What Would It Take to Attract Gen Z to Teaching?


With interest in the teaching profession waning and enrollment in teacher preparation programs reaching historic lows, all eyes are on the next crop of students — tomorrow’s prospective educators — to make up the deficit.

Today’s high school and college students are part of Generation Z, a group of people who range in age from 12 to 28, and have characteristics, attitudes and aspirations that distinguish them from prior generations.

In partnership with researchers at Vanderbilt University, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), a nonprofit that works to improve public education across 16 states in the Southeast, has been examining the next generation’s interest in the teaching profession and has published their findings in a report released in April.

Using extensive student survey data from ACT, a nonprofit assessment organization, along with state-level educator data and interviews with Gen Z teacher candidates and newly hired teachers, the researchers gained insight into Gen Z’s perceptions and motivations around teaching and identified opportunities to attract more of them into the field.

Though the study concentrates on two “data-rich” states, Kentucky and Tennessee, researchers say their findings are consistent with what one might expect to see nationally.

“A lot of trends in Kentucky and Tennessee mirror the trends in the South and across the nation,” says Megan Boren, project manager at SREB and a co-author of the report — with the caveat that teacher shortages are generally more severe in the South than in other parts of the U.S.

Gen Z is more college-going and tech-savvy than its predecessors. It is more racially and ethnically diverse. And according to a literature review conducted by the researchers, Americans who are part of Gen Z say they want jobs that provide financial security and ongoing support, along with flexibility, autonomy, collaboration and a sense of purpose.

Some of those characteristics are consistent with careers in education. Teaching, many would argue, is one of the most meaningful jobs available. It is not, however, known for its flexibility or pay.

As a result, members of Gen Z are less interested in becoming teachers than earlier generations. Enrollment in preparation programs began to dip around 2010, but it hit new lows once the first members of Gen Z (colloquially referred to as Zoomers) entered higher education in 2014, researchers found.

The decline has become worse in the decade since, says Thomas Smith, professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt and an author of the report.

Drawing on ACT data from the eight Southern states that require or pay for high schoolers to take the test, Smith and his colleagues found that, between 2013 and 2022, interest steadily dwindled. Because it was already minimal to begin with, the researchers say, this is a worrying trend.

“In our country, the best avenue that students have to excel, to achieve and to be part of this workforce is through education,” says Stephen Pruitt, president of SREB. “So if we don’t have the people who are able to teach our students, it’s going to be a severe cap on what people are able to do.”

There are ways to turn that trend around, Boren and Smith believe.

In the study, they found that participation in introductory high school teaching courses in Kentucky and Tennessee was increasing. It’s possible, they say, that the emergence of those classes has prevented even steeper declines among those entering the field, and that cultivating an early interest in education is key to building a strong pipeline. (It’s also possible, Smith adds, that such courses are popular because they are seen as “easier.”)

Data from the annual Tennessee Educator Survey found that more than half of early-career teachers entered college “already sure or pretty sure” that they wanted to go into education.

“That leads us to keep thinking about what can be done early on to get people hooked on teaching as a profession,” says Smith.

Boren agrees that early exposure could be a critical route for getting more people into educator preparation programs and, ultimately, classrooms.

“Teaching is less attractive than maybe it once was,” she acknowledges. “Parents are not encouraging their children to go into teaching. Sometimes teachers aren’t encouraging students to go into teaching. If we were able to turn that narrative around and introduce the wonderfulness of teaching to students early on, give them a taste of it — perhaps that can be one of the many ways we can get more folks into the classroom.”

Still, that tactic doesn’t solve the many downsides to teaching that Gen Z sees: rigid scheduling, isolation in classrooms, low compensation, lack of autonomy, and a lack of respect, appreciation and professionalization from the public.

“Gen Z is looking for flexibility,” Smith says. “Teaching has not traditionally been a flexible job.”

It’s a difficult reality, especially when many other jobs have only become more flexible since the pandemic; hybrid and remote working arrangements have stuck around in other sectors.

It’s not just about remote work, though, Boren says. “The way things have always been done is not attractive to Gen Z.” They want work-life balance. They want to incorporate “innovative technology use,” she says.

Boren says there are “hundreds” of examples of schools creatively building flexibility into the workday and work week for teachers.

One strategy is hiring additional support staff, allowing teachers to have guaranteed planning time or freeing them up to walk down the hall and observe a colleague teach a lesson. That lends itself to both flexibility and support, she notes. Boren shared about a district that opens one hour late on Wednesdays so staff can run errands or otherwise get that time back for themselves. She also mentioned a school in Oklahoma that worked with the community to set a schedule that allows teachers to have every Friday off work in April and May, when the weather is nice and morale may be slipping toward the end of the school year.

“A little bit of give and take is really what folks are asking for,” she says.

Those examples, so far, are sparing. Pruitt, the SREB president and a former teacher, concedes that in most places, trying to make any changes to the structure of the school day or week is going to be met with resistance.

“We’re in the same model we’ve been using since the 1800s,” he says, underscoring the challenge.

Members of Gen Z also want to be a part of work that is collaborative, which exists in pockets of the profession but is “not a strong tradition in teaching,” Smith says. “There’s much more of a tradition of being on your own in your class with your door closed.”

The relationship with students — along with the impact on young people and, by extension, society — is attractive to members of Gen Z, Boren and Smith say. It also aligns with what EdSurge has found in interviews with early-career teachers and teacher candidates who are part of Gen Z.

Yet a sense of purpose alone clearly isn’t sufficient to compel enough young people into the field.

Some members of Gen Z may have seen firsthand, as students, that their teachers were not given the support, tools or appreciation they needed to be successful, Smith notes. Others may have internalized negative narratives and perceptions of teaching that others share.

“Those messages are being picked up by lots of folks, and certainly Gen Z included,” says Smith. “It’s not doing us any favors to get more teachers.”



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