Meeting Millennial Teachers on Their Own High-Tech Turf

by Lynne C. Lancaster

Ask Joan Cortlund, chief technology officer in the Sumner, Wash., School District, about Millennial Generation teachers and their social networking and you’ll elicit a passionate response.

“We need to meet these new teachers where they’re at and not try to fit the way they communicate or teach into the guidelines of my generation,” Cortlund says.

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At the same time, she is well aware of the challenges. “Millennials don’t know life without a computer, yet policies are being set by Baby Boomers like myself who aren’t always up to speed with technology and feel a responsibility to protect propriety and keep students safe.”

Collaborative Nature
With turnover on the rise among young teachers and the costs of recruiting and replacing them spiraling ever higher, school district administrators are feeling the pressure to create environments in which Millennial teachers (those born since 1982) not only survive but thrive. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the annual cost of teacher turnover nationwide amounts to $7.3 billion, but the psychic cost for administrators and the disruption to students when teachers leave are harder to estimate. What’s a district to do?

Understanding the Millennials — who they are and what makes them tick — will be key to implementing new practices for helping teachers succeed. Compared to the independent Gen Xers who came before them, Millennials are a highly collaborative generation. They’ve worked on team projects from middle school through college, and they’ve collaborated with family members at home on decisions like where to go on vacation or what electronic gadget to buy.

But when they enter full-time employment and are assigned to an individual classroom with a single mentor, they often feel isolated and unmotivated.

Also, this is a generation that sees technology not simply as a tool for getting things done, but as the basis for conducting their lives. Blocking Internet or e-mail access, tolerating poor bandwidth, or offering “old school” tools not only frustrates teachers of this age group, it can be a deal breaker.

Now the access-to-technology issue has been complicated by the advent of social networking. Websites like Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn provide Millennials with more than just ways to chat with friends and post photos. They can share ideas and opinions, conduct research, learn best practices and connect with colleagues. To be cut off from these opportunities in a profession that is already somewhat isolating might seem too high a price to pay.

Preventing Misuse
As a result, school districts face tough decisions regarding questions about teacher access as well as concerns around privacy, appropriateness and children’s safety if social networking sites are misused by students or staff. How can administrators respond?

Get grounded in the issues. Before wading into policy decisions, leaders should become familiar with new technologies and understand both the potential upsides and possible risks. Cortlund, who is also the past president of the Association for Computer Professionals in Education, said, “Many of the existing rules were made by Boomers like me who didn’t understand all that would be possible. We need to open our minds and rethink policies that are already outmoded.”

Understand the Millennials’ desire to collaborate. For this generation it won’t be enough to have a local mentor or two. These young people are accustomed to accessing a much wider world. Even as you worry about the dangers, such as posting unsuitable items or making inappropriate contact with students, consider the possibilities. Many schools are instituting professional learning communities. Who says they have to involve only teachers who can meet face to face? These networks soon will cross district, state or even national boundaries as young teachers look to share ideas with cohorts around the globe.

Create common-sense rules. Raised in a less formal society with fewer boundaries, Millennials tend to blur the lines between their personal and professional lives more than prior generations. Although they might post photos of a trip to Cancun on Facebook so co-workers can see them, they might not grasp why it’s unacceptable for students to see them. As one Millennial teacher put it, “If you can go into a classroom and see a picture of the teacher’s dog, why does it cross a boundary if it’s on a social networking website?”

Fears of everything from plagiarism to pedophiles and porn plague administrators whose gut reaction is to toss out the technology. One school district recently placed a ban on teachers sending text messages to students after a male coach was fired for sending sexually explicit text messages to an underage female. Other coaches were upset by the ban because they used texting to inform team members about practice and competition schedules.

In reality, districts simply want teachers to be appropriate online in the same ways they would be in person. The answer lies not in banning the tools, but in communicating the rules.

Put social networks to work for you. Under the rubric of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” companies like the accounting firm KPMG have pages on Facebook where Millennial new hires can meet one another and socialize online before they start work. They arrive for their first day on the job already feeling connected to the culture.

Studies show Millennials who connect with others early on are more likely to be retained. Can you use social networks in recruiting and induction or in helping teachers share concerns or teaching techniques throughout their careers?

Teach the teachers. Don’t assume anybody knows the rules. Millennials may never have been told explicitly what is allowed and what is not. They need to understand privacy laws and how these play out — for example, any incident involving a child should not be discussed publicly.

It helps to view the advent of new technologies as a teachable moment for everyone. Older teachers may be unfamiliar with new tools and thus may resist new ways to collaborate online.

Finally, when working to retain Millennial teachers, highlight all the ways your school district already is on top of technology. In the Sumner, Wash., district, every new hire gets a week of training before school starts, including a full day on technology and social-networking opportunities in the district and in the building to which they are assigned. After all, technology is here to stay, and if you’ve got it, you might as well flaunt it.

Lynne Lancaster is a consultant on generational issues based in Sonoma, Calif., and co-author (with David Stillman) of the upcoming book The M-Factor: How to Turn the Millennial Generation’s Great Expectations into Even Greater Results (HarperCollins). E-mail: