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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 2010
Vol. 67
No. 8

Realizing the Promise of Generation Y

The influx of young teachers into our schools presents both challenges and opportunities.

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Generation Y is about to put the "force" in the United States' teacher workforce. In the year 2000, Gen Y members—born between 1977 and 1995—accounted for just 16 percent of U.S. workers; that percentage was projected to grow to 38 percent by 2010 and to 44 percent by 2020 (see fig. 1, p. 30). The number of Gen Y teachers has doubled in just four years (Coopersmith & Gruber, 2009), and these individuals currently account for nearly one-fifth of the teaching population.
Figure 1. The U.S. Workforce by Generation

Realizing the Promise of Generation Y - table


Born Between

Estimated Size

Percentage of the U.S. Workforce in 2000

Projected Percentage of the U.S. Workforce in 2010

Projected Percentage of the U.S. Workforce in 2020

Mature1922–194575 million13%3%0%
Boomers1946–196477 million48%37%20%
Gen X1965–197650 million22%22%20%
Gen Y1977–199476 million16%38%44%
As baby boomers reach retirement age, Gen Y teachers are set to have a profound influence on the profession, as well as on the schools in which they teach. That influence can be positive if school leaders work to harness the great promise this generation holds.
A national study conducted by Public Agenda and Learning Point Associates (2009) sheds light on the attitudes and needs of Gen Y teachers. The study consisted of a phone survey of 890 public school teachers (including 290 Gen Y teachers) as well as eight focus groups. Here we discuss what the study's results can tell us about helping all teachers, especially those in Gen Y, become more effective.

What Gen Y Brings to the Table

When we think of Gen Y, we tend to think first of technology. Indeed, members of Gen Y are digital natives for whom technology is a ubiquitous part of life:
The older Gen X goes online to accomplish a task and then walks away from the computer. Gen Y goes online and offline seamlessly and does not make a distinction between one and the other. Younger people expect to be able to communicate with others anytime and anywhere (Shaffer, 2008, p. 2).
Gen Y members take high-functioning technology for granted; they use their technology skills creatively to advance the task at hand and achieve results. They combine this can-do attitude with many other qualities that could make them effective teachers. They tend to be highly educated, to value education, and to have strong moral values. They are eager to see their daily work contribute to positive change in the world (Coggshall, Ott, Behrstock, & Lasagna, 2009; Shaffer, 2008; Wong & Wong, 2007).
For those members of Gen Y who become teachers, the decision to teach often stems from their desire to use their knowledge and experience, at least for a portion of their diverse careers, to improve the world around them. In the Public Agenda/Learning Points Associates survey, all but 4 percent of Gen Y teachers said that "putting under-privileged kids on the path to success" was one of the reasons they entered the teaching profession; nearly 40 percent said this was one of the most important reasons, compared with only 24 percent of older teachers. This strong desire to serve disadvantaged students has positive implications for creating a more equitable distribution of effective teachers between high-poverty and low-poverty schools.
At the core, like other teachers, Gen Y teachers want more than anything else to be effective. Surveys consistently find that factors reducing teachers' feelings of effectiveness (such as large class size, heavy workloads, and problems with parental and student conflicts) are key drivers of teacher attrition (DeAngelis, Peddle, & Trott, 2002; Ingersoll & Smith, 2003; Marvel, Lyter, Peltola, Strizek, & Morton, 2007).
Initiatives that enhance teacher effectiveness make teachers of all generations more content with their careers. But for members of Gen Y, who are highly motivated to achieve and make a difference, such initiatives will be even more crucial to secure a committed, satisfied, new generation of teachers.

Helping Gen Y Teachers Be More Effective

What supports are particularly important in helping Gen Y teachers be more effective? The research suggests the following factors.

Supportive School Leadership

Members of Gen Y grew up with parents and teachers who closely monitored and supported them to help them succeed in their chosen pursuits. Even when making career decisions, Gen Y members often consult with their parents and are receptive to the advice of more experienced, wiser role models whom they trust and admire (Yuva, 2007).
When they enter teaching, Gen Y members look to principals and other school leaders to fill the role of advisor. More than the generations of teachers before them, they value regular feedback on their performance. In the Public Agenda/Learning Point Associates survey, 70 percent of Gen Y teachers said they "prefer having a principal who frequently observes my classroom and gives me detailed feedback on how I am doing," compared with 61 percent of older teachers. A Denver high school teacher said in a focus group for the study, "I'm not at the point where I want to be as a teacher. I want that feedback. I want them coming in and telling me what's going wrong."
This desire has been the subject of some debate. Some educators view Gen Y as narcissistic, craving attention and constant affirmation to maintain the feelings of encouragement showered on them by "misguided" parents and teachers (Erikson, 2008). However, the desire for regular, in-depth feedback can also be a strength, reflecting an ambition to enhance individual performance in order to contribute to the success of an organization (NAS Recruitment Communications, 2006).
School leaders who provide inadequate instructional support can dampen the desire of Gen Y members to teach and to teach well. Unfortunately, teachers of all ages responding to the Public Agenda/Learning Point Associates survey seem to feel a lack of such support: Only one-fourth said that their principals do an "excellent" job of providing useful instructional feedback, whereas 40 percent reported that their principals do only a fair or poor job.
Across all generations, inadequate school leadership is the second most cited factor (after low salaries) contributing to the departure of teachers who leave their schools or the profession because of dissatisfaction. Specifically, 51 percent of those who transfer and 32 percent of those who leave the profession cite poor administrative support as a primary reason for their decision (Ingersoll, 2003).

Parental Engagement

Gen Y respondents to the Public Agenda/Learning Point Associates survey indicate that the most important single factor they would change to improve the teaching profession is parental engagement. Twenty-three percent of Gen Y survey respondents (compared with only 9 percent of older respondents) believed that greater parental involvement, accountability, support, and communication would improve the quality of the teaching profession.

Adequate Resources for Public Education

In the Public Agenda/Learning Point Associates survey, the second most commonly cited factor that Gen Y teachers believe will strengthen the teaching profession was secure and equal education funding. This factor was cited by 12 percent of Gen Y survey respondents (compared with only 5 percent of respondents in other generations) as the most effective way to improve the teaching profession.
In other words, Gen Y will not expect high-quality education to be delivered without substantial taxpayer investment. Because Gen Y on the whole is education-minded and driven to pursue a more tolerant society, we can hope that Gen Y teachers and nonteachers alike may be more likely than past generations to support greater funding for teaching and education.

Supportive and Trustworthy Colleagues

Gen Y employees place a high value on relationships. They want to make time to foster these relationships, and they come to work with the assumption that such relationship building will be respected and that opportunities for socialization will be provided (Lovely, Buffum, & Barth, 2007; Shaffer, 2008). In fact, when it comes to fostering good working conditions in a school, the first thing that comes to mind for 14 percent of Gen Y teachers (compared with 9 percent of non-Gen Y teachers) is a positive, welcoming, caring atmosphere.
Of course, strengthening relationships can improve the job satisfaction of teachers of all ages. Surveys of North Carolina teachers from all generations revealed that more than two-thirds of those who intended to remain in their school viewed their school atmosphere as trusting and respectful, compared with approximately one-third of teachers who intended to leave their school and with fewer than one-half of those who intended to leave the profession (Hirsch, Emerick, Church, & Fuller, 2006, 2007).

Continuing Challenges

Although there are many reasons to be optimistic about the changes that Gen Y is bringing to the teaching profession, there are also causes for concern.
First, investing in Gen Y talent is riskier for a school or district than investing in talent from previous generations because Gen Y members are less oriented to long-term careers and less loyal to employers who do not help them meet their professional aspirations. Across all sectors, only 45 percent of Gen Y workers expect to work for their current employer for their entire career (Hewlett, Sherbin, & Sumberg, 2009).
Another challenge related to Gen Y is that this group has high—arguably unrealistic—hopes for what a career should offer. Gen Y members are accustomed to product and service customization and, therefore, desire a personalized work experience that is flexible enough to meet work-life balance preferences (Shaffer, 2008). Further, they desire differentiated, professional learning opportunities to mirror the individualized attention they received from parents and teachers when they were young (Richardson, 2008).
Finally, a school's attempts to accommodate Gen Y may bother some veterans in the profession. Veteran teachers often do not understand Gen Y's need for constant feedback; they may view Gen Y members' self-confidence and motivation as arrogance.

Making the Most of Gen Y

Too often, the realities of schools challenge the career and work expectations of Gen Y teachers—and, indeed, of all new teachers. The following strategies can help school leaders maximize the promise that Gen Y brings to the teaching profession and to our schools.
Provide opportunities for Gen Y teachers to receive regular feedback from knowledgeable administrators as well as from their peers. Use student work samples and student achievement data to make this feedback concrete and credible. When a Gen Y teacher has mastered an instructional practice, allow others to observe him or her. One Gen Y high school teacher said in a focus group, "You want to observe teachers who are doing the right things. There are not a lot of them. But trying to find teachers from our generation, on our same page, who are doing the kinds of things that we should be doing would help me be more effective."
Help Gen Y teachers map out their careers. Talk with them about their expectations for their futures as teachers. Consider changes to the career advancement opportunities in your district. Opportunities for teacher leadership positions, such as mentor or coach, and for flexibility, such as job sharing or policy involvement, help Gen Y teachers see that their careers need not stagnate.
Consider making part-time teaching opportunities available to Gen Y, Gen X, and boomer teachers alike. Teachers of each generation might have family responsibilities that prevent them from working full-time effectively (and with satisfaction), or they may wish to explore other aspects of education without completely leaving the classroom.
For example, the Massachusetts-based Teach Plus program promotes long-term teacher retention by increasing teachers' voices in policymaking. The program mobilizes teacher advocacy for the profession, connecting teachers to innovative opportunities in policy, developing differentiated roles and pay systems in teaching, and providing policymakers with high-quality research and technical assistance (Teach Plus, 2010). Likewise, the U.S. Department of Education's Teacher Ambassador Fellowships involve teachers in national education policy by giving them opportunities to collaborate with policymakers and leaders in the federal government.
Provide opportunities for significant intergenerational learning. The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, for example, has been working to help schools build true professional learning communities in which young teachers share their collaborative skills, knowledge of social media, and the research-based instructional strategies learned in preparation programs with veteran teachers who, in turn, share their experience-based knowledge of content and how children learn.
Look to the future and give Gen Y teachers a greater stake in the sustainability of the teaching profession. Provide opportunities for Gen Y teachers to talk about their experiences with high school students who are beginning to form career goals and to begin recruiting the next new generation of teachers.

Transforming Teaching for All

The influx of Gen Y teachers and the attention given to their recruitment and retention is both a challenge and an opportunity. To improve the teaching profession, school leaders need to determine how the cohort of Gen Y teachers now entering our schools can drive positive reforms for all teachers. If school leaders understand the unique characteristics of Gen Y members as well as the needs and attitudes they share with their older colleagues, this new generation of teachers can become a force for transforming teaching and learning.

Carter, C., & Carter, K. (2001). When generations collide [PowerPoint]. Johnson City: East Tennessee State University, Employment Development Center.

Coggshall, J., Ott, A., Behrstock, E., & Lasagna, M. (2009). Supporting teacher effectiveness: The view from Generation Y. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates & New York: Public Agenda.

Coopersmith, J., & Gruber, K. J. (2009).Characteristics of public, private, and Bureau of Indian Education elementary and secondary school teachers in the United States: Results from the 2007–08 Schools and Staffing Survey (NCES 2009-324). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Available: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009324.pdf

DeAngelis, K. J., Peddle, M., & Trott, C. (2002). Teacher supply in Illinois: Evidence from the Illinois Teacher Study. Edwardsville: Illinois Education Research Council. Available: http://ierc.siue.edu/documents/kdReport1202_Teacher_Supply.pdf

Erikson, T. (2008). Is Gen Y really all that narcissistic? Harvard Business Publishing. Available: http://blogs.hbr.org/erickson/2008/02/is_gen_y_really_all_that_narci.html

Hewlett, S., Sherbin, L., & Sumberg, K. (2009). How Gen Y and boomers will reshape your agenda. Harvard Business Review, 87(7), 71–76.

Hirsch, E., Emerick, S., Church, K., & Fuller, E. (2006). North Carolina teacher working conditions survey interim report. Chapel Hill, NC: Center for Teaching Quality.

Hirsch, E., Emerick, S., Church, K., & Fuller, E. (2007). Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions: A report on the 2006 North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey. Hillsborough, NC: Center for Teaching Quality.

Ingersoll, R. M. (2003). Is there really a teacher shortage? Seattle, WA: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy. Available: http://depts.washington.edu/ctpmail/PDFs/Shortage-RI-09-2003.pdf

Ingersoll, R. M., & Smith, T. M. (2003). The wrong solution to the teacher shortage. Educational Leadership, 60(8), 30–33.

Lovely, S., Buffum, A., & Barth, R. S. (2007). Generations at school: Building an age-friendly learning community. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Marvel, J., Lyter, D. M., Peltola, P., Strizek, E. A., & Morton, B. A. (2007). Teacher attrition and mobility: Results from the 2004–05 teacher followup survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

NAS Recruitment Communications. (2006).Generation Y: The millennials. Ready or not, here they come (NAS Insights). Cleveland, OH: Author.

Public Agenda & Learning Point Associates. (2009). Unpublished survey on Retaining Teacher Talent. Naperville, IL, & New York: Authors.

Richardson, J. (2008). Tune in to what the new generation of teachers can do. Tools for Schools, 11(4), 1–8. Available: www.nsdc.org/news/getDocument.cfm?articleID=1668

Shaffer, J. (2008). Gen Y talent: How to attract and retain the young and the restless (White Paper). Redwood Shores, CA: Saba. Available: www.saba.com/resources/whitepapers/saba_wp_gen_y_talent.pdf

Teach Plus. (2010). Teach Plus: Opportunities for teachers, results for urban students[Website]. Available: www.teachplus.org

Wong, H. K., & Wong, R. T. (2007). Teachers: The next generation. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Available: www.newteacher.com/pdf/ascd_express_wong_teachers.pdf

Yuva, J. (2007). Corporations should know Y. Inside Supply Management, 20–23. Available: www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/us_mfg_GenY_210907.pdf

Ellen Behrstock–Sherratt has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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