3 Ways to Get Millennials to Teach

By Anthony Kim

What millennials want in a workplace has already become the stuff of clichés. Beanbag chairs, beer on tap and a smorgasbord of free lunch options.

However, many of their requests don’t seem all that shallow or unreasonable. They crave flexible hours, and plenty of feedback from their bosses. In fact, they want it all, and they want to feel creatively stimulated while they do it. It’s a brave new world for today’s 20-something workers.

Unfortunately, my industry — education — is falling far short of the ideal millennial workplace. I’d argue that today’s schoolroom environment is the antithesis of the new, modern, flexible workplace environment that millennials want. And it’s hurting us.

The stats are grim. Teacher prep programs have seen a huge drop in enrollment: over 35 percent in the past five years. At 8 percent, the attrition rate of teachers in the U.S. is far higher than in countries like Singapore or Finland, and the province of Ontario, where teachers are paid very well. Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute, says that slashing that attrition rate in half would solve our country’s teacher shortage problem.

But we can’t do that without getting millennials excited about the idea of showing up to a classroom to work.

Many of the solutions that have been proposed so far involve increasing pay and incentives, giving teachers more training, and recruiting better principals, all of which are great ideas. But we also desperately need to improve the actual experience of being in a classroom with rigid hours, the inability to take breaks when necessary, an often-unclear career path, frequent lack of recognition, and 25 kids who need to learn very specific things by very specific deadlines. We need to change the entire structure of the school “workplace” in order to make it more attractive to millennials and more effective for our kids. Here’s what I propose:

Make school flexible. Flexible hours and open, collaborative workspaces are par for the course at many startups and tech jobs. The market is giving millennial workers what they want; as one Bentley University study showed, 77 percent of millennials think that a flexible schedule will make them better, more productive workers. But those workspaces seem light years away from today’s classroom setting, where kids show up at 8 a.m. and leave at 3 p.m., and teachers necessarily have to do the same.

But why are we so resigned to this reality? If changing the demands of the classroom to allow teachers to create their own schedule would get us better teachers, we should pivot happily. For example: in rural settings, the school district is often not just the largest employer, but the center of the community (think “Friday Night Lights”). What if schools like these were open longer hours, becoming more of a center for learning than a place where learning happened during very specific times? There could be a recreation area where students hang out before actually starting class. Co-teaching could become the norm, allowing teachers even more flexibility. Within this new structure, teachers would have more freedom to set their own schedules, instead of clocking in and out at regular times, an action that, quite frankly, is starting to seem dated.

We could give more flexibility and freedom to the students, too. For example, at the Mark Zuckerberg-backed AltSchool, students have the opportunity to change homerooms. That creates competition in the school to make teachers more customer-service oriented, if you will. This would be a small step towards attracting those ambitious, high-achieving millennials that the Texas Association of School Boards says the field is struggling to attract.

Give teachers autonomy, but check up on them. We often assume that millennials are obsessed with progressing up the corporate ladder, but that’s not necessarily what “high-achieving” means to them. If you look at the gig economy boom, you see plenty of millennials that are willing to trade high-powered corporate success for a sense that they are in charge of their own work. Call it autonomy, call it purpose — this generation wants it, and schools aren’t giving them enough of it.

Millennials may go into teaching expecting to change young lives, but they show up and are immediately given a script to follow: They’ve got 180 days to teach a certain amount of third grade content, so the content is divided up by 180 for them, and they’re often advised how to fill up each section of 50 minutes during a standard school day. This is infuriating for ambitious young people.

Of course, some things do need to be done a certain way (like phonics), but as professionals, teachers should have freedom to make plenty of their own decisions as well. Just like inflexible classrooms, this scripted model of teaching feels more and more dated. Are we still in a world where a top-down push of what to teach on a certain day makes sense, or should teachers feel like they have the resources and support to make decisions in the classroom? If we don’t move toward the latter model, then millennials aren’t going to be interested in the profession, period.

Perhaps because many current classroom situations don’t give teachers much freedom, the level of oversight can be shockingly low. In my own work with schools, I’m constantly surprised by how infrequently district administrators actually visit their classrooms. This makes teachers (of all ages) feel unseen, even disposable — and millennials crave praise and critical feedback as much as anyone; in fact, it’s something they’re often unfairly criticized for. So is it any wonder that they’re leaving the profession?

In 2012, the Gates Foundation surveyed over 10,000 public school teachers, and found that 68 percent of teachers believed that supportive leadership was “absolutely essential” if they were going to stay at their current teaching job. We need to let teachers do their thing, and then support them as they do it — which means that school administrators need to step inside classrooms more than they currently do.

Bring in more technology. No, I’m not advocating for robot teachers. But infusing more edtech into the classroom could change the whole idea of what a teacher is, and this may very well make the profession more attractive to millennials. For example, there’s still a cliched idea floating around that education is an “easy” major. But if working with tech and developing even fairly light tech skills were part of a teaching career, that would make it far more attractive to millennials, especially as some of those skills could be portable to other fields (i.e. data analysis).

Edtech also makes the teaching career path feel more fulfilling — and millennials want to feel like they’re serving a greater goal in their workplace. When teachers have a chance to collect and pore over data from their classrooms, they can see the incremental progress that specific students have made on specific skills. This holistic view, over weeks or months, can be hugely helpful for teachers’ morale, showing them that they are quite literally making a difference. Plus, edtech adds diversity of experience to the classroom, which could help attract individuals who still consider education easy or even boring. Increasingly flexible classrooms enabled by edtech allow teachers to experiment and build from year to year, to collaborate in new ways, to pilot new technologies and so on. The infusion of technology (which is inherently flexible) into the rigid structure of the schoolroom can’t help but shake things up.

All in all, we need to pivot in how we think about and structure the classroom, in order to attract Millennials to the teaching force and solve our teacher shortage problems. To use a seemingly unrelated example: remember when being a barista or a bartender was a pretty routine job? Now, those same gigs have been been elevated into an art form, and crafting a $6 latte or shaking up a $15 cocktail is something that many Millennials take incredible pride in. Those jobs were infused with creativity, individuality, and purpose, and now those workers take ownership of their results. If we can help teachers feel the same about their schooldays (fueled by the occasional $6 coffee, perhaps), we could see a similar creative boom in teaching, too.

Anthony Kim is the CEO and founder of Education Elements
- This article was originally published in US News on April 10, 2017