The front line of the nation's generational shift in teaching may be Kansas City, Missouri.
Around the metro area — made up of more than 50 districts and charter schools in both Kansas and Missouri — tens of thousands of students are returning to school this week. And they will be taught by a teacher force that is one of the youngest, least experienced in the nation.
According to federal data, Missouri teachers are the youngest in the U.S. with a median age under 38. Neighboring Kansas is not far behind: its teachers are the 12th youngest with a median age slightly above 40. In both states, more than 21 percent of teachers are younger than 30, two of the highest proportions in the country.
Rachel Foster is one of those new teachers. She just graduated from Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and is a Teach For America recruit starting her first year at Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy, a charter school in Kansas City.
She seems to be well-aware of her youth.
"Failure in this role is terrifying," she says. "You are going into a school in which you're unaware of the students' experiences. You are dealing with families who may or may not accept you."
Those are important concerns, but a few days before school was to start last week, Foster was consumed by something more urgent: how to set up her room.
“Tables, chairs, a reading area, a listening center,” she says, walking briskly around her classroom, which sits in a building across the street from Tolbert’s main campus on Paseo Blvd.
For guidance, she turns to the most senior member of Tolbert’s first-grade team, a 35-year veteran: her mother, Lisa Foster.
“She has so much experience. She’s literally set up 37 classrooms in her career,” Rachel says, shaking her head.
Lisa is a watchful presence in the room. In fact, she’s just brought in some supplies from her classroom next door.
“It’s going to be a delicate balance,” Lisa says. “I’m going to have to be careful to not have my ‘mom hat’ on too much.”
The Fosters typify the growing generational divide between the teaching generations. Rachel is ambitious, passionate about social justice, and ultimately, not sure if teaching is a career choice for her. In many ways, she is the opposite of her mother, who readily admits that she turned to teaching in the late 1970s because “that’s what women did then”.
“I hate to admit it, but I really liked the schedule. It was easy to raise a family and stay close to home.”
But Rachel says she was inspired to go into teaching (even after majoring in Journalism in college) because of the example of her mother.
“She is incredible. She taught me and all my friends growing up. And if I can be half the role model she has been, then I’ll be set.”
Is teaching still a 'lifelong' commitment?
This year around the Kansas City metro, nearly 30 percent of teachers have five years or less of experience in the classroom. When Lisa was her daughter’s age, new teachers made up less than 10 percent of all educators. What districts would like to do is take young teachers like Rachel and train, support, and encourage them into careers like Lisa’s. But that is proving difficult.
“Out of the hundreds and hundreds of pre-service teachers I’ve trained, it’s very few who make it beyond a couple of years,” says Dr. Heidi Hallman, an education professor at the University of Kansas.
Hallman has done research on teachers of the Millennial generation. She calls them “shape shifters”. She says young teachers are good at adapting to changing classroom conditions and are more tolerant of an ever-diversifying student body.
“The downside to shape-shifting,” she says, “is teaching is often not looked at as a career-long commitment for many young people.”
That could spell trouble for a profession some liken to the medical field.
“We have to face it, experience matters in teaching,” says Kelly Ott, who directs professional development for Blue Valley Public Schools. “Imagine being a patient: you don’t always want to be operated on by a new doctor. We need to have a mixture of veteran and new teachers.”
Outside forces create a 'scary future'
Ott is leading efforts in her district to expand mentoring, matching up veteran educators with the roughly 100 new teachers that come to Blue Valley each year. But to keep young teachers in the classroom, some veteran educators think you’ll have to convince them to deal with a hostile political climate.
“When you have politicians giving lip service to education but not supporting it financially, that creates a lot of consternation,” says Paul Steuwe, who has taught math in Kansas for nearly 40 years and is now at Blue Valley West high school.
“What is scary for the future is that young people have a lot of opportunities to go and do the other things. What’s going to keep them in teaching?” he says.
Kansas has recently slashed state spending for public schools and also curtailed teacher job protections. The state department of education reported this summer that more than 650 teachers left the state last year to teach in neighboring states, a jump of more than 60 percent from 2011.
But challenges for young teachers exist in any context. Why?
“It’s a tough job. It requires commitment. Truly, you have to have a passion for it,” says Marlene DeVilbiss, the Director of Human Resources for Raytown Public Schools.
In her district, more than 40 percent of teachers have five years or less on the job. Still, DeVilbiss must keep a high standard for recruitment and hiring. Because, ultimately, new teachers are expected to perform from day one.
“If I have a brand new teacher and a veteran, I expect the educational quality and experience of those students to be the same.”
DeVilbiss says Raytown tries to foster collaboration between veterans and new teachers, to create a collective sense of responsibility among teachers.
That same sense of collective mission exists in the first grade at Lee A. Tolbert, too. Not only because Lisa and Rachel Foster are mother and daughter but because they, along with their other team members, seem to have a passion for their work.
“Golly it’s such an ego boost to be a teacher. I mean I get hugs and love from kids every day,” says Lisa.
Rachel, possibly reflecting larger demographic trends, espouses a much more socially conscious mission.
“I want to break down walls with my students. I want to give them resources that are going to be able to allow them to achieve their goals,” she says.
She has the motivation, and now Rachel says she needs the guidance. Lucky for her, mom is right next door. It’s an arrangement many metro districts might envy.
This story is part of KCUR's 'Teaching It Forward' project, which looks deeply at the changing nature of the teaching profession in the Kansas City metro.