WASHINGTON - When she interviews teaching candidates, principal Laurel Telfer favors the ones who show they have a heart for children, not just solid instructional skills.
And if the best applicant happens to be a man?
That's such a plus that Telfer says she does a "little happy dance."
Only two of the 35 teachers at her school, Rossmoor Elementary in Los Alamitos, Calif., are men.
"If you're looking at what's best for the students, it's important for them to interact with the two sexes," Telfer said. "The way men work with kids, there's a difference in style and approach. I think students really benefit from having that mix, because as they get to middle school, they're going to have a whole variety of classes. Men help bridge that."
As a new academic year approaches, school districts, education groups and universities are exploring ways to get more men into a field long dominated by women. Their goal is to provide more male role models in class and to diversify the labor pool of dedicated teachers.
The proportion of men in teaching today is at its lowest level in 40 years, according to the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union.
Only 21 percent of teachers in U.S. public schools are men. In early grades, the gender ratio is even more imbalanced - just 9 percent of elementary school teachers are men.
"It's not just that it would be nice to have more guys. It goes deeper than that," said Bryan Nelson, founding director of MenTeach, a nonprofit that recruits men into teaching.
Getting more men into classrooms, Nelson said, would help show children that society as a whole places a deep value on education and would add balance to their school life.
His group aims to provide prospective male teachers with mentors, training and stipends. Men often must overcome concerns about their salaries, a perception that teaching isn't masculine, and even public fears that they pose a danger to kids, Nelson said.
So he appeals to their pride: "I tell them, 'Can you imagine what you're doing for these kids? You're a pioneer. You're teaching kids how to read. You're setting up their future.'"
In most cases, however, school districts are limited in how they can recruit men because federal anti-discrimination law prevents them from hiring based on gender.
"Your applicant pool is going to be tainted by your recruiting techniques if there's a gender bias," said Lisa Soronen, a staff attorney for the National School Boards Association. "The real way to get teaching to be a more attractive profession is to change the societal norms and structure of the profession. But no individual principal can do that."
Telfer tries, though. She takes steps to make men feel more comfortable, such as asking female teachers to rein in their lunchroom chatter about intimate matters. And she lets male teachers serve on the committees that interest them, she said.
One of Telfer's two male teachers, fifth-grade instructor Stacey De Salvo, got into the field because he enjoys working with children and discovering knowledge along with them. In some years, he's been the only male teacher in his school, which took an adjustment.
"You just feel like things are out of balance when you're the only guy," De Salvo said. "You get a solitary feeling.... Elementary school is seen as a woman's domain, and when I came in, I felt kind of isolated."
There are signs of change. Teaching has re-emerged as one of the top career picks for teen boys, as it has long been for girls, according to Gallup Tuesday Briefing, the polling firm's news service.
The Gallup analysis noted that male teachers remain scarce in poor, urban areas where children often have no father at home or male role model.
In South Carolina, Clemson University leads Call Me MISTER, a partnership of nine two-year and four-year schools that helps young black men become public school teachers. The students get academic and peer support, tuition help and internships.
Some of them didn't have a male teacher once during 12 years in public schools.
"There's just a difference - whether it's in style, voice intonation, just the presence of having a male in the classroom - that many boys respond to best," said Roy Jones, the program's director.
So far, 15 men have finished the program and begun teaching in South Carolina elementary schools. The goal is to get that number to 200, and groups such as the National Education Association are working with Call Me MISTER leaders on possibly expanding the effort.
"It destroys stereotypes," Jones said. "There are young men out there, developing into professionals, who do want to pursue teaching, who do want to work with children. They just needed to find a vehicle."