Teaching Profession

‘Poor for the Rest of Your Life’: Negative Messages Can Deter Prospective Teachers

By Madeline Will — April 14, 2023 5 min read
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Want to improve the perception of the teaching profession for potential candidates? Hold off on sharing that underpaid-teacher meme.

It turns out that college students who have expressed an interest in teaching are being deterred from the field in part because of a negative perception of the job that’s bolstered by how teachers are portrayed in the media.

That insight is according to forthcoming research from the University of Maryland, which was presented at the American Educational Research Association conference here this week. The researchers analyzed the role of social messages in undergraduate prospective teachers’ intent to teach, as well as Black undergraduates’ perception of the cost and benefits of a teaching career.

Most research on prospective teachers’ interest in teaching is focused on preservice teachers who have already enrolled in a college of education or taken steps to pursue the career, said Kayla Bill, a doctoral student at Maryland. The new pair of studies look at undergraduate students who are interested in teaching but aren’t necessarily enrolled in a teacher preparation program or an education major.

Researchers surveyed about 28,000 undergraduates at the University of Maryland in fall 2020 and ended up with a final sample of about 1,200 undergraduates who were interested in teaching as a career. In spring 2021, the researchers conducted focus group interviews with 140 of those students.

They learned that undergraduates receive mixed messages about teaching: 53 percent of the students said they received encouraging messages from people they respect, like family members, friends, or former teachers, while 29 percent said they were discouraged by people they respect.

Only about a third of students said they received encouraging messages about teaching from the media—63 percent said they received discouraging messages.

The encouraging messages were typically focused on the importance of teaching or how personally fulfilling the job can be. Some undergraduates also said they were told that teaching could give them job security.

“The Teach For America recruiters really got me ... because Teach For America needs teachers right now for next fall. A lot of places are not hiring. [Teaching] is a viable option to have a job after graduation,” one student told the researchers.

Meanwhile, the discouraging messages often centered around low wages, poor working conditions, and a lack of societal respect. Here’s some of what the undergraduates said:

  • “I always see that the teachers are struggling sometimes in shows or in media. There’s always a struggle somewhere.”
  • “I’ve heard that teaching is maybe not as prestigious—really, as respectable of a job as other jobs.”
  • “I remember I sat down with my father. We talked about [pursuing a teaching career] and his big thing is, like, ‘Do you want to be poor for the rest of your life?’ ... For me, the finances kind of turned me away from choosing secondary education as my major.”

How influential these messages were for prospective teachers varied, Bill said, but the negative messages in particular seemed to resonate.

“A few [undergraduate prospective teachers] said that encouragement related to the social contribution that teachers make or the stability of the job influenced them to pursue the career,” Bill said in her presentation. “But more frequently, [the undergraduates] described how discouraging messages, particularly about salary, dissuaded them from pursuing teaching and led them to pursue other career paths.”

Black prospective teachers are deterred in other ways

Using the same pool of undergraduate students who expressed an interest in teaching, another group of researchers from the University of Maryland interviewed 16 Black students to understand their unique perspectives.

“The participants valued K-12 teaching, and they valued teachers,” said Tifanee McCaskill, a former math teacher who is now a third year Ph.D. student at Maryland, in her presentation. “But they perceived that the opportunity cost—both social and economic—[was] just too high to go into teaching as a major or as a career.”

Financial stability was the most important factor for the Black undergraduates, McCaskill said: “It’s not that these students were seeking to live extravagantly. They weren’t looking for the big bucks. They just want to do regular stuff like pay back their student loans, ... [or] pursue opportunities that might allow them to build generational wealth for their families.”

But societal messages about teaching mattered, too.

“These students agreed that teaching was not seen as a well-respected profession just in American culture,” McCaskill said. “The pervasive idea that anyone can teach positions the profession and the major as being effortless and lacking in rigor.

“As Black students, they explained the push to dispel the myth of Black intellectual inferiority through their academic coursework, through future professions,” she continued. “These students believe that choosing teaching as an academic pathway would not position them to prove their intellect to those in society who think they’re incapable of high achievement.”

The Black undergraduate students were also aware of and deterred by the “invisible tax” placed on Black teachers—meaning additional, uncompensated responsibilities, such as serving as a school disciplinarian or mentor to students of color, that those teachers are often expected to perform, said Tara Brown, an associate professor of education at Maryland.

How can undergraduates be convinced to teach?

The researchers called for policymakers, the media, and teachers themselves to spread encouraging messages about teaching and—in the case of policymakers—combat some of the barriers in order to attract more candidates.

For example, raising teacher pay could help make teaching a more sustainable career, McCaskill said.

Then, she added, teachers could be “honest ambassadors” for their profession. That’s important, she said, because teaching is “the only job that students watch every day and then decide if they want to do it or if they don’t.”

Bill said future research could explore the relative importance of societal messages from different sources—like family members versus the media—as well as how social messages vary based on undergraduates’ demographics.

From AERA

Education Week is reporting live from AERA, the nation’s premier education research conference. Here’s the latest coverage.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2023 edition of Education Week as ‘Poor for the Rest of Your Life’: Negative Messages Can Deter Prospective Teachers

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