Retaining Net Gen teachers: An impossible dream

Russ Goerend and Joel Zehring are two teachers that I admire and enjoy.  Both regularly join conversations about teaching and leading, both are motivated by the potential that digital tools hold for learning, and both are far more articulate than I ever was early in my career.

And my bet is that both will be gone before too long, fed up with a profession that openly ignores the changing nature of today’s workforce.

You see, Russ and Joel are at the leading edge of the Net Generation—young professionals who were born somewhere in the last 30 years—and as Don Tapscott explains in Grown Up Digital, members of the Net Generation have an entirely different set of expectations for their work experiences.

For starters, Tapscott’s research has shown that Net Geners are hierarchy-busters.  They expect to have opportunities to advance early and often, regardless of where they’ve chosen to work.  They want to be taken seriously and to have their professional strengths recognized and rewarded.  They grow impatient in situations where senior leaders fail to listen and frustrated when feedback on their performance is infrequent or ineffective.

Teaching meets none of these expectations, does it?  Despite countless conversations about redesigning the profession, there remain few legitimate opportunities for teachers to advance without leaving the classroom.  Evaluation—especially for high flyers—is an infrequent and unproductive formality, and the top layers of education’s bureaucracy continue to doubt the intellect and ability of classroom teachers, leaving them out of important conversations.

STRIKE ONE.

And contrary to popular belief, Net Geners are as motivated by hard work as the employees of any previous generation.  In fact, Tapscott has shown that Net Geners actively seek out the kinds of professional settings that allow them to tackle challenging tasks in collaborative settings.  “Collaboration, as Net Geners know it,” writes Tapscott, “is achieving something with other people, experiencing power through other people, not by ordering a gaggle of followers to do your bidding” (Kindle Location 3163-3167).

Teaching misses the mark here too, doesn’t it—especially in schools serving high percentages of students living in poverty.  Our senior leaders do a ton of talking about the power found in collaborative teams but do little to create the kinds of structures that might make achieving something worthwhile alongside motivated colleagues possible.

In the best cases, the time and tools for taking collective action are simply too expensive to provide, leaving teachers with a simultaneously beautiful yet impossible vision of what could be.  In the worst cases, senior leaders take decision-making out of the hands of classroom teachers completely—monitoring the implementation of predetermined pacing guides, scripted lessons and common assessments developed by experts working beyond the classroom.

STRIKE TWO.

Perhaps most importantly, Net Geners are deeply committed to their profession, but only loosely connected to their places of employment.  Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, Net Geners don’t expect to stick with one job for their entire careers.  Instead, they freely “test the waters,” looking for professional fits that enable them to succeed—and they quit once they’re convinced that working for a particular employer will be dissatisfying and/or unrewarding.

What’s more, Net Geners are driven by customization.  They’ve grown up tailoring everything from their MySpace profiles to their iTunes playlists.  They watch their favorite television programs where and when they want.  They spend their college years personalizing their laptops, their RSS feeds and their ringtones—and when they enter the work world, they expect to be able to customize their work environments.

Companies that effectively retain Net Geners, then, completely rethink their workplace strategies.  They engage employees in designing jobs that fit their unique strengths and weaknesses.  They think differently about career paths, aligning the interests of younger workers with potential opportunities within the corporation.  They focus on providing frequent growth experiences that are unique and that allow each staffer to pursue personal and professional interests.

Compare that approach to teaching, where job descriptions and career paths remain stagnant from day one and where professional development is rarely—if ever—differentiated.

STRIKE THREE.

That’s pretty grim news, isn’t it?

By my thinking, teaching is screwed!  Not only will it be difficult within the current structures to find the resources to reimagine our profession, I see little political will to make the kinds of changes necessary to retain Net Generation teachers.  Instead, we’ll keep bleeding human capital, confused about the reasons that retention is so damn hard and naive about the consequences that our inaction is having on the students of America’s classrooms.

The silver lining—for those of you who don’t share my penchant for pessimism—is that Net Geners also show a strong entrepreneurial urge.  Heck, a full 77% believe that starting their own businesses someday is a definite possibility.

Who knows: Maybe guys like Russ and Joel will get so fed up with the system as it is that they’ll co-create the system as it should be.

We can always dream, right?