1-2-3 put your eyes on me.
Dominique Winters calls out to the 5- and 6-year-olds in his first-grade class. The children repeat the words and fix their eyes on him.
His is an unusual voice for children their age to hear in a classroom, especially at the Laurel Woods Elementary School in north Laurel. Mr. Winters, 24, is the first male first-grade teacher the school has ever had.
"He doesn't have to raise his voice," said Janie Bolden, a first-grade assistant teacher at Laurel Woods. "It's a whole different tempo with a male in here."
The presence of a male in any county or even state elementary school is rare. There's one male teacher for every 10 female teachers in Howard County and state elementary schools.
"Most primary grades are taught by women," said Al Tucci, county schools' human resources supervisor. "It is somewhat rare" to have a male first-grade teacher.
As an African-American male, Mr. Winters is even more of an anomaly. There is only one black male for about every 60 female elementary school teachers in the county.
"What we really feel here is we should have role models for the kids in every grade -- males, females and minorities," said Laurel Woods Principal Patricia Tidgewell.
After Mr. Winters graduated in May from Morgan State University in his home city of Baltimore, Ms. Tidgewell interviewed him for a third-grade and a first-grade teaching position.
The first-year teacher said he recognized male first-grade teachers are so unusual that he thought Ms. Tidgewell might not hire him for that position. "Being a male, I thought they would pigeonhole me and give me the highest grade possible," he said.
Ms. Tidgewell gave him a chance, and Mr. Winters and his wife, Lisa, made North Laurel their new home.
But some other staff members have had to make a few adjustments, finding themselves at times a bit embarrassed.
"I often make the mistake of saying, 'OK, ladies,' during meetings, and I have to correct myself," said Joan Lerner, the first-grade teachers' team leader. "We're not all ladies anymore."
Having a male first-grade teacher also caught some parents by surprise.
"We weren't sure what was going to happen," said Thomas Simpers, whose son Jeffrey is in Mr. Winters class. "We said, hmmm . . . a male first-grade teacher. This will be interesting."
And it has been. Mr. Simpers said Jeffrey, 6, stays excited about doing his homework.
Jeffrey "comes home and he wants to do math. He likes doing math," Mr. Simpers said. "Mr. Winters gets them so involved they want to reciprocate. I think the world of him."
Adds one of Mr. Winters' 24 students, Jasmine Brooks, 5: "He teaches us really good. We do alphabets. He gives us treats."
At a school that is a quarter African-American, Mr. Winters said he sees himself as a positive role model.
"It just makes me feel good to be able to break down the stereotype of young, black males getting in trouble," Mr. Winters said.
He said he likes teaching first graders because they're the easiest to teach positive messages and rules because "they're at a very impressionable age" and don't harbor prejudices.
"They don't care about my color," Mr. Winters said. "They don't care that I'm black. They don't care that I'm short."
In fact, that's one advantage Mr. Winters has in trying to connect with his students: At a little more than 5 feet tall, he stands less than two feet above his charges.
That meant that, while Mr. Winters was helping his class with their lesson on jungle animals yesterday, student Donella Daniel was able to reach up without stretching to gently pat him on his head and say, "Thank you."