Shortage of male teachers at high point; West has one of few in state

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 30, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; J.L. Hammitte is one of a rare breed.

In fact he&8217;s one of a kind in the Miss-Lou, and one of two in the state of Mississippi.

But his kindergarteners at West Primary don&8217;t know or care that it&8217;s out of the ordinary to have a Mr. instead of a Ms.

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It&8217;ll be later in life when they reap the benefits.

&8220;I know it&8217;s good for them,&8221; Hammitte said. &8220;A lot of them don&8217;t have a father figure at their homes. I&8217;m probably the only man they see in a positive way throughout the week.&8221;

Hammitte has been teaching for 14 years, and he&8217;s not planning to stop anytime soon.

&8220;I&8217;m a child at heart,&8221; he said. &8220;I like playing their games.&8221;

The original plan was to be a musician, but his father talked him out of that for a more concrete profession.

But he still has an audience. There&8217;s a piano in Hammitte&8217;s classroom that becomes the center of daily lessons, there are made up songs for everything from the days of the week to the weather and if the music teacher calls in sick, Hammitte fills in.

&8220;I believe music is vital to this age group. I teach most of our language skills using the piano.&8221;

Hammitte is the first male teacher Principal Cindy Idom has ever worked with, and she said he offers something her other teachers can&8217;t.

&8220;He&8217;s a wonderful mentor to the little boys,&8221; she said. &8220;They tend to better listen to him.&8221;

That male influence is something personnel coordinators on both sides of the river constantly keep an eye out for, but said they just can&8217;t find.

&8220;There are really not any out there to recruit,&8221; Natchez-Adams Human Resources Manager Beverly Raines said. &8220;On a whole in the elementary level, you may see one. It&8217;s great for us to bring men in altogether.&8221;

Raines and Concordia Parish schools Personnel Coordinator Ann Sandidge frequently attend recruiting sessions at local colleges or job fairs. Sandidge also said she rarely sees men out there to recruit but said if she does she&8217;ll go after them full strength.

&8220;We work really hard to get men into the system,&8221; she said. &8220;Our young males need some good role models.&8221;

Concordia Parish schools have no male classroom teachers in any of their lower grades. There are male PE teachers at most schools.

It&8217;s a nationwide problem though, and according to the National Education Association the number of male teachers is at a 40-year low. Only 9 percent of the country&8217;s elementary school teachers are men, the association&8217;s statistics report.

The number of junior high and high school teachers is higher but still low.

&8220;Perhaps there&8217;s some type of stigma about men working with younger children,&8221; Hammitte said. &8220;Most men are channeled to the upper grades. (Students) need to see more examples at the college level and we need to encourage them to go into that lower level.&8221;

The only other male kindergarten teacher in Mississippi is in the South Tippah School District.

For Hammitte, he likes influencing lives when they are still young.

&8220;Being able to turn on the light switch in their head and their innocence, that&8217;s unlike older children,&8221; he said.

Courtney Winston, 28, had experience with the little ones as an assistant teacher at Holy Family Catholic School this year, but he plans to make a career in the upper grades.

&8220;At the age they are at right now, I can help them,&8221; Winston said. &8220;But in junior high or high school, you can teach them more. You can change their attitudes.&8221;

Male teachers often want to be in math classrooms or be involved in coaching, Sandidge said.

And often, the elementary paycheck just isn&8217;t enough.

&8220;Men are the major bread winners,&8221; Raines said. &8220;The pay is not at the level it needs to be to attract men into the field.&8221;

Elementary school teachers are supposed be nurturing, not a trait with which all men are comfortable.

&8220;At that age they just can&8217;t relate,&8221; Raines said. &8220;By nature men are just not nurturers.&8221;

But none of that stops Hammitte. He admits he probably isn&8217;t as touchy feeling as his female counterparts, but he hugs, he handles the hurt fingers and he builds futures.