How to make teaching the career choice for Millennials

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Ask a group of American kids what they want to be when they grow up, and odds are you’ll hear “teacher” less and less. In the US there are some disturbing indications that teaching is increasingly falling out of favor as a career choice. Between 2008-09 and 2012-13, there was a massive 30% drop in enrollments to teaching preparation programs; while The New York Times reported that applications for Teach for America, a well-respected program to recruit elite college graduates to teach in high poverty schools, declined by 10% from 2013 to 2014. It is perhaps even more troublesome that teaching also seems to be falling out of favor with teachers - a 2013 MetLife survey indicated that just over one in three teachers reported to be “very satisfied”, down by almost 40% in just four years.

One of the reasons put forward for this trend is the perceived narrowness of the teaching career path, especially amongst Generation Y ‘Millennials’. This is, according to research, the demographic that’s impatient to realise their ambitions, demanding of choice and opportunity, and certain that their careers will move forward on their terms - features they do not relate with teaching.

So three years ago Pearson, with several key partners, set out to understand how the teaching profession can evolve to meet the 21st century career expectations of those who currently teach, and those that might one day.

In that time we’ve studied eight teacher career advancement initiatives in the US, and found there’s much to be encouraged about. From urban to suburban and rural districts; in areas of affluence and high poverty; and in schools with and without strong union presence - there is plenty of evidence for how to improve teacher career pathways, and what happens when you do.

Here are some of the key highlights from our observations. You can read the full report here.

Districts observed improved trends in the recruitment and retention of teachers: All districts with teacher career advancement initiatives reported an increase in applicants to teach, and increased retention rates - notably of effective and experienced teachers.

Creating time for teachers to meet and collaborate is an ongoing challenge for districts: One of the most commonly cited advantages of teacher career advancement initiatives was more collegial interaction, with teachers working with colleagues across grade levels and subject areas. In part this is due to the significant costs associated with releasing teachers full-time for instructional coaching, meaning that mentoring and coaching is often done ‘in-house’ by other teachers. Some districts have even adopted 'hybrid' teaching/coaching roles. The benefit is felt by both mentee and mentor. One mentor teacher from Knox County said to us: “I’ve told so many people that they need to be mentor teachers because just what you learn about yourself is much. I feel like I’ve gotten more back from doing it than I’ve given to my people that I coach.”

However, we also observed that it takes time and effort to change the culture of isolation to promote sharing of practice and collaboration.

There is some evidence of a positive impact on teacher effectiveness and some short-term student learning outcomes: There is limited 'hard data' about the impact of teacher career advancement initiatives on student achievement, although there is much anecdotal evidence. Teacher and administrator focus groups almost universally cited the positive benefits on students of teacher collaboration, focused conversations on curriculum and instruction, lesson modeling, and taking time to reflect on teacher effectiveness.

“This is about closing achievement gaps, and you don’t close achievement gaps by doing the same … things that you’ve done for 50 years,” one Denver administrator told us. Another, from Scottsdale, commented: “It is because of that career ladder culture [that] every single teacher is vested in getting that student growth, doing the best thing they can for their students on campus, in their classroom, at their school… it really has created a culture within our district.”

Teachers in leadership roles report greater job satisfaction: The general consensus of teacher leaders we interviewed was that motivation and job satisfaction were positively affected by opportunities for collaboration and professional development, recognition as leaders in their district, and opportunities for additional compensation. Interestingly, we also heard that another significant positive feature of the teacher career advancement initiatives is that teachers can take on leadership roles without stepping into formal administrator roles.

“I knew in a flash that this new [multi-classroom leader] model would bring me my dream job… a teacher who continues to teach while leading a team of teachers…” a teacher from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools told us.

Teacher/administrator relations and the roles of principals change in positive ways, but present new challenges: Our studies found that, as teachers and administrators collaborate more, there becomes a need to manage teams of teacher leaders who now require new skills, and also additional support for principals. A Seattle ‘career ladder’ teacher described her experience to us: “Oh, you’re going to be on this professional development committee which is going to meet every other week on top of the building leadership team, on top of leading your own PLC. It becomes you’re one of five people that are doing everything in the school and that’s not the point of the role.”

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For all the positives coming out of our study, the reality is that sustaining these initiatives is hard work, requiring stakeholder support (teachers in particular), a school/district culture that can deal with change and ambiguity, and external support—either monetary or technical assistance. Funding in particular is the greatest challenge to continuity. Grants, either district funding sources or from external bodies, are typically designed to launch programs, not sustain them. Our study sites are navigating this treacherous territory in different ways, and with differing success. Denver, for example, offers a vision of flattening the organizational structure of schools and replacing some highly paid administrative positions with teacher leaders. A teacher we spoke to there made the point that this was not just about sustaining funding, but also maintaining the right culture.“This needs to be a teacher-led initiative, a teacher supported initiative, because it is about elevating the craft from the peer perspective…”

The next few years will be critical in determining whether these teacher career advancement initiatives will continue, expand or be modified. With the new ESSA legislation and the focus on developing teaching and the profession, we hope that the lessons learned and recommendations contained in the full report will help propel more schools and districts to implement innovative, sustainable teacher career advancement initiatives. And to make the profession top of the list of what kids want to be when they grow up.

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Follow up with Kathy about this research - @McKni8