Teaching's Next Generation

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What would public education have to look like in order to attract and retain a new cohort of talented and committed teachers?

As school districts throughout the United States gear up to hire their shares of the projected 2.2 million new teachers needed during the next decade, never before have teachers been so aggressively recruited. Human resource offices, once content to perfunctorily screen and file applications, now race to devise attractive sites on the World Wide Web and move up hiring dates to get their pick of the candidates. States offer generous signing bonuses and loan-forgiveness plans. Districts promise mortgage supplements, mentoring programs, and health-club memberships.

Yet amid this frenzy, there is little discussion about who the next generation of teachers might be and how they differ from the retiring group of teachers. Much that is known and believed about teachers' work and careers is drawn from research about the experiences and views of this retiring cohort. Studies have shown that, as a group, they value job security, prefer autonomy to teamwork, tolerate isolation, eschew competition, respect administrative authority, disavow the importance of pay, oppose differential treatment within their ranks, and express little interest in career advancement. When today's prospective teachers consider other jobs that feature variety, teamwork, risk- taking, entrepreneurial opportunities, and high pay, they often find the values and priorities of the retiring generation of teachers puzzling and outmoded.

Before introducing strategies designed for retiring teachers, school officials and policymakers would do well to consider what conditions and incentives will truly attract this new cadre of teachers, and most important, what will ensure that they can succeed in their work.

Individuals who choose to teach today do so at a time when public service has little cachet and public schools routinely capture attention as sites of violence and wholesale failure. By contrast, other lines of work promise high status, rapid advancement, and quick riches. In this context, those who choose to teach today often find that they are patronized rather than praised for their decision to enter the classroom.

Individuals who choose to teach today do so at a time when public service has little cachet.

When I began teaching in 1967, I was part of the last large-scale hiring effort in the United States. Few career opportunities existed for women and minorities, and although it was possible to enter law, medicine, and engineering, access to those careers was limited, entry was expensive, and advancement unlikely. Teaching offered an accessible and secure, if not lucrative, job. And the work was meaningful. Many of us entering the classroom at that time could still hear President Kennedy exhorting us to serve our country, and we approached teaching as both a career and a cause. We studied in conventional teacher education programs, acquired standard teaching licenses, and began what we expected to be a lifelong career in the classroom.

When my daughter entered teaching 30 years later, the career context was strikingly different. Not only did she and her classmates consider law, medicine, and engineering, they were recruited actively to work in investment banking, consulting, and technology, where they could make twice as much as the first- year teacher's salary of $27,000 to $32,000. Wanting to test her interest in teaching before deciding to invest the time and money that solid preparation requires, my daughter chose not to enter a traditional teacher education program. Rather, she joined Teach For America, spent five weeks in a summer training, and began teaching bilingual 1st grade on an emergency credential. Differences between my experience and my daughter's reflect generational changes in the teaching force.

Given what we know about the priorities and expectations of today's potential teachers, what would public education have to look like in order to attract and retain a new cohort of talented and committed teachers?

First, there would be various pathways to teaching. There is considerable evidence that many well-educated individuals would like to teach, if they were not required to pay for and attend conventional teacher education programs. Applications for Teach For America have doubled in four years, and charter schools that hire unlicensed teachers report having long waiting lists. Given the low status of teaching in U.S. society, it is no surprise that many prospective teachers would want to explore teaching before making a long-term commitment, particularly when the projected pay is low. Also, some individuals want to make a short-term contribution to teaching before moving on to other work. Given the predicted teacher shortage, it seems certain that schools will hire many teachers who have minimal training and no more than provisional licenses. In response, schools must be organized to ensure that novice teachers are supported and evaluated as they learn to teach. This calls for well-matched mentors, release time to observe skilled colleagues, curricula that offer guidance about what and how to teach, and attentive peers and administrators who watch them teach, offer advice, and assess their performance. With such structures and opportunities, schools could become sites of ongoing learning for teachers of all experience levels.

Second, schools would be organized to promote teamwork rather than solo practice. The autonomy and isolation that have long typified teaching practice now seem anachronistic in this era of interdependent work. In many other fields, such as management consulting, teams are charged with work responsibilities, and colleagues are expected to assist, encourage, and critique each other's efforts. Teams, rather than individuals, succeed or fail. Few schools, however, are organized for collaboration or teamwork. Those that succeed in drawing and holding talented and committed new teachers will likely be ones that provide the prospect of joint work for the new recruits.

Third, if schools were well-organized to attract and retain the next generation of teachers, they would encourage teachers to assume varied responsibilities as soon as they were able.

Current recruits will not be content to patiently wait their turn to exercise leadership inside and outside their classrooms.

Current recruits will not be content to patiently wait their turn to exercise leadership inside and outside their classrooms. Knowing that other careers offer clever and conscientious employees new and varied challenges, recruits to teaching would expect the same. Early on, such challenges might include the chance to pilot a new curriculum, team-teach with an experienced colleague, organize a teacher inquiry group, write grants, or serve on a school-site council. It seems likely that novice teachers who are well-prepared, effective instructors from the start will undertake such activities before their peers who have only minimal training and must focus first on learning to teach. Over time, however, these opportunities for broader influence must be available to all.

In considering whether to stay in teaching, novices will want to know whether the profession offers a staged career with differentiated roles for accomplished teachers. Such teachers, many of whom will be certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, will not only be master teachers in their classrooms, but also serve as mentors for novices, curriculum writers, peer reviewers, and instructional coaches. Their expertise and roles offer the promise of varied experiences over the course of a career.

Fourth, such schools would offer higher salaries for all and differentiated pay for expert teachers and those who assume specialized roles. A recent analysis by Education Week revealed that teachers between the ages of 22 and 28 earn nearly $8,000 less than their other college-educated peers; by the time they are 44 years old, the gap between teachers and others holding a master's degree is $32,511. (Quality Counts 2000: Who Should Teach?, Jan. 13, 2000.)

Those considering teaching must feel confident that they can afford to teach.

Those considering teaching must feel confident that they can afford to teach, not only in the early years when they have few family obligations, but also later, when they have a mortgage or children's college tuition to pay. Also, they must see the prospect of earning more if they have special skills, are unusually effective, work a longer year, or take on advanced responsibilities.

The generation of teachers about to retire has resolutely opposed merit pay out of legitimate concern about favoritism and inept evaluation practices. However, states and districts are developing more- sophisticated assessment practices that involve peer review, neutral assessors, and a variety of performance measures. Today's new teachers expect that pay should reflect a teacher's value and performance, and they are far more willing than their predecessors to explore alternative approaches to assessment and compensation.

Fifth, teachers' unions would be progressive agents of change rather than protectors of the status quo. In general, young adults today have little interest in industrial-type unions that narrowly pursue higher wages, assert the priority of seniority, and enforce standardized work practices. Prospective teachers express great interest in charter schools that are unencumbered by district and union regulation. As the center of gravity within the union shifts from the very senior to the very junior members, practices that have long been held sacred by traditional unionists will be subject to challenge and change.

Talented new teachers are far more likely to be attracted by districts with progressive unions—those promoting peer review, differentiated pay, and deregulated schools—than by those with unions that advocate lock-step conformity, minimal expectations, and job protections that disregard the needs of children.

Can schools improve while remaking themselves to attract and retain the next generation of teachers? Certainly, students will benefit if schools draw upon the full array of teaching interest and talent, promote teamwork and collegiality, encourage leadership within and beyond the classroom, offer respectable salaries that are differentiated by role and effectiveness, and work collaboratively with the union for professional improvement. These changes are consistent both with the prospective teachers' interests and with the need for schools to be coherent, cohesive, and renewing organizations. Such schools would draw upon teachers' many strengths while holding them to high standards.

Most importantly, however, schools must be places where good teachers can teach. One invariant theme of teachers' accounts over time is that they want to work with students and they care about teaching their subjects. It is in these activities that the sustaining, intrinsic rewards of teaching are to be found. Far too many teachers, both new and experienced, find their best efforts routinely compromised by large classes, fragmented schedules, inadequate supplies, nonteaching duties, decrepit buildings, and irrelevant demands for paperwork.

On the importance of making good teaching both possible and probable, there is no disagreement among teachers, no generational divide.

Susan Moore Johnson, the Carl H. Pforzheimer Jr. professor at Harvard University's graduate school of education in Cambridge, Mass., is the author of Teachers at Work. Along with a team of graduate students, she is currently studying the next generation of teachers.

Vol. 19, Issue 39, Pages 33, 48

Published in Print: June 7, 2000, as Teaching's Next Generation
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