Generation Gap

By Anthony Rebora — November 23, 2005 2 min read
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The teaching profession is undergoing a significant “generational shift,” and schools have been slow to adapt to it, according to Susan Moore Johnson, professor of teaching and learning at Harvard University.

Speaking at a conference of the American Association for Employment in Education on November 7, Johnson said that teachers entering the profession in recent years have far different expectations and needs than the large cohort that is now nearing retirement.

Teachers who entered the field in the 1960s and ‘70s, most of whom were women, often had few other employment options open to them and were joining the workforce at a time when “long-term careers were the norm,” Johnson explained. For the most part, too, they accepted the professional convention of working autonomously in separate classrooms.

Resources on the Web

The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers compiles its research on new teachers’ experiences and career decisions.

The Teacher Advancement Program, an initiative of the Milken Family Foundation that is now in place in 75 schools in nine states, is premised on the idea of giving high-caliber teachers multiple career paths and performance-based compensation.

Educators in Denver now have the option of enrolling in the district’s Professional Compensation System for Teachers, which bases pay on skills and accomplishments in the classroom rather on the years of experience.

In a survey conducted by the Boston Plan for Excellence in Public Schools, ninety percent of new teachers surveyed cited working with colleagues as the most valuable form of training they received during their first years.

“Teachers Who Learn, Kids Who Achieve,” a report summary from the Western Regional Educational Laboratory, says that in schools with effective professional development programs, “the very nature of staff development [has] shifted from isolated learning and the occasional workshop to focused, ongoing organizational learning built on collaborative reflection and joint action.”

By contrast, new teachers today often have a number of career options available to them, with young women being aggressively recruited in many fields. As a result, many don’t necessarily see teaching as a long-term commitment, said Johnson, who, as director of Harvard’s Project for the Next Generation of Teachers, has studied new teachers’ experiences and career decisions.

In addition, she said, a growing proportion of the new generation of teachers have previous professional experience, often in companies where projects are undertaken collaboratively and where the organizational structures are far more fluid than in most schools. Nationwide, 35 to 40 percent of the individuals entering teaching today are mid-career professionals, she estimated—“a really important factor” in the changing nature of the profession.

Such shifts in teachers’ perspectives require adjustments in the way schools view teaching, Johnson said. To satisfy new educators’ enhanced workplace expectations and curtail their need to seek career fulfillment elsewhere, she suggested, schools need to do a better job of creating professional structures that foster collaboration and interaction. Instead of being isolated in their individual classrooms, teachers need to be involved in the “lattice work” of the school though team teaching, curriculum-development projects, and ongoing dialogue with colleagues.

Moreover, she emphasized, teachers need to be given more opportunities for career advancement through differentiated roles and salary increases, perhaps by way of pay-for-performance models. The new generation of teachers “seeks to excel and be recognized for their accomplishments,” Johnson writes in her 2004 book Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Thrive and Survive in Our Schools. They don’t generally look forward to a “one-role career of teaching.”

In the long run, Johnson said in her presentation, “we have to change the career of teaching.”


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