For 25 years, Jack Bransby has gone where other men fear to tread.
Each working day, he crosses an invisible gender line to enter a world of glue sticks, construction paper and 5-year-olds.
It's a small world. It's a world. It's kindergarten.
Nationwide, men are out-numbered 10 to one in elementary classrooms. and dispite what educators and psychologists agree is a growing need among young children for male role models, they are almost nonexistent in day-care, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs.
Of about 900 kindergarten teachers in Baltimore and its five surrounding counties, only 14 are men. Two of the counties, Carroll and Harford, have no male teachers at that level.
"I've never felt like an oddball," said Mr. Bransby, whose classroom resembles any other at Maryland City Elementary. Smiley faces and dinosaur stickers keep company on the long green chalkboard with orange pumpkin cutouts.
As munchkin-sized students putter quietly at their tables, Mr. Bransby, 50, folds his thick, 5-foot-9 frame into an impossibly small chair to help a child find just the right crayon. That done, he deftly maneuvers a chronic talker to a table away from his chums. Back at the chalkboard, he gives another "two thumbs up" for a task done well.
Here -- inside the classroom -- Mr. Bransby clearly is in his element. But stroll down the hall and the teacher behind every other door is a woman.
"I guess it's like a woman going into construction work," Mr. Bransby said. "It's not for everyone, but if she wants to do it, why not?"
Men who want to work with younger children often are viewed suspiciously by society, experts say. Family pressures, superiors and cultural expectations combine to steer them into the higher grades or administrative positions almost as soon as they walk in the door.
"Dealing with young children is traditionally viewed as women's work," said Barbara Willer, public affairs director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, in Washington. "That has been extended to teaching and child care. There is almost a bias against men."
Francois Lareuse, a kindergarten teacher at Crofton Woods Elementary, discovered that during parent-teacher conferences.
"I had one parent ask me if I was gay," recalled Mr. Lareuse, 36. "I'm not. I just enjoy being with children this age."
Several Crofton Woods parents last week said they were startled when they learned their child's teacher was a man. But, they said, Mr. Lareuse has since dispelled any concerns.
"He doesn't teach the way a woman would," said 5-year-old Lauren Slavin's mother, Ruth. "There aren't the hugs that a woman might spontaneously provide, but he still conveys his affection for the children.
"He's a man but he manages to discipline and control them without yelling."
A former French teacher at a private K-12 school, Mr. Lareuse said he frequently played guitar for the younger children. Those experiences, he said, convinced him to give kindergarten a try.
Now the one-time bassist for a New Wave rock 'n' roll band carries a guitar wherever he goes at Crofton Woods. Minutes before school let out last week, children in other classes stirred restlessly.
But Mr. Lareuse's pupils were fixed on him as he strummed the alphabet song.
"He brings a male perspective to the classroom," said Crofton Woods principal Peter Zimmer.
Mr. Lareuse's interest in castles and radio-controlled boats have given the students a perspective "through a male's eyes" on building, measuring and analyzing things, Mr. Zimmer said.
"I think it's great a man can nurture them in a masculine way and yet not be overbearing," said Maddie McGee's mother, Carol. "I think it's just wonderful. Maddie just loves him."
Children today need more teachers like Mr. Bransby and Mr. Lareuse, said Wade Horn, a child psychologist and director of the National Fatherhood Initiative.
Forty years ago, "the real critical lessons were learned in the home," Dr. Wade said.
Boys learned from their fathers how to behave like men and, girls learned what to expect from men.
But tonight, one in three children will not sleep under the same roof as his or her father, Dr. Wade said.
"Where else are they going to learn those things?" he asked. "Television? The movies? Gosh, give me a break."
School officials say they recognize the need for more men, particularly in lower grades.
But recognizing the need and finding the men willing to do the job are different matters, they say.
For three years, Baltimore County has aggressively recruited men "the same way we are an affirmative action employer," said Steve Walts, Baltimore County's assistant superintendent for human resources. Still, only four of the county's 243 kindergarten teachers are male.
"They are an increasingly hot commodity," Mr. Walts said. "I don't foresee any reversal of the trend. I think demand is going to far exceed the supply for sometime to come."
Men simply may have too many cultural hurdles to overcome.
"I know a number of men who are very interested in teaching kindergarten but are concerned about how it would look in the public's eyes," said Toni Ungaretti, chairwoman of the Department for Early Childhood Development and Education at the Johns Hopkins University.
Society also seems to give greater respect -- and pay -- to high school teachers, discouraging men who may be the primary breadwinners for their families, experts say.
The starting salary for an elementary teacher in Baltimore County, for example, is $26,000.
The few who have expressed an interest historically have been channeled into administrative training programs "almost as soon they walked into a classroom," said Ed Holmes, chairman of elementary teacher education at Towson State University.
Back at Crofton Woods, Mr. Lareuse shrugs.
"I could do this for the rest of my life," he said. "When I say that, my wife doesn't think it sounds very professional that I would want to do just this one thing. But I love children and their spontaneity."
Besides, he said, "there are not many jobs where I can play the guitar all the time."