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When Philip Wiederspan began teaching first-grade at age 25, he was the only male, except for the gym teacher. His former New Jersey college friends would look at him in shock when they learned his profession: “How can you do that? You must have a lot of patience.”

“It requires a lot of patience,” he said. “They are babies when they come in, just out of kindergarten, and by the end of the year, they are independent and can work on something by themselves for 10 minutes. Then they come back in September and, my God, they’re babies, again.”

Today, at 51, Wiederspan has devoted more than half his life to the youngest students at Upper Freehold Regional Elementary School in Allentown, N.J.

“Word got out my first year of teaching,” he said. “Parents would call the office to come and visit my classroom to see if they wanted their kids in my class. I remember that distinctly … they just wanted to see.”

As a man, Wiederspan is a rarity in U.S. elementary-school education. And experts say that as boys continue to lag behind girls academically, schools could use more male teachers.

(Full disclosure: This reporter’s son, now 31, was a student in Wiederspan’s first-grade classroom and thrived having a male role model, later going into teaching himself.) ...

Stereotypes about male teachers, and sometimes mistrust, persist.

“It’s very hard to change the suspicion of men who are going to elementary education when there are so few of them,” Thompson said. “Schools ask me to talk to men on their faculty and when I sit with them behind closed doors, they say the moms look at them like potential pedophiles.

“If they are too nurturing or a mother comes in and sees a teacher reading in a chair and the child is leaning against the teacher or cuddling him, they freak out,” he said. “Men tell me they only have to look in the mom’s face to know what they are thinking.”

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