Beyond the Data: Millennial Teachers
As part of our Spring 2019 Edition of SchoolCEO Magazine, we conducted a survey of over 1,000 millennial teachers to find out what they expect from their districts and schools.
We gathered data that gave us detailed insight into the way school districts should be marketing themselves to this new generation of teachers. To go beyond the numbers, though, we then spoke with teachers we surveyed in nine different states—some in their first couple of years in the classroom and others with several under their belts.
First, we asked these teachers how connected they feel their administrators are to their schools, followed by a discussion of social media use in their districts. We concluded our interviews by asking them to provide some advice for superintendents and to share personal stories of why they love teaching.
We gave the option for anonymity so they could speak openly and honestly. Our hope is that these unfiltered accounts of teacher experiences will provide you with insight, validation, or inspiration for positive change in your district.
Teachers Want to Feel Connected to Their Administrators
One suburban teacher in Mississippi says that even though her district is in a time of transition due to a recent superintendent resignation, she has always felt a strong connection between the administrators and the schools. Now in her tenth year, she shares that out of the three different school districts she’s taught in, she would “definitely say” that “[Her district] does a phenomenal job of making sure their teachers are taken care of and supported...They make it the best job ever.” She also jokes that “they’d have to kick [her] out” of the district to ever get her to leave. She attributes this not just to the district support and her colleagues, but to the school’s “really awesome students.”
Conversely, a first-grade teacher in Texas says she’s happy to have seen her superintendent once in person this school year, though she didn’t see her at all last year. “With our district being so large, I feel like there’s some disconnect...we’re moving forward, but there’s still a long way to go.” Upon further research, we found that her district serves nearly 40,000 students.
Similarly, in one of Michigan’s largest school districts, a first-year teacher we spoke with has already noticed “a distance” between teachers and the district office. She recounts being with an entire room full of new teachers at a start-of-the-year induction meeting when her superintendent walked into the room to speak with the presenter. The super could’ve taken this opportunity to quickly welcome the new hires and introduce herself, but, instead, she waited to speak to the presenter privately and ignored all the teachers in the room. “The only reason I knew [who she was] is because I’d seen her picture before,” the teacher tells us with a sigh.
Teachers Want Less Pressure
Many of the educators we spoke with also mentioned the pressures of standardized testing when asked about district connection. This, of course, is an inevitability that plays a huge role in the day-to-day lives of teachers nationally.
One third-grade teacher in the Chicago suburbs describes her administrators as “extremely connected.” They have weekly Professional Learning Community meetings with a team leader, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent, and sometimes even the superintendent present. But how much connection is too much? These meetings are centered around student performance, whether it be work that falls below grade level expectations, meets them, or exceeds them. “It can be very micromanaged...but I know they have good intentions,” the teacher says of these meetings. “I know that’s [one] way they do get to know all the students in these schools.” But she also notes that she feels very pressured when the superintendent attends these meetings “here and there” because of the state testing goals put into place for the district’s schools.
“It’s a lot of pressure...it really goes back to the tests...As a teacher, you go into the field for a reason...and then when you’re so pressured to do well on the test, and little eight year olds are taking those tests for the first time...you see [that pressure] on the kids.”
“Everything we do is mirrored toward the [state] tests,” she adds with a tone of frustration. “I know the ins and outs in terms of what’s really happening, so sometimes I don’t believe in it. A lot of [times] I don’t. But it’s also my job...I see kids crying sometimes. It’s a lot. It’s a lot.”
A 10th grade biology teacher in Minnesota describes the administration in his urban district as “fairly connected” with their teachers and students. One critique he had of his district was the way in which it’s dealing with an influx of immigrant students in its schools. This has caused a lot of cultural clashing, and he feels that policies have been put forth too quickly and ineffectively when it’s something that will just “take time to change.”
In these conversations with millennial teachers, it became very clear that happiness in their jobs—and effectiveness to boot—depends heavily on the support, involvement, and attitudes of their district administrators. That same first-grade teacher from Texas, now in her ninth year in the classroom, perhaps says it best:
“I really wish, one day, even my building administrator would step in and say ‘I’m here. How can I help?’ Because there are some days I need that...and I think that’s what they miss sometimes [in] administration. Sometimes the day-to-day gets [them] so busy that they don’t see the teacher who does need the help. So even just that check-in of ‘You’re here, helping students; you’re giving everything to them...what can I give you to re energize and reestablish you as that teacher?’”
Teachers Want to Use Social Media to Tell Your District’s Stories
Social media has become a huge part of this generation’s daily lives, so it makes sense to reach them where they already are.
A couple of the teachers we spoke with mentioned that their districts have hired media specialists to help get their schools more connected online. One of them described her district’s Twitter presence as being “off the hook” because of their new Teaching and Learning Department. This department offers incentives for teachers to post on social media. Our interviewee was thrilled to have recently won a gift basket full of school supplies and a coffee mug by simply posting a photo of student work onto Twitter. When asked if she’d be staying in her district, she answered with a resounding “Yes, absolutely.” It’s obvious that teacher engagement through social media plays a role in that decision.
Another teacher, whose district also has a new media specialist, says they still mostly use the district website and Facebook to reach out to the community. Upon review, their website does offer quite a bit of user-friendly content, like community links, pictures and videos of campus life, and a separate careers page.
Our previously mentioned biology teacher in Minnesota says his district uses their website, but doesn’t use social media much because the community there is “mostly older” and not connected online. “It’s really going to take time to change,” he adds.
By contrast, our third grade teacher in Illinois brags about her district’s use of social media. “We were all kind of encouraged...to be a part of a bigger community, not just the school community. [Teachers] were all encouraged to join Twitter last year and promote our schools and what we’re doing in the classroom. With Twitter, we are able to imbed our photos into the school website so it keeps a live feed of what’s happening at school and parents have access to that. We’re pretty involved with social media.”
Advice for Superintendents
We asked these teachers what advice they would give to superintendents if provided the chance. Here’s what they said*:
“As a superintendent, continue to keep the lines of communication open and make sure everyone is being held accountable for their duty, for their role...everyone’s being held to the same standard.” (Maryland)
“For me, autonomy is number one. Teachers are not going to be passionate about what they’re doing if they’re constantly being told what to teach and how to teach it. You have to allow room for ingenuity, innovation, personal touches. I think that’s really, really, really important. Trust us experts...that we are doing a good job.” (Colorado)
“I feel like our superintendent has been incredibly transparent with a lot of the big decisions in the district and has been really upfront when she proposed a mandate and it did not work, it was a total disaster. And she was fairly transparent about [the] feedback and changed her priorities. I thought that was really responsive.” (Washington)
“Visit your schools. Visit your teacher’s classrooms. They want to see you. They want to remember or know that you’ve also been in the classroom. Just know how hard teaching is...it’s not the easiest job. And keep that in mind when changing policies and procedures and putting additional work on the teachers. And know they already have lots of paperwork for their own personal students, whether they’re IEPs or...getting children qualified for services or just remediating students. You know, that is a lot of work on top of lesson planning and ensuring the success of their students...teachers are already stressed enough. Be present in the classrooms the way teachers expect their principals to be…[have] that personal connection with your teachers.” (Mississippi)
“Value that we know what we’re doing...and value not only the students that can potentially pass [the tests], but all the students. Everybody has a unique ability to bring to the table...Their parents trust us to teach them, especially these parents who come from other countries and specifically moved here so they can have a better life...and they really trust that their kids are in good hands. I can advocate only so much for [the students]. We have all these programs, but students who need that extra assistance aren’t getting it because they, on paper, don’t look like they’re going to pass [state tests]...They also need to know how to think on their own.” (Illinois)
“Does [my superintendent] know what I’m doing, what I’m trying to do to help the students in her district?...I think it’s [mostly about] becoming connected...I would love for her to see me.” (Michigan)
“Smaller classes would solve a lot of problems related to time management for teachers and grading and testing and all the pieces that the state pushes and wants as goals. But they’re not really willing to pay that price to make [those goals] realistic. Class sizes here are 36...it’s a full house. Every kid is exponentially more time and effort.” (Minnesota)
“I teach a lot of mindfulness...and I think people need to be more understanding of where kids are coming from. I think older generations don’t understand the importance of the [smart] phone and that part of [the kids’] lives. They just need to be more understanding of the kids and what they’re dealing with...and that just goes for everybody.” (New York)
“I would say try to reach out to new teachers. There should be some meeting or something that ties in those new teachers...if the superintendent would pull in those new teachers and connect with them, I think they’d feel more of a district feel and a district sense that I don’t think you get being so new with our district being so large...so you don’t feel lost in the shuffle. Even if it’s just a breakfast before school starts for all new teachers. That would also give all those new teachers a chance to connect with one another.” (Texas)
It’s All About the Kids
In our discussions with these millennial teachers, we closed by asking them to share an experience that has validated or reaffirmed their faith in being an educator. We hope that sharing some of the things these teachers said can serve as a nice reminder of why you do what you do, even on the hardest days.
“The other day I had a student come up and say ‘You’re kind of like my second mom’ and I’ve never heard that before and I was like, ‘Oh, this is awesome!’ If anything, I’ve wanted to be a role model for them...I’ve had so many great moments like that. I know this is where I’m supposed to be.” (Michigan)
“My students are definitely the reason why I go to school everyday. There’s no other reason. I get it...they make me laugh, you know. Some teachers get frustrated, but I remember [what it was like]...I do an activity here and there called a ‘vent circle’ and my students vent...it’s anonymous...they just write whatever they want to write down, put it in the middle [of the circle] and they read the notes randomly. Students are allowed to give their advice, but it has to be positive and productive and respectful...and my students open up, completely. All of them. And they’re all respectful. One girl was being bullied, and her fellow students all just came up to her and hugged her. I was in shock. They were like ‘We’re here.’” (New York)
“I think the thing that keeps a lot of teachers going is when they see students making the progress, making leaps forward, and they see them...realizing their potential and being proud of themselves. And the more often that happens, the more you see the results of your hard work.” (Minnesota)
“I remember a boy who came to me, performing below grade level, and I asked him one time if he needed his sweatshirt washed because he’d worn it everyday. Come to find out, his family had no electricity...and so the school worked to get that turned on for them. And over the course of the year, just by building that relationship with him, that I cared about him first, and cared about his well-being first...by the end of the year he had the highest achieving marks on his writing test, and passed the state test too. Educating the students is what we’re hired to do, but by building that rapport, and that caring relationship, they trust you to do what’s best for them.” (Mississippi)
“I evaluate students and so some of them I’ve now worked with for four years and seeing the really impressive progress [they’ve] made...that makes me feel good.” (Washington)
“In your first year, you kind of get to where you’re not sure ‘Are you really going to stick this out...is this really where you should be?’ I had a student whose parents were in prison, so he lived with his grandparents...things were just not always great at home for him...but he was a great student, he worked hard for his age, and he earned every bit of his grade. Close to Christmas, his mom was released from prison and decided that she would take him and leave, in the middle of the night. Didn’t tell anybody...he was just gone. So my student didn’t come back to school. His grandparents were frantic. So, you know, you look at that situation—because they really are just like your kids, you spend 8 hours a day with them—and it was really just that scary moment of ‘Okay, how do I even go in and tell my kids he’s not coming back to school for a while’?...What do you say?’ Two weeks later...he had come back to school...but he made himself sick everyday [living with his mom]. So, finally, child services stepped in and placed him back with his grandparents and he went to a different school. Having the rest of my class see him like this...and having them lean on [me] for that support...dealing with that within my first year made me realize that this is why I’m here...those kids need that teacher in that classroom everyday to say, ‘I’m here. I care about you. What do you need?’ That’s why I’ve taught for nine years. Because I need to be there, everyday, to say ‘I’m here, how can I help?’” (Texas)
*Responses have been edited for grammar and clarity.
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