Teacher Preparation

Generation Gap

By Linda Jacobson — May 26, 2004 11 min read
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Today's new teachers don't want to work in 'egg crate' schools—and a team of researchers can prove it.

When Susan Moore Johnson began studying the experiences of new teachers, she wasn’t motivated by some mandate about highly qualified professionals or the latest data on turnover.

Instead, the Harvard University professor was inspired by watching her own daughter, Erika, grapple with whether to apply to a traditional teacher education program in the late 1990s. The route her daughter took to the classroom—a Teach for America assignment in an elementary school following a summer training program—stood in such sharp contrast to the manner in which Johnson had entered the teaching field in the late ’60s that she began to explore the variety of ways that today’s teachers are different from those who started a generation ago.

“The entering cohort of teachers is diverse in experience, in the kind of preparation they have, and in their plans,” Johnson says.

Those differences— and the resulting mismatch that has occurred between rookie teachers and schools that are not designed to accommodate them—are described in Johnson’s new book, Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools, published by Jossey-Bass.

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Read the accompanying table, “Supporting Teachers.”

Her study, called the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, also involved the work of six doctoral students, all former teachers, who co-wrote the chapters. While the book follows the paths taken by 10 new teachers, the research is based on the experiences of 50 teachers in Massachusetts over a four-year period. Special attention is also devoted to teachers in urban schools, charter schools, and those who went through alternative-certification programs.

A broader survey conducted in Massachusetts, California, Florida, and Michigan reinforces what the original 50 teachers have to say. And additional studies based on those findings will be released in the future.

As with Johnson’s daughter, many new teachers are answering the call to the classroom through alternative routes. Such fast-track programs have increased the number of career-switchers, who decide to give teaching a try after working in a different field.

For example, a 38-year-old woman featured in the book, who is given the pseudonym Esther Crane, worked as an engineer before resigning to care for her children. She began teaching 10th grade mathematics at a large, urban vocational high school after entering the Massachusetts signing-bonus program— an effort to lure people from other professions into education with a $20,000 bonus paid over three years.

As a result, these new teachers tend not only to be older than teachers were when they entered the field 30 years ago, but the novices’ previous work experience also leads them to have different expectations of the schools that hire them.

“They are often dismayed when they find that their new workplaces are dreary or dilapidated, that they have scant access to telephones or the time to use them, that basic resources such as paper may be in short supply, and that they must use precious time to do routine, clerical tasks,” Johnson writes.

Random samples of new teachers in seven states also show, however, that many midcareer entrants are coming from traditional teacher education colleges, meaning that schools may be changed forever by this new workforce.

"[I]f schools are to adequately support teachers with such varied experiences and expectations, they must deliberately and innovatively address their individual needs and interests,” Johnson suggests in the book.

Teachers who entered the profession 30 years ago or more have functioned in what Johnson describes as an “egg crate” arrangement— one teacher for one classroom. Teachers are expected to be self-sufficient and work alone.

This solitary professional setup has created a generation of teachers who value their privacy and do not seek opportunities to have influence outside their classrooms. While this school structure has allowed some teachers to perfect their teaching styles over time, Johnson writes, it has also “allowed others to conceal their failure.”

But teachers in the new generation look for frequent feedback on their performance instead of avoiding it. They want to work with, instead of next to, other people. They also want to continue to strengthen their skills, and expect to be rewarded when they improve. That’s why, Johnson explains, they are less likely than their predecessors to resist such policies as differentiated pay.

Joan Baratz-Snowden, the deputy director of the educational issues department at the American Federation of Teachers, agrees with Johnson’s findings about younger teachers’ views on pay.

“We have been in favor of that, but what we’ve been concerned about is doing it transparently and fairly,” she says of differentiated pay.

The 1.3 million-member union is interested in the growing trend of tying teachers’ pay to their students’ performance, she adds, but cautions it’s not a “perfect way to go. In order to do this, you need tests that can accommodate growth.”

The new crop of teachers is also different, Johnson adds, in that many of them do not view teaching as a lifelong career, partly because they have other opportunities.

“Women and people of color have so many more job options than in the ’60s and ’70s,” she says.

Schools can benefit by allowing new teachers with work experience in other fields to use their talents. But Johnson learned from those she studied that most schools don’t do that. “The part that gets ignored is their organizational insight,” Johnson says.

Teachers in the new generation look for frequent feedback on their performance instead of avoiding it.

Ellen Moir, the executive director of the New Teacher Center, affiliated with the University of California, Santa Cruz, says she hasn’t yet noticed such generational differences in the students who go through the center’s teacher-induction programs.

“But I do know that young people can be anything that they want, and that they have high aspirations of doing an outstanding job,” she says, adding that she thinks many school districts are beginning “to seem interested in how they support new teachers.”

Mildred J. Hudson, the chief executive officer of Recruiting New Teachers, a Belmont, Mass.-based nonprofit organization that works to promote the teaching profession and operates a teacher-recruitment clearinghouse, says that while school administrators may have good intentions, they still make last-minute decisions to fill positions.

Schools fail new teachers by more than just overlooking the knowledge they have to offer. Because many districts hire teachers late—and do so because they are waiting for enrollment counts or approval of budgets—new teachers tend to wind up with what Johnson calls the “leftovers.”

Because they are eager for a job, the teachers usually take what they can get, which may mean out-of-field teaching assignments or positions in the neediest schools. Ending up frustrated, they may eventually look for a transfer or leave teaching completely.

“There is a great challenge in low-performing, low-income schools because people keep transferring out of them,” Johnson says. “What is discouraging is that some of those teachers really wanted to stay and would have stayed if it had been less unsatisfactory.”

If the 50 Massachusetts teachers in the study, only 17 remained after the four-year study in the schools where they started. Another 17 were no longer teaching in public schools, and 11 of those left the profession.

Schools don’t have to leave hiring decisions until August, says Barbara McGann, the director of human resources for the 60,000-student Boston public schools.

“You can take some reasonable risks,” she says about estimating the number of new teachers needed for fall. “You always need math, science, and special education teachers.”

McGann, who joined the district in January, says Johnson’s book has inspired her plans for restructuring her department. For example, she is trying to back up the interviewing and hiring process to May. The department is also working with education schools in the area to provide “letters of commitment” to outstanding student-teachers, she says.

The district has opened a teacher-recruitment and -service center, and is working to “reinvent” the pool of substitute teachers into more of a fellowship program, McGann says.

Another way to support new teachers, says Hudson, is to bring them into schools as a cohort.

“They feel more powerful, and they bring in a culture of can-do,” she says. “That’s often missing in hard-to-staff schools.”

Johnson also found that traditional one-to-one mentoring programs are not very helpful to new teachers. Often, an experienced teacher recruited to be a mentor doesn’t even teach the same subject as the new teacher.

The new teacher identified by the name Esther Crane describes her experience in the book: “‘I’ve spoken to this lady twice, maybe for five minutes. ... She’s very nice and stuff, but she kind of goes by and kind of gives me a worried look [and says], ‘How’s it going?’ I say, ‘OK.’ And then, that’s it.’”

‘Just because you’re a good teacher doesn’t mean you know how to be a mentor.’

For the teachers followed by Johnson’s research team, ongoing interaction between veteran and new teachers was the most valuable. But that doesn’t happen as easily in what Johnson calls a “veteran oriented” culture, in which new teachers tend to be isolated. A “novice oriented” culture, which often exists at charter schools, is not helpful either, because not many experienced teachers are on staff to observe.

An “integrated professional culture,” according to the book, can benefit both new and experienced teachers.

“New teachers are supported in their efforts to teach their students well, veteran teachers are continually renewing themselves, and the entire faculty is united in its pursuit of student success and school improvement,” Johnson writes of such a culture.

She also suggests that in the future, schools will include both teachers who see teaching as a lifelong career and those who don’t. Therefore, she writes, the schools will need “a cadre of dedicated, accomplished teachers who can provide continuity within schools, offer the support that new teachers need, and maintain standards in the profession.”

The teachers identified in the book as Fred Chambers and Victoria Tran had the most positive experiences, because each spent a year as an intern, co-teaching with an expert teacher.

While that arrangement is not always possible, good induction programs involve assigning new teachers to less demanding positions, Johnson says.

When working with a school district, the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz encourages districts to release outstanding, experienced teachers from their classrooms at least part of the day to work with new teachers. Those mentors are also trained.

“Just because you’re a good teacher doesn’t mean you know how to be a mentor,” Moir of the New Teacher Center says. “We need an intervention that is going to have a lasting impact. There’s no point investing money in ‘induction lite.’”

But Baratz-Snowden of the AFT says that while she thinks Johnson accurately identifies the characteristics of effective induction programs, she doesn’t necessarily agree with the researcher’s conclusion that the best programs are always based at the school level.

“I like [Johnson’s] vision of where we should be going,” she says. “But I’m a little bit worried about putting everything at the school level, given where we are at this moment in terms of the paucity of leadership at the school.”

In another finding, Johnson discovered that instead of being given specific instructional directions to follow, many of the teachers she studied faced a “curriculum void.” That meant they had to spend nights and weekends writing their own lesson plans and searching for teaching materials, even though they knew such work already existed.

“They would have welcomed a clear, focused, and detailed curriculum,” Johnson writes.

New teachers, Baratz-Snowden adds, often don’t have a good understanding of the “learning continuum,” meaning what their students were supposed to learn before they entered a particular grade, and how what the teacher is teaching relates to what will come next.

‘If you want a strong teaching force, you need to care about the needs of teachers.’

And articulating state or local standards is not enough if teachers don’t have performance indicators that show them how to help students meet the standards, Baratz-Snowden says.

Johnson recommends actions that people at all levels in the hiring process can take to make a teacher’s first years more successful.

Districts, she writes, can allow hiring decisions to be made at the school level, and work with union leaders to devise new approaches to salary schedules.

Local school administrators can design “expansive” interviewing and hiring processes to make sure teacher-candidates and schools are a good match, Johnson writes. Principals can also identify “expert” teachers to be involved in mentoring programs, she suggests, and those experienced educators can “be welcoming and generous in their offers of support.”

As for candidates themselves, Johnson writes, they should start their job searches early, meet with prospective colleagues, and, once hired, seek out opportunities for professional development.

Policymakers, she writes, will need to increase spending for salaries and services for teachers if they expect to recruit and retain excellent teachers and, eventually, benefit students.

“Ultimately, we are concerned about students being well taught,” Johnson says. “But if you want a strong teaching force, you need to care about the needs of teachers.”

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2004 edition of Education Week as Generation Gap

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