Why Many ‘High-Achieving’ Students Don’t Become Teachers and What We Can Do About It

Students are exposed to messaging — both explicit and subtle — that teaching is not a desirable career. Harvard’s Zid Mancenido wants to fix that.

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A 2013 Atlantic article posed the question “Why isn’t Harvard training more teachers?” In it, the author argues that while about 20% of seniors apply to Teach for America, only a “minuscule” percentage of the class actually studies education. 

“Why,” she asks, “are so many of America’s brightest students apparently interested in teaching but not availing themselves of the training their school has to offer?”

A decade later, Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer Zid Mancenido continues to study these same questions. As a former high school social sciences teacher in Canberra, Australia, the educator and researcher says in some ways his work is autobiographical. When he was an undergraduate student deciding to become a teacher, he said he heard his peers say, “I’d love to be a teacher but…” He now wants to better understand this apprehension.

“Often when we talk about teacher recruitment we only talk about things like how much teachers are paid or this amorphous thing like teachers aren’t prestigious enough … All of those extrinsic motivators [do matter],”, Mancenido said, “but there’s a lot of subtle, more social drivers around those things that really need to be paid attention to.”

Zid Mancenido spent three years as a high school social studies teacher in Canberra, Australia. He is now a lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. (Zid Mancenido)

Mancenido first began exploring these questions as part of his doctoral research at Harvard, when he collected the stories of over 100 college seniors or recent graduates to gain a greater understanding of what differentiates people who are categorically uninterested in teaching, those who are interested in teaching but ultimately pursue another career and those who are committed to teaching. 

Recently, he spoke with The 74’s Amanda Geduld about his work and why, despite permeating defeatism about how to improve the education system, he ultimately remains hopeful. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The 74: Can you share an overview of your paper, “How High Achievers Learn That They Should Not Become Teachers,” and some key findings?

Zid Mancenido: This paper tries to get a little deeper into the questions of “What makes someone want to become a teacher?” or “What makes someone not want to become a teacher?” Often in the news or in public media, people talk about, “Well, it’s just about pay” or “It’s about pathways,” or “It’s about, you know, schools being really messy.” There are just lots of ideas about what it could be for why people want to or don’t want to become teachers …

What I found is that high achievers aren’t born knowing that they want to become teachers or they’re not born knowing that teaching isn’t an appropriate career path for them. They learn it and they relearn it through a number of signals that are built into their interactions with family and friends. They learn it through others’ expectations of them and their careers. They learn it through observing the career trajectories of their role models and their peers. And it really emphasizes that these sort of negative conceptions of teaching that we all sort of generally know but can’t really land entirely. They’re really fostered and reinforced by all the social signals that are around us.

So if we really want more people — more academic high achievers — to become teachers, we need to work on that social discourse. We can’t just be thinking about the individual’s choice in becoming a teacher. We have to think about how everyone perceives and thinks about teaching and how that influences people’s decision making.

What are some of those signals that high achievers are receiving? 

A lot of people might think that these signals are explicit. They’re things like parents and friends responding to you when you say, “Oh I think I’m becoming a teacher,” and those parents and friends say, “No, don’t become a teacher. You shouldn’t do that. You’re too smart for that,” or something like that. And that’s something I did hear amongst my participants. Many of my participants did mention explicit signals like that.

But rather what most participants reported was that it’s much more subtle. It’s things like going to career fairs and seeing that everyone is milling around corporate, high-flying jobs — legal pathways, medical pathways — but very few people standing around the teaching pathways, the sort of social, public service career pathways. It’s in lots of people coming into college and saying they’re really interested in social-impact careers, but then all of them taking pre-med, pre-law, economics, business, all of those sorts of majors.

It’s in the really, really subtle way that as one of my participants, Amanda, mentions that when she says that she’s interested in becoming a lawyer or a diplomat or something like that, people light up and go, “That’s a really exciting career. I’m so excited for you.” But then when she says something like, “Oh, I’m interested in becoming a teacher,” they go, “Oh, that’s really nice.” And then change the subject.


Part 1: Students are exposed to messaging — both explicit and subtle — that teaching is not a desirable career. Harvard’s Zid Mancenido wants to fix that

♬ Sunshine – WIRA

I know this is a question that you’ve been asked before, but what made you focus specifically on high-achieving students and how do you define what a high-achieving student is?

This is a really messy and challenging thing because truthfully there’s so many ways to be a high achiever in the world … And often because of the sort of standard, conventional ideas of what makes someone a high achiever, we’re really limited and we box kids into saying, “Oh, you’re an achiever or not.”

So I recognize that it’s a really complex social environment with these sorts of identifying figures. I wanted to step back and go — who do we want in the profession? We want smart, talented, funny, committed people, passionate people who are interested in what they’re doing.

And when I looked to the literature and the recent work around what kinds of teachers lead to more academic outcomes in schools, I found there’s a bit of a mismatch there of like, well, we want these kinds of people to be teachers, but we’re not really measuring that. 

What we are measuring in the research is academic achievement. And what we do find is high academic achievement amongst intending teachers does predict future improvements in student outcomes …

Would increasing pay be effective? How necessary is the social component? And how do you see this playing out on the ground, from a policy perspective?

What my research suggests is exactly what the research really has continued to affirm over the past few decades: There’s no silver bullet to getting more academic high achievers into teaching. 

What is particularly interesting about all of the work on offering financial incentives at career entry — scholarships, loan forgiveness or alternative certification pathways — all that research generally finds those policies to be effective, but some of the research finds that it’s only effective for individuals who are already interested in teaching. So if you’re interested in teaching, but you’re on the edge of, “Do I do teaching or not?” scholarships, loan forgiveness, all of that makes you more likely to want to become a teacher.

What that’s missing, though, is that whole other pool: people who aren’t interested in teaching because they haven’t been exposed to it as a career, because they don’t have the signals around them to encourage them to even consider teaching in the first place. And that’s a much larger pool of people who we really could have a lot of leverage on if we just had more structured pathways into exploring teaching as a career, encouraging people to be thinking about teaching, supporting them socially to want to become teachers …


Part 2: Students are exposed to messaging — both explicit and subtle — that teaching is not a desirable career. Harvard’s Zid Mancenido wants to fix that

♬ Sunshine – WIRA

Can you talk a little bit about what an example of that might look like?

It can be as simple as school systems or colleges collaborating to identify and raise the profile of alumni who have become teachers … Some of my participants talked about wanting to make sure that their degree was worth it. And so in elevating alumni who are teaching, who are in education pathways, is one way to say, “Actually, yeah, this is something that’s worth it because it gets these sorts of outcomes.”

We could also do things like elite colleges could be providing various summer internships or term time options where they are working in schools for course credit, trying to get students to explore what it looks and sounds like when you’re in a K –12 setting …

Or it can be sort of more broad: It can be things like school systems finding ways to go beyond the sort of teacher appreciation days and actually go into a, “What does it take in order to run a school system?” days where we really build up our collective understanding, peak behind the curtain of schools and really understand what does it take in order to create a healthy flourishing system? …

What I’m hearing you say is that by introducing that to a larger body of students, you’re perhaps opening the door for more students to become interested in this career path in the first place rather than just communicating with students who are already considering it.

That’s correct. Recently I’ve talked to some of my friends who are teachers, and I asked them questions like, “When was the last time that you said to one of your high-achieving students, ‘You should become a doctor’ or ‘Have you thought about becoming a lawyer’ or ‘Have you thought about going to this elite college?’” And every single one of them says, “I say that every time. It’s so important to be supporting your kids’ aspirations.”

And I go, “When was the last time you told one of your high-achieving students that they should consider becoming a teacher?” And so few of them say yes. That’s a small switch for teachers to make. Us turning around to high-achieving students and going, “Have you ever thought about becoming a teacher? I was a teacher once and it was a really incredible career that could potentially change the game.”

Well, one thing that strikes me there is then how much of that is about teacher satisfaction? 


So, are teachers not telling students to become teachers because they are not personally satisfied with their careers?

What I found really interesting in my research was that if you had parents who were teachers, the influence could go both ways. Some participants said, “My parents were teachers, and they lived such great lives and they got to do such important stuff. And so I want to become a teacher as well.” And then you have some people whose parents were teachers who said, “I watched my parents every day. I really learned through that what teaching was and I would never want to do that.” 

Some of my research was trying to find out how much of this was just people’s partial view of teaching. If they had seen a different part of teaching would their minds have changed? While I don’t have the data to suggest one way or another, what I do have is a lot of really strong participant beliefs that what they saw and observed were really pivotal in influencing how they ended up wanting to become a teacher or not …

It’s about creating the environment that allows for parents and teachers to want to encourage students to become teachers themselves. 

For this paper, you collected the stories of over 100 college seniors or recent graduates. Was there one perspective teacher’s story that stood out to you?

… Graham was a student who had gone to an urban charter school on the West Coast, and his mother was a teacher in that school. He had asked himself all the time while he was going through high school, “Why is my education like this and other people’s education like that?” 

He was really, really committed to education and had written about it in his college admissions essay, but then went to an elite college in the Northeast. [Once he was there] all of his friends who had said that they were [also] interested in education were voting with their feet and ended up majoring in business or economics or computer science. And when they would talk about their interest in education, they would always be doing it as a volunteering opportunity or an extracurricular.

[Instead of becoming a teacher, he ended up becoming a management consultant.] 

When I probed him on why he was doing that, what were the underlying assumptions, he said to me that many of his other peers felt like — given the sorts of education they had — they couldn’t do work that was more technical or “front line” [like teaching]. They really wanted things that were more broad, high level or working in policy or in the strategic area. 

He reflected on how these codes that high achievers use — “front line,” “technical versus high-level policy having more of an impact” — were language games. They were delineations of occupational prestige and status that were masked otherwise as personal preference. 

And so it was a really interesting conversation that really illuminated how there’s no malice here, there’s no talking down about teaching. Everyone thinks teaching and education are really incredible, important careers. But in terms of the choices that we make in terms of the language that we use, it’s incredibly subtle but really streams people away from wanting to become teachers.

So where is he now? Did he end up in the classroom or did he stay in management consulting?

It was years later that he ended up going into the classroom, but there was a sort of personal realization about a number of all of these different things and a return to what really mattered to him.

And that’s what was also really exciting about undertaking this — that it told me that people can have these trajectories, but these trajectories aren’t path-dependent, these things can change. And our social environments can change and the support that we get to encourage people to want to become teachers can change and get people to make that choice in the end.

All isn’t lost, basically, when it comes to encouraging more people to become teachers.

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