When I began teaching in 2004, I was what could be called a “generational outlier”. At 23, I distinguished myself as one of the school’s few teachers who belonged to the Millenial generation. I listened to Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony, and I was an early adopter of text messaging and Twitter. And as a professional, I was constantly looking for validation from my peers as well as the administration. During seven years of teaching, the generational differences between my minority Millenial ideals and the majority Baby Boomer leadership often presented themselves. Initiatives were top down, administration and teachers worked across the aisle, and getting the job done was a greater priority than celebrating success. I accepted these work settings despite the fact I didn’t always agree. When I went into administration I knew I would lead differently.
In 2011, Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) represented nearly 50 percent of the teaching workforce. In the next five to ten years, a majority of this population is expected retire and be replaced by Millenials (born 1981 to 2004). The stark contrasts between these groups create a cultural divide. The former have a reputation for being task oriented, competitive, they prefer clear direction, and have a hard time adjusting to changes in the workplace. The latter tend to value flexibility, need constant validation and feedback, value working in teams, and have only known a technologically advanced world. Bridging this cultural divide presents significant challenges to school leaders.
Principals at our schools must find a way to lead, inspire, and work with both subgroups. Many leaders in different industries have already begun the process of implementing different methods of inspiring this new generation. In the world of athletics, coaches have opted to nurture relationships with players rather than imposing their authoritarian will on players. University of Oregon football coach Mark Helfrich made headlines last fall when he shared that yelling at players was against the program’s philosophy.
Shifting the leadership approach in public education poses a great challenge to leaders. The components of the school system are complex and the margin for error is great. Leaders can start by blending a style that acknowledges those Baby Boomers who are accustomed to a certain style leadership—task centered and reluctant to change—while grooming the landscape for an influx of new talent that isn’t attached to any form of leadership, but intrinsically want feedback, collaboration, and relevance.
In my building, our blended leadership approach encourages active participation, urges openness for change, and celebrates traditions that work. The challenge is in finding the sweet spot. Leaders must earn buy-in from more-accomplished veterans who think differently about teaching, instruction, and education without being dismissive of their values. Baby Boomers will ultimately be responsible for passing the proverbial torch to a new generation of educators. But good leadership should recognize this transition, and begin now to construct the foundations that bridge the gap between these differing generations.
Mark Helfrich on Not Yelling
Getting Smart: Making the most of Millenial Teachers’ Mindset
Millenial Characteristics: Indiana University
- Teacher Preparation
- Technology in Education
- Equity and Diversity
- Professional Learning
- Quality Educators
- Professional Development