Free State teacher reverses gender roles in traditionally female domain

Free State High School family and consumer sciences teacher Nolan Henderson laughs with his students, from left, Latesha Robertson, freshman, Mackinzie Urich, freshman, and Michaela Smith, senior, in class on Thursday. Henderson and his class spend time discussing teenage-related health issues, among other topics. Henderson is a rare male teacher in the class long known as home economics.

As a 29-year-old football coach, former car salesman and one-time stand-up comic, Nolan Henderson is about the last person you would expect teaching a class that has roots in home economics.

But there he was in a Free State High School classroom late last week teaching Human Growth and Development II to a roomful of giggling high school girls. He was leading a class discussion that ranged from declining teen pregnancy rates to the dangerous new trend of teens using hand sanitizer to get buzzed.

“Is this happening here?” he asked the girls about hand sanitizer. They said it wasn’t.

Henderson knows how to cook and sew, although he admits to not being particularly talented at either one of them. But those domestic skills are no longer the heart and soul of family and consumer sciences, a field that has come a long way from its home economic origins.

“It’s not just sewing anymore, or making crafts,” Henderson said. “We are teaching life skills, how to prepare kids for life.”

Since the 1980s, home economics has evolved from courses that taught women how to become homemakers to one that prepared students for careers in child care, restaurant, event and hotel management, fashion, interior design and human services. It also teaches the basic life skills of budgeting personal finances, communicating and time management.

“The needs of the family have always been the same; how we address them is what changes,” said Sally Yahnke, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction in Kansas State University’s College of Education.

Like math and science teachers, family and consumer sciences teachers are a rare commodity. That’s largely because the large number of women who entered the field in the 1970s and 1980s are retiring. In the next six years, Yahnke estimates, the state will need about 1,000 family and consumer sciences teachers, which is about 700 more than the number of graduates coming out of the state’s two family and consumer sciences programs.

“In most cases, when a program closes it’s because they can’t find a teacher; it’s not because they don’t want the program,” Yahnke said.

Patrick Kelly, the performing arts, career and technical education curriculum specialist for the Lawrence school district, agrees that finding family and consumer sciences teachers is difficult.

And, he admits the hiring committee was surprised last year to see a male apply for the family and consumer sciences job opening at Free State. An even bigger shocker: Henderson was a football coach. But there was a lot to like about him.

“He has an ability to connect to the students, which we are always looking for in teachers,” Kelly said.

Henderson knows he raised a few eyebrows when he applied for the job. And he still gets some ribbing on the football field about what he teaches.

“They ask me where the biscuits and cookies are,” he said.

Henderson was one of the first men to graduate with a family and consumer sciences degree from K-State and said there are a little more than a dozen male consumer sciences teachers in the country. Right now, K-State has two men in the program and 45 women.

Those numbers are rising slowly, reflecting the changing gender roles in society.

“Males probably have as much or more responsibility helping families work today as women do,” Yahnke said. “As roles have changed, so have ideas of who is able to do what.”

Henderson’s first career choice wasn’t in family and consumer sciences. Henderson, who grew up in Wichita, has sold cars and then worked in corporate sales. On the day that Henderson got laid off from his corporate sales job in 2010, he went home, changed his clothes and drove straight to Manhattan to enroll in the teaching program.

In between all that, Henderson tried to make it as a stand-up comic, years in which he supported himself by doing every job there was in the restaurant business.

Those days on the stage pay off in the classroom.

“The easiest part is standing up in front of them and talking,” Henderson said of his job. “The hard stuff is planning and preparing, trying to get into the minds of kids.”

The students make fun of the mo-ped he rides to work, and he teases them about their driving and warns them of the perils of high school dating.

“I tell you this every day: Boys are dumb. And you don’t ever listen to me,” he chided them on Thursday.

He’s joking of course, but underneath there is a hint of truth and a lot of concern.

“One bad relationship, one bad experience with the opposite sex can ruin them for the rest of their lives,” Henderson said. “It is important for them to have fun, to be teenagers, but don’t be in a super serious relationship.”

His jokes help lighten serious subjects and ease the classroom into honest conversations.

Talking about teen pregnancy, drinking or sex education might be awkward around some other male teachers.

“But since it’s Mr. Henderson it’s not as weird,” student Michaela Smith said. “The fact that he is really open about things. He jokes around a lot. And he seems like he knows what he is talking about and admits it when he doesn’t know.”