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To Teach or Not to Teach, That Is the Question

Ph.D. student Zid Mancenido looks at what it will take to encourage high-achieving students to pursue careers as teachers
Zid Mancenido
Zid Mancenido

Through his research, Ph.D. student Zid Mancenido has come to realize that as college students think about future careers, the decision to enter the classroom to teach isn’t always marked by good or bad experiences in school or notoriously low salaries. For high-achieving students attending elite universities in particular, the decision to become a teacher often doesn’t even register as a possible career option.

In a recent article in the Harvard Educational Review, Mancenido explores the social forces that lead high-achieving students to believe that teaching may not be an acceptable career path. Here, he elaborates on his research and what elite colleges and universities can do to counter that narrative.

Why look at high achieving students attending elite colleges and universities?

There’s a lot of research that, over the past two decades, has tried to understand what the characteristics of good teachers are. And when we look at that research, we increasingly find that teachers who had high test scores, high GPAs, high achievement when they were going through high school and college tend be better at raising their students’ academic achievement.

We also often talk about our “best and brightest” as going to elite institutions for college. These are places where we send young people who we believe have great promise. But when graduates of these institutions aren’t encouraged to consider teaching as a career path, that suggests there’s perhaps an underlying public discourse — that teaching isn’t something we expect our best and brightest to be getting into. And that for me is something that’s worrying if we want a highly effective education system.

So what’s stopping them from considering teaching?

One of the major findings of my research has been that people are taught over time that teaching isn’t a great career. There are all these tiny interactions they have over their lifetime that give them this feeling that teaching isn’t approved, that they should be aspiring to other careers that might be more prestigious or well-paid.

But even if they do want to teach or even just wonder about it as a possibility, I found they didn’t have the resources to think about teaching meaningfully. It wasn’t that students were troubled or grappling with the decision to teach, it was that they didn’t have the resources or opportunities at their college to even figure out whether they wanted to be a teacher.

Can schools and universities do anything to help students see teaching as a real career option?

More accessible graduate pathways are important. In some of my interactions with research participants, I often heard they didn’t have enough information about becoming a teacher. And what that meant was the information cost — so the time and effort it took to research teaching as a career — was too high. This is why pathways that reach out directly and help them figure out how to be teachers are valuable.

Some of my participants were on the cusp. After they’d made their decision, I asked what tipped them over the line. A number of them said something simple — they met someone who had chosen to be a teacher and it showed them what could come from it. It really emphasized the value in having young people seeing people just a few steps ahead of them on the path. It turned me on to the power of mentoring, the power of alums, people who are older being role models. Schools should think about how they can raise up some of their alums and use them as mentors in the pipeline to build up the number of high achievers entering the profession.

Especially because teachers are able to make an impact in the world on a daily basis!

Right. When you ask young people what they want to do, more often than not, they want to have an impact, they want to do something that can change the world. And what’s so interesting is that probably the number one person who’s changed their world at that point is often overlooked — one of their teachers. It’s funny how reminding people of that is often enough to get them seeing how teachers have such an incredible impact.


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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