to underscore the seriousness of sex-role identity for both adults and children in our society. As Kagan49 has pointed out, although sex role is only one aspect of a person's identity, one cannot be indifferent to this dimension of personality, and one has a need to strive for congruence between biological sex and sex-role identity. Moreover, this need appears to be as operative in the classroom as anywhere else and it should come as no surprise that children will evaluate schools to the degree that they facilitate or impede development in the area of sex-role identification as well as in other areas.

This would seem to present different problems for boys and girls. The school as an institution requires the boy to assume a passive and docile stance which is incompatible with his sex-role strivings. The female teacher, who in seventeen out of twenty instances delivers the institutional message to the boy, is not viewed as an appropriate model for imitation. Thus the potential for incompatibility, or even open conflict, between boys and schools is considerable. The opposite potential seems to hold for young girls. The school, the female teacher, and her own sex-role socialization consistently foster passivity and dependence in the young girl. Thus the potential for cooperative responses from girls is considerable. However, to the degree that habitual docility is incompatible with competent and autonomous functioning, the apparent peace among girls, schools, and teachers may ultimately prove counterproductive to the typical girl's overall development.

Several studies have found that, even in the earliest grades, female teachers are in essential collaboration with institutional objectives and that they reinforce and approve of female sex-typed behaviors in both boys and girls. La Belle and Rust50 found that approximately half of teacher-generated control responses were designed specifically to indoctrinate children to the workings of the school system; and that another one-third of teachers' controlling behavior was based on personal preference. Interestingly enough, there was a close correspondence between the teachers' own preferences and the institutional objectives. This was at the nursery school level. In another study of nursery school children, Fagot and Patterson51 identified "sex-preferred" behaviors of boys and girls and found that the teachers (all female) overwhelmingly reinforced female-preferred behaviors in both boys and girls. Levitin and Chananie52 presented hypothetical situations to forty first and second grade female teachers and found that they significantly approved of dependent rather than aggressive behavior in children, irrespective of the child's sex. The intriguing aspect of this study, however, was that the teachers liked the aggressive boys as much as the dependent boys, whereas they disliked aggressive girls most of all. That is, the teachers differentiated between their professional feelings (approval) and personal feelings (liking) for boys, but they were consistent for girls. Girls, in effect, were locked into their sex role, whereas boys were allowed some latitude.

If we can assume that institutional constraints at any grade are more or less constant; that female teachers are in essential collaboration with the institution in that they promote passive behavior in both boys and girls; and that only same sex teachers are viewed by children as appropriate models for imitation, then Figure 1 would depict the amount of potential schools have for evoking resistance or cooperation from boys and girls. The diagonally stripped areas indicate there is great potential for conflict between boys and schools and the open areas indicate considerable potential for cooperation between girls and schools. The following review of the relationships between children and their schools indicates that this potential has been largely realized.



As I have indicated, the sex role of students apparently places rather consistent constraints up on the school's capacity to respond to them, both officially and unofficially. That is, the school as a system makes a clear differentiation between most boys and most girls, reserving the bulk of its punishments for boys and most of its re wards for girls. The school has three official avenues for communicating its displeasure to children, poor marks, repeating grades, and referral, and one unofficial avenue, teacher disapproval. A review of the relevant literature indicates that boys receive the lion's share of the school's official and unofficial disapproval.

McCandless, Roberts, and Starnes,53 for example, in a study of 443 seventh grade children, found that boys received significantly lower grades than girls, al though they did not differ on I.Q. test performance. Arnold54 compiled the grades of 1,112 fifth and sixth grade children and also found that boys received significantly lower grades. Oetzel55 reviewed a vast number of studies on sex differences in cognitive abilities and found that girls were generally superior to boys on tests of grammar, spelling, reading, counting, and on school grades as well. The interesting aspect of Oetzel's review is that girls achieved in those areas which teachers translate into specific school tasks, whereas boys were inclined to excel in areas not incorporated into elementary school tasks, such as spatial, analytic, and arithmetic reasoning.

A nationwide survey56 of 402 schools on their rates of promotion from first to second grade yielded these figures: 73.2 percent reported higher rates for girls, 23.6 percent reported no difference, and only 3.2 percent had higher promotion rates for boys. Bentzen57 studied referral patterns in the elementary school sys tem of a Maryland county over a school year. She found that, of 919 referrals, 628 were boys; that is, two boys were referred for every girl. The highest number of referrals was in first grade, where boys were referred three times as often as girls, and eleven times as often as girls (i.e., 33 to 3) for reasons of "social and emotional immaturity."58 Evidently boys do not fit into the classroom as well as girls, and this is reflected in the teacher's inclination to send them out of the classroom.

Studies of teacher disapproval have described essentially the same pattern. Meyer and Thompson59 observed three sixth grade female teachers for ninety hours and found that boys received significantly more disapproval contacts from them than girls did. Davidson and Lang60 found that fourth, fifth, and sixth grade teachers (one man, nine women) gave girls higher behavior ratings than boys and tended to view girls as higher academic achievers. In a fascinating study on beginning reading, McNeil61 followed a group of ninety-three children who had received special programmed instruction in reading in kindergarten. At the end of the special program the boys were performing significantly better than the girls. After four months of first grade reading instruction with female teachers, the girls were performing significantly better. After having effected this neat reversal, the teachers rated the boys significantly lower than the girls on readiness and motivation for reading.

Evidently, none of this was lost on the children. McNeil interviewed his first graders and found that they perceived boys as receiving more negative comments than girls and as having less opportunity to read. Meyer and Thompson's sixth graders perceived boys as receiving more disapproval than girls did, and Davidson and Lang's girls saw the teacher as feeling more favorably toward them than the boys did. All of these differences were statistically significant. Meyer and Thompson concluded that female teachers should recognize that it is normal for boys to be more aggressive and outgoing than girls; Davidson and Lang suggested that there should be more male teachers in the primary grades; and McNeil concluded, in effect, that it might be better to keep boys away from teachers altogether.

While the school is inflicting its punishments on boys, it is consistently re warding girls in the form of higher grades, promotion, non-referral, and informal teacher approval. It would seem that this uneven distribution of reinforcements would set off two different chain reactions which are sex-linked. Boys are often trapped into a cycle of punishment, resistance, and further punishment, while girls commonly are seduced, through rewards, into increasing cooperation with the system. Both boys and girls can crack their respective cycles only through compromising their sex-role identity. Since the compromise for boys involves school generated rewards, they often do so, but not without triggering inner conflict (and occasional outer conflict with their male peers). Since the compromise for girls would involve loss of approval, there appears to be little incentive for their resisting the system. It is important to keep in mind that all this is not happening outside the ken of the students. While they may not be aware of the elaborate behavioral traps the system creates for them, they are conscious of unequal distribution of system-based rewards. And, as might be expected, they respond in kind.

Sex role evidently places constraints on students' ability to respond to school. In her examination of play sessions and projective stories of fourth grade children, Minuchin62 found that girls strove for adult approval and resolved tensions through conformity, whereas boys were inclined to respond to stress with resistance and anger, especially when arbitrary constraints were placed upon their expression of personal power and mastery. The school challenges and punishes the boy's sex-typed behaviors, while it confirms and rewards the girl's sex-typed behaviors. Thus one would expect boys to respond more negatively to schools and teachers than girls do.

Jackson's63 review of the literature on students' feelings toward school clearly supports this expectation. Boys are consistently more negative in their feelings toward school than girls are, and this finding holds for every study reviewed, that is, for students from fifth grade through high school. Lippitt and Gold,64 in an observational study of in vivo interactions between teachers and elementary school children, found that girls made twice as many friendly approaches to teachers as boys did. While the total number of unfriendly approaches was low, boys made almost three times as many unfriendly approaches to teachers as girls did. Another interesting finding was that so called "high status" boys (as judged by classmates) made a higher proportion of unfriendly approaches than "low status" boys. It may be that high status places leadership responsibility on boys and that they partially satisfy this responsibility through visible acts of antagonism toward teachers. Becker65 found, in his studies of parental discipline, that there was a close correspondence between totaled parental aggression and child aggression at home, but that only boys transferred high aggressiveness into the school setting. Girls, even when they were highly aggressive at home, were not highly aggressive in school. While Becker's findings do not describe aggression against schools, it is evident that girls are even reluctant to express aggressive ness in school. Again these findings indicate that sex role places constraints on the child's range of response to the school setting. It is consistent with the young boy's sex-role identification to respond to sources of stress with counter aggression, anger, or resentment, while the young girl maintains consistency by resolving tension through conformity or compliance.

The foregoing discussion has indicated that there are three sets of limiting conditions which influence the effect of the sex of the teacher in school: the constraints of the school as an institution and teaching as a profession, the constraints of the teacher's sex-role identity, and the constraints of the child's emerging sex-role identification. These constraint systems are multiply interactive and, in effect, provide a context for each other. One cannot understand the operations of one system, for example, teacher sex-role, without continuing reference to the other systems. It is difficult to separate the effects of the three systems because they are dynamically blended. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, which is precisely what an ecosystem is supposed to be.

Nevertheless, it is possible to begin to identify some specific interactions which occur within the system as a whole:

1. The school as an institution clearly places constraints on the behavior of teachers. It seems to shape the behavior of female teachers such that they promote only female stereotyped behaviors in students. There is too little evidence on male teachers to draw any general conclusion as to how the adult male sex role interacts with the institutional condition.

2. School constraints may be less operative at the lower than at the upper elementary grades. The evidence, although slight, suggests that male teachers behave differently from female teachers at the lower grades, but that, with in creased institutional structure, male and female teacher behavior converges at the upper elementary grades.

3. School constraints seem to elicit differential affiliative behavior from children. Boys are more negative than girls in their response to school, while girls are more cooperative.

4. Teacher sex-role seems to place constraints on the imitative behavior of children. Children seem to imitate only teachers of the same sex.

5. The first order teacher response to children is probably determined by professional role. That is, all children, irrespective of sex, are treated the same. The child's response to the teacher's treatment appears to differentiate along sex-role lines. This elicits the second order teacher response, which is probably determined by sex role. That is, female teachers disapprove of male-typed behaviors and approve of female-typed behaviors. Male teachers are more tolerant of male-typed behaviors, but there is no basis as yet for determining how they respond to female-typed behaviors.

6. Child sex role appears to place constraints on the consistency of teacher behavior. Female teachers both approve of and like dependent girls, while they merely approve of dependent boys, without necessarily liking them.

7. Child sex role appears to place constraints on the reinforcing behavior of schools. Schools motivate boys through punishment and negative incentives, but girls are motivated with positive incentives.

This analysis indicates that the sex of teacher does not operate as a factor in isolation, but that its consequences can be understood only in the context of its constraint systems. The only consequence which seems to be directly traceable to sex of teacher is the imitative behavior of children, and even this connection is not grounded in extensive evidence. The importance of this consequence, however, should not be underestimated. Most teachers try to model appropriate classroom behavior for their students. If an easily identifiable group of children (i.e., boys) more or less refuses to be modeled, then the teacher is likely to respond with frustration and punitive input. Even in this instance, however, the effect is a consequence of the interaction of teacher and child sex-role identities. Moreover, the interaction of these two factors is sustained and supported by the institutional constraint system. Clearly, it is difficult to pursue the implications of any of these connections without invoking context as an explanatory construct.


The intent of this essay has been to place the sex of the teacher in context. The institution of schooling imposes what Moore and Anderson66 have called the "patient perspective" on children and the "agent perspective" on teachers. For the most part, teachers are active, that is, they teach, while children are passive, that is, they are taught. The sup posed imperatives for this arrangement have already been described, but per haps insufficient emphasis has been placed on one overarching reality. The teacher is the primary (almost the exclusive) human mediator of schooling to children. What kind of person the teacher is has extraordinary significance for how students will comprehend the experience of schooling. Since the experience is, in some important respects, oppressive, the teacher has the responsibility of getting children to accept their oppression. Her (his) success in achieving this implicit objective has important short- and long-term dangers for boys and girls respectively. The short-term danger is that the teacher will not be successful, which makes for feelings of on-going dissatisfaction with school. The long-term danger is that the teacher will be too successful, which encourages children to accept the patient perspective as their proper lot in school and, perhaps, as the proper way to learn.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of elementary teachers are women exposes boys primarily to the first danger and girls primarily to the second. The danger for girls is that the female teacher may be too successful in socializing them to the folkways of school. The female teacher is not in conflict between the kind of girl she approves of and the kind of girl she likes. Moreover, unlike the boy, the young girl comes to view the female teacher as an appropriate model for imitation. The girl is generally inclined to internalize teacher-generated values and standards of behavior, that is, docility, passivity, and submissiveness. Further more, the other growth institutions in our society, specifically the family, do not offer the girl any other recourse. She is, in effect, locked into her sex role, and socialized to habitual modes of behaving which are essentially incompatible with the kind of autonomy, independence, and assertiveness associated with competent and effective adult functioning. Witness Horner's finding that college women are significantly more fearful of success than their male peers and that their timidity is most interfering under conditions of mixed sex competition. Horner speculates that women have an "expectancy that they can be unsexed by success."67 None of this is to say that the school and teacher are primarily responsible for this outcome, only that they collaborate with the total socialization effort.

The boy, on the other hand, enjoys some immunity to the teacher's influence. While she approves of the dependent male student, she does not necessarily like him as a boy, nor does she see him as typical of boys. Thus the female teacher is in conflict vis-a-vis boys and cannot socialize them to dependence as whole heartedly as she does girls. Moreover, boys are realistic in perceiving the female teacher as an "inappropriate" sex-role model. Her inappropriateness in this respect may undermine her modeling value in general, thereby permitting most boys to either partially or entirely reject her socializing input. Clearly, they avoid imitating her in spite of her best efforts at modeling and reinforcing behaviors. The boy, of course, does not reject the teacher or the institution with impunity; he receives the bulk of institutionally generated punishment and of teacher-generated disapproval. The experience of schooling for boys is typically more stressful and conflict-ridden than it is for girls. This is the short-term danger of ongoing dissatisfaction with schooling. As the years go by, this negative experience with society's official instrument of learning could have a corrosive effect on the boy's evaluation of himself as a learner, and probably does have precisely this effect on some boys.

Most boys, however, do not devalue themselves as learners and this is probably due to two factors. First, the other growth institutions in our society pro mote assertiveness, activity, initiative, and a drive toward mastery in boys, that is, behaviors which are strongly associated with effective learning. Second, boys often make accommodations with schools, that is, they develop a tolerance for punishment (it can be a badge of masculinity), they learn in spite of the institution, and ultimately they exploit official institutions of learning for certification purposes (high school diploma, college degree).68

In summary, the unintended consequence of female teachers in the context of the school as an institution differs according to the sex of child. The danger for girls is that the female teacher may be too successful in mediating between them and schools. The danger for boys is that she may not mediate well enough. The consequence is that girls more often become "schooled" and boys experience on going, demonstrable stress.

The next question is: What effect would male teachers have upon the welfare of children in schools? Since they are faced with the same involuntary clientele and work within the same institutional constraints as female teachers, why should one expect them to make any difference? There seem to be three answers to this question. First, the available evidence suggests that, while male teachers may make little difference at the upper grades, they do seem to behave in demonstrably different ways from female teachers at the lower grades. One might expect that they would reduce the institutional stress for boys and, through their tolerance of more masculine activities, provide a more varied environment for girls.

Second, male teachers apparently have modeling value for young boys. This might enable them to mediate between the institution and boys more effectively than female teachers do, again reducing the stress for boys. It is possible they may also be models for cross-sex typing on the part of young girls, although there is no direct evidence to support this.

A third consideration, closely related to the previous one, has to do with the larger issue of the father's limited availability in both the impoverished and middle-class strata of our society.

Reviews of the literature in this area69 indicate that absence or unavailability of fathers is associated with deficits in intellectual and emotional development of both boys and girls. The availability of father surrogates seems to reduce some of these deficits,70 and it is not beyond credibility that stable and competent male teachers could play the role of substitute father for children who require this kind of input in their lives.

One cannot, however, make a strong case for male teachers in the absence of further evidence. There is some research and considerable folklore that men (other than biological fathers) have a positive influence on the lives of young children. It is a moot point as to whether male teachers can serve this purpose, and, if they can, precisely what form their service should take. Quite simply, we do not know enough to answer these questions with any confidence. What is needed is a research program designed specifically to study the numerous interactions among sex of teacher, grade level, degree of institutional structure, and sex of student. One might want to consider some other variables as well, for example, degree of father availability and teacher experience. The focus of such research should be on process effects, that is, on what actually happens given various combinations. The objective of such research would be to discover and comprehend regularities in context. It would not be to confirm or disconfirm the a priori guesses of outcome oriented investigators.

Until such evidence is available, there is no firm basis for projecting what effect male teachers would have in the context of the school. However, for those whose practical concerns require a more immediate recommendation on this matter, sex of teacher appears to be an important factor in classroom life, but it would be a serious mistake to expect either male or female teachers to accomplish what can be done only through substantive change in the institutional constraint system.

1 NEA Research Division. "Facts on American Education," NEA Research Bulletin, Vol. 49, 1971, pp. 45-57.

2 See, for example, P.S. Sears and D.H. Feldman, "Teacher Interactions with Boys and Girls," National Elementary Principal, Vol. 46, No. 2, 1966, pp. 30-35.

3 See, for example, T.B. Lyles, "Grouping by Sex," Ibid., pp. 38-41.

4 See, for example, F. Bentzen, "Sex Ratios in Learning and Behavior Disorders," Ibid., pp. 13-17.

5 See, for example, P.O. Vairo, "Wanted: 20,000 Male First-Grade School Teachers," Education, February-March 1969, Vol. 89, No. 3, pp. 222-224; R.E. Laurita, "Help Wanted: Men to Teach the Lower Elementary Grades," New York State Education, Vol. 54, No. 1, 1966, pp. 20-22; and E. Kendall, "We Have Men on the Staff," Young Children, Vol. 27, 1972, pp. 358-362.

6 Taken from P.C. Sexton. The Feminized Male: Classrooms, White Collars, and the Decline of Manliness. New York: Random House, 1969, pp. 29-33; G.I. Peltier, “Sex Differences in the School: Problem and Proposed Solution,” Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 50, No. 3, 1968, pp. 182-185; and J. Holt. How Children Fail. New York: Dell Publishing, 1964, pp. 3-34.

8 P.W. Jackson. Life in Classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968.

9 S.B. Sarason. The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1971.

10 Kagan, op. cit., pp. 144-145.

11 W.S. Elsbree. The American Teacher: Evolution of a Profession in a Democracy. New York: American Book Co., 1939, p. 203.

12 J.A. Clausen, "Perspectives on Childhood Socialization," in J.A. Clausen, ed. Socialization and Society. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968, pp. 130-181.

13 J. Bagford, "Quality Teachers for our Elementary Schools," Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 17, No. 3, Fall 1966, pp. 307-311.

14 J.W. Arnold, "Baritone in the Kindergarten," Instructor, Vol. 75, No. 4, 1965, pp. 28, 66.

15 R. Murgatroyd, "A Man Among Six Year Olds," Childhood Education, Vol. 32, No. 3,

16 J.M. Johnston, "A Symposium: Men in Young Children's Lives, Part 2," Childhood Education, Vol. 47, No. 3, December 1970, p. 144.

17 L. Triplett, "Elementary Education—A Man's World?" The Instructor, Vol. 78, No. 3, 1968, p. 52.

18 L. Nolte, "The Ichabod Crane Stigma," School and Community, Vol. 58, No. 2,1972, p. 4.

19 E. Wilson, J. Epstein, E. Feeney, and T. Wilson, "Sex Differences in Elementary School: A Discussion," National Elementary Principal, Vol. 46, No. 2, 1966, p. 11.

20 M. Burtt, "The Effect of a Man Teacher," Young Children, Vol. 21, No. 2, November 1965, p. 95.

21 Clausen, op. cit., p. 157.

22 See, for example, Bagford, op. cit.; Laurita, op. cit.; Triplett, op. cit.; and Peltier, op. cit.

23 NEA Research Division, "Public School Statistics, 1971-72 and 1970-71," NEA Research Bulletin, Vol. 50, 1972, p. 30.

24 NEA Research Division, "Starting Salaries, Teachers vs. Private Industry (Men)," NEA Research Bulletin, Vol. 9, 1971, p. 29.

25 H.B. Biller. Father, Child, and Sex Role. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1971, pp. 39-41,43-48.

26 D.J. Willower, "Hypotheses on the School as a Social System," Educational Administration Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1965, pp. 40-51.

27 E. Goffman. Asylums. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1961, pp. 1-24.

28 T.J. La Belle and V. Rust, "Control Mechanisms and Their Justification in Pre-School Class rooms," Comparative Group Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, in press.

29 One could, of course, describe other consequences of universal, compulsory education. For ex ample, whole neighborhoods of children are packed into one building for several hours a day. This raises obvious problems of logistics and management, and, again, pupil control reduces these problems to "manageable" proportions. See Jackson, op. cit., p. 8.

30 Sarason, op. cit., pp. 152-154.

31 D.C. Lortie, "Teacher Socialization: The Robinson Crusoe Model," in The Real World of the Beginning Teacher. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1966, p. 62.

32 See Sarason op. at., p. 105 ff. for a discussion of the loneliness of teaching.

33 F.F. Fuller, "Concerns of Teachers: A Developmental Conceptualization," American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 6, 1969, pp. 207-226.

34 Lortie, op. cit.

35 Willower, op. cit.

36 Fuller, op. cit.

37 R.D. Arnold, "The Achievement of Boys and Girls Taught by Men and Women Teachers," Elementary School Journal, Vol. 68, No. 7, April 1968, pp. 367-372.

38 W.J. McFarland, "Are Girls Really Smarter?' Elementary School Journal, Vol. 70, No. 1, 1969, pp. 14-19.

39 Johnson, op. cit.

40 Murgatroyd, op. cit.

41 Kendell, op. cit.; and A. Mendelson, "A Young Man Around the Class," Young Children, Vol. 27, No. 5, June 1972, pp. 281-283.

42 Johnson, op. cit.; and Murgatroyd, op. cit.

43 Kendall, op. cit.

44 R.N. Tolbert, "Should You Employ That Male Elementary Teacher?" National Elementary Principal, Vol. 47, No. 4, 1968, pp. 40-43.

45 P.C. Lee and A.L. Wolinsky, "Male Teachers of Young Children: An Empirical Report," Young Children, in press.

46 S.H. Portuges and N.D. Feshbach, "The Influence of Sex and Socioethnic Factors Upon Limitation of Teachers by Elementary School Children," Child Development, Vol. 43, No. 4, October 1972, pp. 981-989.

47 C. Madsen, Jr., "Nurturance and Modeling in Preschoolers," Child Development, Vol. 39, No. 1, March 1968, pp. 221-236.

48 No attempt is made here to summarize the modeling literature. The author's interest is only in the teacher as a model.

49 Kagan, op. cit., pp.144-145.

50 La Belle and Rust, op. cit.

51 B.I. Fagot and G.R. Patterson, "An In Vivo Analysis of Reinforcing Contingencies for Sex Role Behaviors in the Preschool Child," Developmental Psychology, Vol. 1, No. 5, September 1969, pp. 563-568.

52 T.E. Levitin and J. D. Chananie, "Responses of Female Primary School Teachers to Sex-Typed Behaviors in Male and Female Children," Child Development, Vol. 43, No. 4, October 1972, pp. 1309-1316.

53 B.R. McCandless, A. Roberts, and T. Starnes, "Teachers' Marks, Achievement Test Scores, and Aptitude Relations with Respect to Social Class, Race, and Sex," Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 63, No. 2, April 1972, pp. 153-159.

54 R.D. Arnold, op. cit.

55 R.M. Oetzel, "Classified Summary of Research in Sex Differences," in E.E. Maccoby, ed. The Development of Sex Differences. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966.

56 American Association of School Administrators and Research Division of the NEA, "Pupil Promotion Policies and Rates of Promotion," Educational Research Service Curricular, No. 5, 1958, Washington, D.C.

57 Bentzen, op. cit.

58 Ibid., p. 16.

59 WJ. Meyer and G.G. Thompson, "Sex Differences in the Distribution of Teacher Approval and Disapproval Among Sixth Grade Children," Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 47, 1956, pp. 385-397.

60 H.H. Davidson and G. Lang, "Children's Perceptions of Their Teachers' Feelings Toward Them Related to Self-Perception, School Achievement and Behavior," Journal of Experimental Education, Vol. 29, No. 2, December 1960, pp. 107-118.

61 J.D. McNeil, "Programmed Instruction Versus Usual Classroom Procedures in Teaching Boys to Read," American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2, March 1964, pp. 113-119.

62 P.P. Minuchin, "Sex Differences in Children: Research Findings in an Educational Context," National Elementary Principal, Vol. 46, No. 2, 1966, pp. 45-48.

63 Jackson, op. cit., pp. 47-57.

64 R. Lippitt and M. Gold, "Classroom Social Structure as a Mental Health Problem," Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 14, No. 1, January 1959, pp. 40-49.

65 W.C. Becker, "Consequences of Different Kinds of Parental Discipline," in Hoffman and Hoff man, op. cit.

66 O.K. Moore and A.R. Anderson, "Principles for the Design of Clarifying Educational Environments," in D.A. Goslin, ed. Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research. Skokie, Ill.: Rand McNally, 1969, pp. 571-613.

67 M.S. Horner, "The Psychological Significance of Success in Competitive Achievement Situations: A Threat as Well as Promise," in H.I. Day, D.E. Berlyne, and D.E. Hunt, eds. Intrinsic Motivation: A New Direction in Education. Toronto, Canada: Holt, Rinehart & Winston of Canada, 1971, pp. 49,54-55.

68 K.E. Boulding, "The Schooling Industry as a Possibly Pathological Section of the American Economy," Review of Educational Research, Vol. 42, No. 2, April 1972, pp. 129-143.

69 See, for example, Biller, op. cit., pp. 1-19, 110-112; and EM. Hetherington and J.L. Deur, "The Effects of Father Absence on Child Development," Young Children, Vol. 26, No. 4, March 1971, pp. 233-248.

70 J.W. Santrock, “Paternal Absence, Sex Typing, and Identification,” Developmental Psychology, Vol. 2, No. 2, March 1970, pp. 264-272.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 75 Number 1, 1973, p. 79-98
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1473, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 10:12:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Patrick Lee
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    Patrick C. Lee is associate professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
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