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? 

10 thoughts on “Retaining Net Gen Teachers: An Impossible Dream

  1. Tom

    This is not just a “Net Gen” problem, of course. Long before today’s technology existed, innovative and risk-taking public school teachers were devalued and discouraged by an educational/political establishment that just doesn’t get it. Many thousands of the US’ best teachers, a very high proportion of them Net Geners, have gone overseas and like myself, would never go back.

  2. Janine

    Here in Western Australia, the problem of retaining young teachers is exacerbated by the impending retirement of a large number of experienced staff. It is predicted that almost one quarter of our workforce will retire within the next 5-10 years. Not sure where that leaves those of us in the middle! In demand, I guess!

  3. twitter.com/RussGoerend

    I’d like to echo Joel’s comment. Our situations are eerily similar — besides him not having a blizzard this week. I’m also echoing because he said all that much more coherently than I would have.
    I have my one-on-one conference with my building principal tomorrow morning. I think I’m going to show her this post and walk through how we are already doing things (though I wish more quickly — and she knows this) to address the concerns Bill puts forth.

  4. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    My take on the Net Gener’s is a bit different. For those born between 1974-83 (now in their mid to late thirties), the experience is vastly different from those in the late eighties, the nineties and beyond 2000. As important to shaping their thinking as technology has been, it would be hard to argue that perhaps just as formative has been the economy. They were born into gas lines, high interest rates and inflation. They began to shape their visions and expectations of careers and jobs during the booms and corrections of the late 80’s and 90’s. Now in their thirties they may be facing conditions that shape them as parents and employees.
    The value of those aspects of teaching as an occupation which reflect greater job security and stability, may impact decision making for the generation far more than may be recognized. The desire for personalization of work experience may take a backseat to having a paycheck at all. The ability to reap acknowledgment and reward may just fall down the priority list, when considered against a backdrop of 10% plus unemployment rates. Retention may be aided by the need to pay the bills, despite other values and preferences.
    Patrick Higgins wrote: “There will be alternatives to the traditional model of schooling, and by the time this generation reaches the traditional “leadership-age” as defined by our society, those alternatives will be completely viable.”
    As one of those alternative educators, I tend to wonder about a different take on the question. How many of the Net Gen will be content to put the children they are currently having or raising “in the box”? While they may have to work in it to pay the bills, will they choose it for their own kiddos? Take the things you listed as challenges to teacher retention and frame them in terms of whether they would be issues considered as parents making educational choices for their children. That same lack of connection to tradition and willingness to consider change that marks their occupational decision making, may be powerful stuff when translated to their decisions as parents for their own children.
    Extend that further out to those who currently occupy seats in middle schools today. In another fifteen to twenty years, how will they view the way learning and education should be accomplished? Unlike the Next Geners ,that group has not seen the change from phones that are physically dialed to those that are commanded by voice to perform a multitude of tasks. They have not watched the evolution from the Commodore 64 to the net-book and I-phone. The generation you highlighted came of age alongside the technology booms. What of the one that will begin their careers in one decade?
    Will buildings with square rooms, smart boards and desks be relevant to them as places to work? Will they be relevant as places to send their children each day?
    Where Mr. Higgins and I have a slight contrast in thinking is that the viability of alternatives to traditional models will wait till the Next Geners reach the traditional “leadership-age”. I would suggest it hasn’t waited, it is already being implemented for millions of students.

  5. Bill Ferriter

    Good conversation, y’all. Thanks for stopping by. This is one we’ve got to figure out. A few reflections on your thoughts:
    Patrick wrote:
    There will be alternatives to the traditional model of schooling, and by the time this generation reaches the traditional “leadership-age” as defined by our society, those alternatives will be completely viable.
    I’m with you here, Patrick…I see a perfect storm brewing between Tapscott’s thinking on the workplace traits of Net Geners and Christensen’s thinking about innovation taking place beyond traditional hierarchies in Disrupting Class.
    Take a bunch of dissatisfied employees and turn them loose on the fringes of educational reform today and we’ll have completely different learning environments on our doorsteps tomorrow.
    The potential is great, indeed.
    James wrote:
    I don’t think the situation is all doom and gloom. Having worked with recent ed college grads I did not find them particularly tech savy outside of texting and MySpace.
    But the thing is, James, this isn’t really a conversation about how tech savvy the Net Generation is (or isn’t). Instead, it’s a conversation about the kinds of expectations that they have towards life.
    With or without digital proficiencies, they’re used to speed—in communication, in action, in responses—and there’s nothing fast about schools. They’re used to customization, and they’re nothing customized about schools. They’re used to being heard, and teachers are rarely listened to.
    Simply bringing new tools to bear isn’t going to make our profession attractive to Net Geners. We need to rethink the fundamental work of teachers.
    And if the situation weren’t gloom and doom, why do 50% of all new recruits walk away from the classroom? If businesses had that same rate of attrition, wouldn’t they take immediate action? Attrition is expensive, any way you look at it.
    Kevin wrote:
    At the end of the day, though, it’s my daily interactions with students that keep me going, even through the worst of … everything. Anyone who gets into teaching who doesn’t get that daily validation is likely to become a statistic a lot sooner than someone like me.
    I’m with you, Kevin—It’s the intangibles that keep me in the classroom, too. My beef is that policymakers seem to believe that these intangibles are the only recruiting and retaining tool that they need!
    And sometimes I think that we do a poor job of standing up for ourselves. We speak so openly about our love for our students and yet we rarely speak as openly about the conditions that are driving our peers away in droves.
    At some point, we’ve got to get those with decision making power to recognize that it’s going to take more than altruism to keep teachers in our classrooms.
    Joel wrote:
    I love education, but I also value my district, specifically. I could teach in a neighboring district for considerably more money, but I’d probably miss out on a lot of freedom to innovate in the classroom, I’d miss out on a lot of collaboration, and I’d enjoy far less influence over big-picture issues that I care about.
    Great examples, Joel! Your district is doing exactly the kinds of things that Tapscott would argue are necessary to keep Net Geners engaged and motivated. That’s cool times ten.
    Now if we could only get the districts responsible for the working conditions of the other 9 million teachers in America to take the same actions, we’d stand a chance!
    Enjoying the conversation, y’all.
    Bill

  6. Joel Zehring

    Don’t count me in the casualty tally yet, Bill.
    I actually work in a district that performs pretty well on each of your Tapscott points.
    My principal engages with me in conversations about the culture and professional development in our school. He asks questions, he listens, he pushes back. He considers my too-long emails and half-baked theories on teacher buy-in.
    I also just gave a presentation to the district tech committee on Google Apps. The members, which included teachers and the district director of technology, were very enthusiastic about the ideas I shared.
    I love education, but I also value my district, specifically. I could teach in a neighboring district for considerably more money, but I’d probably miss out on a lot of freedom to innovate in the classroom, I’d miss out on a lot of collaboration, and I’d enjoy far less influence over big-picture issues that I care about.
    Why do I stay in public education? Here are some reasons, in no particular order:
    1. Students, who continually surprise and inspire me.
    2. My wife, who wants me to do work that I care about.
    3. My own desire to be a member of an organization that is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
    4. Educators (formal and informal) that continually stretch my brain: Deborah Meier, Bill Ferriter, Neil Postman, Jim Collins, Dave Courmier, Harry Hude, Leo Laporte, Daniel Zehring, Rob Jacobs, Richard DuFour, Frank Viola (the author, not the baseball player).
    Clearly, I am a thread in a very thick chord of people that are leading others to learn. I think these people will be around for awhile, which means I hope to be around, as well. Perhaps I can even support some others to stay in the game and make teaching a better profession.

  7. Kevin Jarrett

    Bill,
    I wonder … how many school administrators read this blog?
    My guess is … not nearly enough.
    I’m 47 so not nearly a net-gen’er but I’ve worked with enough folks in my professional life prior to and including teaching to know exactly what you are talking about.
    I spent much of my pre-teaching professional life in and around corporate human resources / management consulting. I helped organizations analyze things like compensation & benefit plans and develop strategic HR plans that allowed these organizations to attract & retain the best and brightest.
    It ain’t easy. Anywhere.
    That said, when I left the corporate world, and began to research what becoming a teacher was all about, I stumbled across Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers:
    http://www.gse.harvard.edu/~ngt/
    Report after report painted a bleaker and bleaker picture. Still, I persisted, because I knew it was what I personally desired more than anything.
    By the way, on this topic, I recommend this NGT paper:
    Who Stays in Teaching and Why: A Review of the Literature on Teacher Retention
    http://bit.ly/OoS5T (.pdf)
    …but I digress.
    The issue for me is more about a person’s motivations for choosing teaching as a career in the first place.
    It’s not a JOB. It’s a PROFESSION. The distinction is lost on many. But, Russ and Joel get it. For them, and for me, it’s a profession, and more. It’s a passion. As a result, I think these guys will ultimately stick around. I’ve been teaching for 7 years now and I’ve already bested the statistical average (need to find the source but last I recall it was 50% of new teachers leave within 3 years.)
    So why do some stay, despite the agida (see: http://bit.ly/s2kCi), the low pay (at least initially), and all the other factors you mention?
    I know why *I* stay. I’ll give you 540 reasons. I see every one of them once a week for 42 minutes. The energy I get from them literally powers me through the day. Every day. It’s what I live for. Honestly.
    There are actually a few other reasons, too. Chief among them: new leaders, new leadership, new ideas that give me hope. Plans, ever so embryonic, to embrace teacher leadership in my district. And, connections to great people like you in my PLN who challenge my thinking and give me the courage to speak up when it matters most. One person can make a difference. Why not me?
    I’m fortunate. I work in a great community with great people: families, kids, coworkers. Others are not so lucky.
    At the end of the day, though, it’s my daily interactions with students that keep me going, even through the worst of … everything. Anyone who gets into teaching who doesn’t get that daily validation is likely to become a statistic a lot sooner than someone like me.
    So, if you’re someone out there considering teaching, ask yourself why. You’ll be glad you did!
    Stay gold,
    -kj-

  8. James Walker

    I don’t think the situation is all doom and gloom. Having worked with recent ed college grads I did not find them particularly tech savy outside of texting and MySpace. They did not know what a wiki was or had never use social bookmarks. Once I introduced them to Web 2.0 tools they jumped right in and started innovating. I know 50 year old teachers who are still motivated and always looking for was to make their teaching better.
    I agree that many NetGeners are not interested in teaching and those who are could quickly loose interest. School could take a lesson from Tapscott’s book “Wikinomics” and open source their curriculum to attract the best and brightest.

  9. Meredith (@msstewart)

    Great post, Bill! One thing I think you may be missing is Net Gener’s proclivity for creating our own PD. Forget day long sage on the stage workshops; I’m directing my own learning online. It’s easier than ever to get access to the people who are thinking about the issues I care about because they’re blogging, tweeting, and participating in Nings. Most of my mentors are outside the walls of my school building, and I’m totally cool with that.
    Now I’m lucky to be at a school that doesn’t espouse some of the mindsets you addressed above, but even there the old school mindset can still prevail sometimes.
    I think the people to be worried about are not the high flyers. They care about teaching and kids enough that they’ll find a place to make it happen. It’s the solid middle that concerns me, Net Geners who aren’t lucky enough to find the alternate outlets that they need to survive and thrive in a system that hasn’t yet caught up with them yet.
    -A proud Net Gen teacher

  10. Patrick Higgins

    Bill,
    As usual, I love your thinking, and I am going to put this into my group of posts that go towards the types of change I’d like to bring about in my own little sphere.
    It is rather grim, as you illustrate, but your last point about entrepreneurial spirit of this generation (of which I am one, gladly) will be the key to changing the way we educate. There will be alternatives to the traditional model of schooling, and by the time this generation reaches the traditional “leadership-age” as defined by our society, those alternatives will be completely viable.
    Think about how you described the customization traits of this generation, and then compare it to the ideas behind customizing education plans for each student. Sounds like a match to me.

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