Q: I’m a teacher who’s part of the millennial generation. As a group, we have a reputation for not being especially loyal to employers and for job hopping when better opportunities come along. I guess that means I’m a cliché. I can’t imagine spending five, let alone 15 years (or more) in the same school. I’m only 26, and I’ve already taught in three schools. I love children and everything about education, and I’m often told that I’m a gifted teacher. Like anyone else, I’m always learning and improving, and my principals respect me and try to convince me to stay. I say this to explain that this is more about me and following my own path. I believe I’ll get better faster — and work will be far more interesting — if I experience different kinds of school communities. My parents worry that if I keep this up, older Gen X administrators will look at my resume and say “no thanks,” and soon enough I’ll have trouble landing any job. I can see the appeal of eventually finding a place to stay for awhile, but this is where I am right now in my life. What do you think?
A: I won’t say you’re a cliché, but you’re pretty typical for your generation. A 2016 Gallup report revealed that 21% of millennials had changed jobs within the past year, which is more than three times the number of non-millennials who switched jobs in that same time period. The researchers speculated that this behavior may be less about them wanting to jump ship and more about their desire to feel emotionally connected to their work. Many millennials job hop until they find work that feels worthwhile. In that regard, there’s pressure on employers to help millennial staff find meaning in their work.
This doesn’t reflect your personal reality, though, because you love teaching. You don’t leave schools because you feel disconnected; you leave because you want to maximize learning and sustain your passion.
It’s also worth considering that your behavior may have as much to do with your chronological age as with your generation. Moving around is typical twentysomething behavior, whether you grew up in the 1970s or the 1990s. In terms of your overall career direction, you’re hardly aimless.
Let’s start with the pros and cons of job movement. On the upside, you’re right that you learn new skills when you work with varying populations in different settings. You keep things interesting professionally when you mix it up. You don’t get set in your ways, and you learn how to work with many kinds of people. You also learn from mentors and peers modeling a range of ways to get the job done. On the downside, whenever you change jobs you lose time to training and adjusting to a new environment. Also, you don’t get the benefits of feeling comfortable or affecting your school community over time. When you stay for longer stretches, it’s easier to launch new schoolwide programming or coach a team to success. You also can sustain daily relationships with students over time, which is satisfying for adults and beneficial for kids.
So is all this job hopping problematic from an administrator’s perspective? During the hiring process, principals are deciding whether to invest in you. They may see your restlessness as a red flag. When they interview you and talk to your references, they’ll want to know why you left each position. You should have a good answer. Principals may still hire you because you’re excellent and because they hope you’ll put down roots. If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter administrators who understand your mind-set because they too moved around as they navigated their careers.
I recently spoke to a principal who expects her highest performers to leave after short stints. She noted that some of the same characteristics that make teachers effective leaders and innovators also feed their hunger for new challenges. Talent and ambition often go hand-in-hand so these teachers may be on the lookout for opportunities to move up. She says she often hires teachers with this profile anyway because they tend to make a real difference in a short period of time and raise the bar for everyone.
There may be other reasons to hire strong employees even if they start with one foot out the door. Sydney Finkelstein, author of Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent, argues that outstanding bosses often succeed because they abandon conventional thinking about keeping the best employees. Instead of being afraid of losing staff, he says the best bosses will go overboard to help employees land phenomenal outside opportunities. As a result, they develop a reputation for being talent magnets. They’re able to attract a continuous stream of top-notch individuals to replace the ones who left. These leaders even end up with higher overall rates of retention because their employees feel their goals are supported.
As for you, strive for a happy medium. Start any new job with an open mind. Stay long enough to grow, and don’t walk in with a departure plan. Be clear in interviews that you’re open to a long-term match. Down the road, that may actually be something you want.
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