Giving Everyone a Reason to Teach

June 26th, 2014



The first time I stepped in front of a class of 27 seventh graders—all at different levels, with varying needs and wildly diverse backgrounds and personalities—I knew this job was going to be anything but average. No matter how tired or stressed-out I was about making a particular lesson perfect, my students counted on me every single day to bring my “A game.” This meant figuring out on the fly how to teach mitosis when the light bulb on my projector burned out. Or hitching a ride to school from a tow truck driver after my car broke down so that I wouldn’t be late to my students’ first frog dissection. Or painstakingly figuring out exactly which student still needed help on which standard, unit after unit.

I still look back on my three years in the classroom as both the hardest and most rewarding years of my professional life. The skills I acquired—quick-wittedness, leadership, relentless prioritization—all set me up for success in my current role in the policy world. Yet, despite what current and former teachers know to be true about the demands of the job, data from a new Third Way poll of high-achieving undergraduate students shows that most Millennials have a very different, and somewhat alarming, perception of the teaching profession:

  • Fully half of these students believe that the teaching profession has gotten less prestigious in the last few years.
  • They consistently ranked education as one of the easiest majors, with only 9% viewing it as “very difficult.”
  • Only 35% described teachers as “smart.”
  • Teaching was ranked as the top profession that Millennials believe “average” people choose.

I think it’s no secret that teaching has an image problem, and in many cases, it’s rightfully deserved. With varying certification processes in each state, very few opportunities for advancement within the career, and compensation that rivals that of administrative assistants, it’s easy to see how top-tier Millennials could overlook the many professional benefits unique to teaching in favor of other well-established careers. But with the U.S. having to hire approximately 3 million new teachers over the next decade, now is the time to modernize the profession so that teaching can meet the standards of a 21st-century career and consistently attract the best and brightest.

In many ways, the poll revealed that what high-achieving Millennials want out of a career directly conflicts with many of the policies that exist in teaching today. For example, 43% of those polled said they planned to stay in their first job for less than five years, and a high percentage ranked “opportunities to advance” and “salary for those established in the career” as two of the top considerations taken into account when selecting a job. In teaching, the current career ladder in most schools consists of either staying in the same position for 30 years, or leaving the classroom to become a principal. The installation of new leadership pipelines and built-in career stages attached to higher compensation would make teaching much more palatable for those who seek consistent growth and merit-based promotions.

We also know that a lot of state-driven policies like certification requirements and retirement systems unfairly penalize teachers who participate in the new highly mobile Millennial workforce. While some states have reciprocity, moving from state to state can place an unnecessarily high burden on teachers, often requiring them to repeat coursework, pay expensive licensure fees, or in some cases, start completely from scratch. The same can be said for traditionally defined benefit pension systems that often require five to ten years to vest, and whose benefits are not portable across state lines. Instead, a rigorous national licensure exam could certify teachers in every state, and new, portable cash-balance retirement systems could free up money for states and districts to pay higher salaries upfront rather than provide backloaded retirement benefits that most new teachers will never see.

I am grateful that Teach For America gave me a reason to take a closer look at a profession that I may have otherwise snubbed. Without my teaching experience, I would have never learned the power behind positive behavior reward systems (seventh graders love stickers) or about my uncanny ability to spot a note being passed, even with my back turned. Most important, however, I would have never ended up dedicating my career to working on an issue as important as improving our nation’s schools. My hope is that through a concerted effort to reform the profession, teaching will finally be viewed in this country as the rigorous and dynamic career that it truly is. I know we still have a long way to go, but I feel confident that one day, it will be impossible to not give teaching the consideration it deserves.


This article was originally published in the Teach for America blog.