Rumors of a teacher generation gap

The newest generation of teachers wants the ‘freedom to be creative’ and the ‘power to make a difference,’ according to a new pollfrom the Public Agenda research organization, commissioned by the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality. PA surveyed nearly 1000 first-year teachers working in high needs schools and found the ‘most telling’ news to be that four-fifths of those surveyed would choose a supportive administrator over significant salary increases.

We’re not surprised. They’re young, idealistic, and they’re working in schools not always known for cutting-edge leadership. Most of the novice teachers in the survey are beginning their first career and are of an age when the urge to make a difference comes at a lower cost than it will 10-20 years down the road — when career restlessness, children, college tuition costs and other factors would have to be considered before answering the pollster’s question.

At a meeting of accomplished teachers in Wichita this week, we heard veteran educators express views that closely matched the results of the Public Agenda poll. They place a high value on administrators who understand the complex work of classroom teachers. They crave the freedom to be creative and they are actively exploring leadership strategies that will increase their power to make a difference.

But these teachers — many in their 40s and 50s — also believe that for the teaching profession to flourish in the future, professional compensation will have to improve. They are open to new approaches to compensation that reward initiative and recognize accomplishment, so long as teachers are full partners in designing such systems. The younger teachers in the Wichita group expressed the same point of view — they knew the time would come when they would face the Hobson’s Choice presented to most veteran public school teachers in America today: If you want to continue to make a difference, you will have to accept less compensation, less freedom, and less power than the average professional.

We remain skeptical of reports about a great division between younger and older teachers in terms of idealism, commitment, or the willingness to continuously improve their teaching practice. In both age groups, you will find the strivers and the time-servers. To assume (as some do) that we can have a stable teaching force of higher quality by hiring more young teachers and (as some districts are now doing) offering early retirement to more veteran teachers is naïve.

The very qualities that make the young teachers in the Public Agenda poll so attractive and admirable are the qualities that will eventually drive many of them into second careers outside the classroom — unless we transform teaching into a profession that offers smart, creative individuals the satisfactions they will seek at every stage of their adult working life.

Commenting on the poll’s findings, NCCTQ director Sabrina Laine said: “There seems to be a chronic inability or unwillingness for the education system to embrace new ideas, which is a tragic mismanagement of human capital, especially on the brink of the largest labor shortage in history.

“Programming these new teachers to pledge allegiance to a broken and outdated system rather than harnessing their boundless potential will set education back another decade. Whether or not educational leaders nurture or negate the ideas of Gen Y teachers will be a litmus test for their ability to lead in a knowledge-driven economy.”

If there is one palpable difference between teachers beginning their careers today and teachers of older generations, it is this: The newbies, as a group, may be less willing to accept things as they always have been. They may be more forceful in their demands for a full say in how they will practice their profession. They may refuse to take the Pledge of Allegiance. Indeed, they may even inspire some of their accomplished older colleagues to join the cause and change the culture. Every revolution can benefit from the wisdom of elders.