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When first-grade teacher Bill L’Orange invited LIFE into his classroom 45 years ago, he offered the magazine’s readers a glimpse into a world that few would have otherwise had access to — the world of the child, so foreign to many adults, as well as the world of a male elementary-school teacher.
At the time, a male elementary-school teacher (like a female college professor, as one education expert put it) was rare enough to be considered newsworthy. L’Orange, whose profession is feted each Oct. 5 on UNESCO’s World Teachers’ Day, taught a group of 28 students in a Chicago suburb. When he had begun teaching in 1967, he had been even more of a rarity. But, since then, American society had seen a small but noticeable uptick in the level of involvement men were expected to have in young children’s lives, at home as well as in the teaching profession.
“The traditionally sex-typed school system has had its impact on children,” LIFE noted in an Oct. 20, 1972, cover story. “Eighty to 90% of all children who have difficulties in school are boys, and the absence of a male figure is seen by experienced educators as an important factor.”
In light of that idea, one dedicated program called Project Male grew out of a government-funded study of male teachers. It had become an advocacy group that promoted the idea that male and female adults alike should be fully present in the education system, as teachers or at least as parent volunteers. It was important for children to see all different kinds of adults in all different kinds of roles, went the logic, but teachers were particularly important due to their near-constant presence in young children’s lives.
That’s an idea that still holds water today, as experts look for ways to address a continuing shortage of male teachers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a 2011-2012 survey of public school teachers found that 76% were female. As one male educator told USA Today this year, “All students benefit from diverse teaching perspectives, and gender roles are a big part of that.”