What Matters to Millennial Teachers?

May 17, 2018

A guide to inspiring, supporting, and retaining the newest generation of educators.

This probably won’t be surprising to you: A supportive, intentional orientation process has the power to welcome new teachers and help keep them in the classroom. But what might be surprising is what to include in that orientation process—and how to execute it to most benefit the current generation of novice teachers.

In my former work as a new-teacher induction coach and in my current work as an educational consultant, I have observed firsthand how districts welcome teachers and orient them into the field. What’s often lacking, because of time constraints and demanding schedules, is a thoughtful, strategic approach to the process. We need to think more deeply about orientation and make it a sincere and thoughtful greeting to those who will join our team.

This is true especially as we look to engage our Millennials—and soon Gen Z—in the profession. While there are many individuals joining the field as career switchers, most new teachers today are likely be Millennials—born between 1980–2000. In general, these teachers are very different from Generation X or Baby Boomers in both their needs and what motivates them.

Indeed, in a 2016 Gallup poll, only 6 percent of superintendents believed that their district understood Millennials’ needs (Hodges). If the teacher pipeline is going to thrive, we need to rethink the way we recruit, train, and motivate these younger teachers. Districts will need to adapt and change the way we approach both onboarding and supporting this generation of educators.

Who are these teachers and what do they need? Let’s take a closer look.

Who Are the Millennials?

While Millennials are sometimes stereotyped as being entitled and overly dependent, many of us who’ve worked with them know there is another side to the story: Many of these young people are high-achieving, tenacious, confident, and progressive educators. They are often high-energy multi-taskers who are deeply tech savvy and globally minded. The largest generation in U.S. history, this group has had technology at their fingertips for their whole lives. They live without landlines or cable packages, they are accustomed to timely, customized services like Amazon Prime and Uber, and they have always been able to find out just about anything by Googling it.

These new teachers, in their 20s and early 30s, can bring enthusiasm, tech-readiness, competence, and a spirit of collaboration into the workplace. Many of them are accustomed to working in teams and enjoy having support and structure. A district’s orientation and onboarding process must reflect and meet the technology, transparency, and collaborative strengths these young people bring to the table.

What Do Millennials Need from the Administration?

School leaders need to anticipate these new teachers’ needs from the moment they are hired (whether it’s in the spring or right before the start of the school year) in order to keep them supported and engaged. Because they’ve grown up in a world where they can find “just in time” support anywhere from a You Tube video to a library website, Millennials will thrive in a school environment where their administration responds quickly and provides plenty of timely information.

Your onboarding and orientation programming should align with the needs of these teachers. Some generationally savvy ways to successfully onboard them include the following:

Onboard Quickly and with Attention

Once a teacher has signed their contract, there should be a speedy next step. Quick responses are something most Millennials are accustomed to. New teachers should be contacted immediately by their administrator or a mentor, and that person should, within the first week or two, share information such as the courses and curriculum the new teacher will teach, texts to review over the summer, and key contact information for school personnel.

American United College in Kuwait, a school that prides itself on having a truly welcoming experience for new teachers, hires on a rolling basis, and once a teacher has signed a contract, that teacher begins corresponding with a mentor or fellow teacher. In those early months, answers to questions are offered immediately as they come up.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. One new middle school math teacher shared with me that he signed his contract with a district in May, but no one communicated with him for months. His district also never let him know which math classes he would be teaching until August. He felt that was a waste of a summer—a period in which he could have been prepping for his courses and forming a strong connection to his colleagues and the district at large.

Be Clear on Policies Up Front

Many Millennials love rubrics and models. They like specific details and the ability to ask questions and get clarification (Abrams & von Frank, 2016). Throwing out words (like differentiation, inclusivity, rigor) without actions will be met with skepticism at best and frustration at worst. Create an orientation that supports new teachers and includes clarity before any accountability might take place. If you want to focus on differentiation, inclusivity, or rigor, for example, make sure you clearly define what those words mean in your school’s vision, since they can mean different things to different people.

One administrator shared with me that she had been talking about “high-yield strategies” for four years without realizing that she hadn’t held a workshop about that concept for more than four-and-a-half years. None of the newer staff knew what she actually meant. Teachers may leave the profession for a variety of reasons, but lack of clarity about what’s expected of them doesn’t need to be one of them.

Get Technology into Their Hands as Soon as Possible

Digital natives have been teaching in our schools for some time, so by now new teachers’ technology transition should be seamless. Make sure their email accounts are ready for them. Provide immediate access to and training in the grading and communication systems for students and families. Let them know what digital tools and software programs are available to them for instructional use (and whether they can integrate their own devices) and give them the time and freedom to experiment.

Younger teachers may also be interested in learning about the school’s social media, internet, and email policies. They will want to know, for example, what the parameters are for what they can post and access online and whether there are restrictions on digital communications with students. Social media policies are different in every district. A new teacher will want to know things like, Can I post selfies with students in my classroom? What permissions do I need? Should I have a separate personal and professional Twitter handle?

When you have a policy in place, be sure to review it with everyone—new and returning teachers—to prevent any miscommunication. Teachers who’ve been communicating online their whole lives might not realize that their district’s view of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior is different from their own. One district in the Midwest found itself in a tricky position when someone in human resources noticed that a teacher who’d taken a sick day posted on Facebook that she’d been to a viewing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show the night before and just needed to sleep in a bit and “rest up.” We need to make sure that Millennials—and all teachers—understand the concept that no matter how you set your privacy settings, nothing is truly “personal” when posted on social media.

Give Them Homework

We’ve all been part of an orientation where time is wasted watching required videos on anything from blood-borne pathogens to sexual harassment policies. While this information is important, it can also be watched at home or outside of school, freeing up time for in-person discussions about other needs, such as your district’s instructional directives and frameworks.

California’s Palo Alto Unified School District starts off its orientation days by describing valued practices and behaviors in classrooms, its priorities regarding curriculum alignment, and its understanding of what it means to be a professional. This grounds everyone in the specific culture of the district. For Millennials in particular, this connection to the instructional team, the specificity of what is expected, and the alignment to the importance of what one is doing for students is motivating, as they like to make a difference right from the beginning.

Support Them with a Coach

Does your school have a coaching or mentoring program for newer teachers? The research on the benefits of such programs is clear. The New Teacher Center (2017) has found that students can gain additional learning when new teachers get high-quality mentoring. Having someone to listen to, question, and collaborate with can also help new teachers feel more connected and supported in their practice. The New Teacher Center also found that in one Florida district it worked with, new teacher retention increased by 31 percent after a coaching program was introduced.

Millennials are reshaping the workplace from one where leaders used command and control to oversee their employees to a more collaborative, team-based space led by coaches “who guide and partner with employees to achieve goals” (Hodges, 2016). This new generation wants to be seen as valued partners and have mentors to bounce ideas off of to create change.

On-Site Support

In the book The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicate, Collaborate & Create Community (Abrams & Von Frank, Corwin, 2013), my co-author and I discuss the best ways for professionals of all generations to work together to create a harmonious workplace. Part of the path to success is knowing exactly what needs to be done and who is responsible for each task—small or big.

In our chapter on recruitment and retention, we include a checklist of priority issues to address at the start of the school year, including classroom set-ups, supplies, curriculum requirements, collaboration, school policies, assessment, evaluations, discipline, and more. We believe that newer teachers need knowledge, skills, and as many resources at their disposal as they can get to start the school year—but sometimes these needs can fall through the cracks in the hustle and bustle of a new academic year.

A checklist can also be helpful to administrators who are starting at a new school and may not yet know all the inner workings of the school. In one district, I distributed the checklist to all new teachers, all new teacher coaches, department chairs, and principals. Together, they decided who would work with the new teachers on the specific tasks and details, which made the action items much easier to plan and execute.

New Teachers, Aspiring Leaders

“When recruiting Millennials, I’m frequently peppered with questions about the company’s value system, speed of career advancement, and the opportunity to learn,” says Scott Corrigan, director of human resources for media giant Hearst Magazines (Galloway, 2013). Many Millennials are eager and ready for new learning and opportunities, sooner rather than later. In education, however, states and districts often require teachers to have at least three, if not five or seven, years in the profession before taking on formal leadership roles. The process may be even slower in individual schools. These restrictions may not sit well with younger teachers who want to take on leadership responsibilities or explore new roles, especially if they see their peers in other professions being promoted sooner and more often.

School and district leaders need to be aware of this eagerness and, rather than becoming frustrated, try to find ways to support the leadership interests of younger teachers. Millennials are globally minded, want to make a difference in their work, and need the tools to do so. School systems should want to support and leverage new teachers’ interests in social justice, professional growth, and meaningful employment. Otherwise, they will lose them. If you can’t advance new teachers to formal leadership positions, at least try to provide them with opportunities to conduct peer observations, attend conferences, run book studies, and facilitate Twitter chats.

One great example of this approach comes from the Institute for Education Leadership in Ontario, Canada, which works in partnership with the Ministry of Education to provide each district and board regional professional learning opportunities and a variety of online supports to build aspiring leaders’ skill sets from the start (Ontario Ministry of Education).

In our districts and our schools, how we welcome new teachers is within our sphere of control, as is how we support them as they move forward in the profession. If we can provide them with all the essential information up front, give them leadership and learning opportunities where possible, and be willing to adapt to their needs and interests, we will begin to grow the next generation of teacher superstars.

This post was originally written by Jennifer and published in ASCD’s Educational Leadership, Volume 75, Number 8.

About Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams considers herself a "voice coach," helping others learn how to best use their voices – be it collaborating on a team, presenting in front of an audience, coaching a colleague and supervising an employee. Jennifer holds a Master's degree in Education from Stanford University and a Bachelor's degree in English from Tufts University. She lives in Palo Alto, California. Jennifer's publications include Having Hard Conversations, The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicating, Collaborating & Creating Community and Hard Conversations Unpacked – the Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs. She has also created a Corwin Press e-course by the same name.

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