Y this Generation is ready to teach our children

22 February 2007

Can't read. Can't spell. Can't think. Don't care.

So goes the prevailing wisdom about Generation Y, those children of the eighties and nineties who are now emerging as finished "products" of Australia's much-maligned yet world-class education system.

To those of us who lived through the Cold War, Vietnam, Thatcherism and Reaganism, it comes as a shock to realise there is now a whole generation of voting-age young adults armed with apprenticeships and university degrees, many of whom were not even born when the Challenger and Chernobyl disasters occurred, and who are too young to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It is fashionable among baby boomers and Generation Xers to deride this upcoming generation as poorly educated, self-involved and undisciplined airheads. Many of us think they are too busy blasting their eardrums with iPods or exchanging text messages to pay any attention to the world around them. Perhaps the boomers and Xers, distracted by aching joints and fading eyesight, have forgotten times when they were on the receiving end of such criticisms (simply replace the iPods with Elvis or Sony Walkmans and the mobile phones with jazz bars or punk rock)?

At the other end of the scale, commentators and politicians have recently raised the opposite spectre: that the generation emerging from today's schools is too socially committed: that a left-leaning curriculum has resulted in a class of brainwashed revolutionaries brandishing Mao's Little Red Book. Caught between two extreme stereotypes - either disengaged and directionless or trainee Che Guevaras - they can't seem to win.

But amongst all this inter-generational banter there is one pressing question that should concern everybody: Any day now Gen Y teachers will be filling our children's and grandchildren's classrooms in large numbers. Are they ready to teach?

As a baby boomer and an Xer who are both closely involved with the teacher education process at the University of Sydney, we believe the answer is an unqualified "yes". At Sydney the results from three separate surveys of hundreds of Generation Y student teachers, undertaken by Dr Jacqueline Manuel, reveals a group of motivated, ambitious professionals who are committed to a long-term teaching career, and who were drawn to teaching by a combination of altruistic and personal factors.

Ten years ago remarkably little was known about why students chose teaching as a career. There is now a wealth of data, and we see the same resounding answers from numerous studies in the UK, USA and Australia.

Overwhelmingly Gen Y students are motivated to teach by a concern for the development of young people and society, and by the satisfying, challenging and rewarding nature of teachers' work — not because of the oft-quoted long holidays.

This explains why, at Sydney University, many students with entrance scores that qualify them for sought-after places and lucrative careers in law, economics or commerce have instead enrolled in teaching degrees. This point is significant, for while a 2006 study by economist Andrew Leigh concluded there has been a long-term decline in the quality of teacher candidates, our own surveys have found Gen Y teachers are 4.5 times more likely than the general populace to appear in the top 10 per cent of matriculation scores.

There are also welcome signs that Generation Y considers teaching to be a serious, long-term career. Teaching was the first choice for over two-thirds of those enrolled, and amongst the group for whom teaching was not the first choice, their first choice indicated a high degree of ambition in law, medicine, sciences, engineering and journalism. Even more encouraging, the majority expect to still be teaching a decade from now. These results counter the stereotype that teaching is a 'drop-in drop-out' career for those who have a low degree of professional aspiration.

Interestingly, there was little evidence that salary-driven or performance-based solutions to teacher recruitment will prove effective. Students rated salary amongst the least important factors in their decision to teach. Although higher teacher salaries are well-deserved (for a host of reasons to do with teachers' dedication and professionalism) many international studies have confirmed that those attracted to the profession by salary increases tend to have the shortest classroom careers.

Additionally, contrary to the notion that Generation Y is uninterested in the wellbeing of others, over two-thirds of students indicated a desire to teach in a public school. These results bode well for the future recruitment of high-quality graduates to the public school system.

Given the low importance student teachers place on salary, their high degree of community-mindedness and support for the public system, could there then be some truth to the accusation that we have a bunch of left-leaning revolutionaries on our hands, ready to storm our classrooms and brainwash our kids?

The data from our surveys does not support the portrayal of those in the teacher education system as leftist, activist or bent on political indoctrination of the young. Most of these students are 18 to 21 years of age (therefore recent products of the current school system) yet there is no evidence they have emerged from their secondary schooling with a proclivity for leftist political views.

Amongst the many reasons cited for wanting to teach, the desire for 'Social Justice' was rated toward the bottom of the scale, along with salary and working conditions. The low importance for such a characteristically leftist term, and the high importance ascribed to politically-neutral labels such as 'Desire to Help Others' and 'To Make a Difference', indicates these student teachers are no more leftist as a group than the general population.

Also noteworthy is that less than 2 per cent cited 'Character/Morals/Values' or 'Authority/Discipline/Control' as being the most important attributes they would seek to bring to the profession. This should not be read as a signal that they expect to teach classes free of values or without discipline, since the question merely asked about the most important quality they would bring to the profession. Rather, it suggests they do not perceive their main mission as teachers to be one of indoctrinating their students into a particular set of values.

Our studies reveal that those who are preparing to enter the teaching profession are outstanding individuals with a love of their subject and a desire to help others. As one student teacher who achieved a UAI of 99.5 said: "it has always been my dream to teach".

For those who are ready to write off incoming teachers as bubble-headed ne'er-do-wells or ideologically-driven social activists, the evidence of these studies should give pause. We need to re-consider the negative and unfair portrayal of Generation Y's qualities. Any parent would be pleased to know their children will be taught by such outstanding young people.

Mercurius Goldstein is a final-year student teacher at the University of Sydney. John Hughes is Pro-Dean of the Faculty of Education & Social Work at the University of Sydney. This article was based on a forthcoming study by Manuel & Hughes (2007).

Contact: Kath Kenny

Phone: 02 9351 2261 or 0434 606 100