Creating Synergy in the Schoolhouse

by Suzette Lovely

From bowties and brooches to tanktops and tattoos, the landscape of the modern schoolhouse is changing. And it’s not just students who look and act differently nowadays. Teachers, administrators and parents are morphing, too.

Enter most any elementary or secondary school campus and you’ll find faculty members showing off their latest nose piercing, while a pony-tailed principal may be cruising the corridors in his Dockers and polo shirt. As older employees huddle in the lounge and lament about how “things ain’t what they used to be,” the 20-something PTA volunteer helping in the office hardly bats an eye. A significant and potentially problematic result of the changing dynamics of the American workforce is the growing infusion that brings young, old and in-betweens together into the same employment mix. While seniors postpone retirement, college graduates are launching their careers. For school systems, a multigenerational workplace can be both a blessing and a curse.

Mixed Generations
According to the bestselling book Generations at Work by Ron Zemke, Claire Raines and Bob Filipczak, four distinct groups make up today’s workforce: Veterans, baby boomers, Gen-Xers and Nexters. Although no hard and fast rules exist about where one generation ends and another begins, experts have found that specific life events bind a cohort together through shared experiences, hardships, social norms and cultural icons. These common threads create self-sustaining links that cause people to maintain similar attitudes, ambitions and synergy. For example, veteran administrators are likely to correlate age with rank and status in an organization. They generally embrace the notion that employees move up the corporate ladder one rung at a time through perseverance, loyalty and hard work. These older school leaders tend to be formal, steeped in tradition, and have difficulty with change or ambiguity. Gen-Xers, on the other hand, came of age in an era of corporate downsizing, a struggling economy and an explosion of technology that allowed work to be done differently. Their self-reliance, impatience with bureaucracy and ability to change directions on a dime can make them seem irreverent and undisciplined to a Veteran. Gen-Xers aren’t interested in working around the clock or keeping score of who has paid their dues. While a Veteran might say, “How did he become a superintendent at age 35? He’s just a boy!” the 30-something superintendent is likely to respond, “Send me an e-mail if you have a concern. And take a little time off if the pressure is getting to you.” Throughout the latter part of the 20 th century, the fluid nature of public education dramatically altered the expectations and demands placed on teachers, administrators and support staff. Without looking more closely at the generational DNA inside the schoolhouse, it will be difficult to achieve and sustain coalescence. After all, to bridge the age gap and manage the friction, employees’ needs, assumptions, hopes and fears have to be noticed and appreciated.

Meshing Old and New
As with any label or generalization, not all peer groups fit into the same box. There are dozens of ways in which individuals differ in mind, body and spirit. However, knowing the generational underpinnings that bind colleagues together or set them apart is beneficial in establishing collaborative teams, building capacity and bringing out the best in people. Because stereotypes can interfere with productivity and performance, a common-sense approach is necessary when mentoring, recruiting, directing or evaluating employees based on their generational makeup. Without such sensitivity, it’s impossible to cultivate a professional learning community that is results-based and improvement-driven. The accompanying table, “The Generational Footprint of a Workplace,” depicts key characteristics, work orientation, team assimilation and styles of leadership within the four age groups. Recognizing the portrait of each generation enables superintendents and other managers to hone in on employee strengths, make weaknesses irrelevant and foster a greater appreciation for diversity.

Generational Forecasting
A growing body of evidence suggests not only does leadership matter, it is second only to teaching among school-related factors that contribute to student achievement. By setting clear direction, developing people and creating conditions that support teaching and learning, high-quality superintendents, principals and central-office administrators work vicariously through others to set their school district on the right path. No matter what mandates or new programs cascade from above, it doesn’t matter a lick if the leader fails to spend time understanding and developing his or her team. When the multiage programming of a work unit is considered as a key component for improvement, leaders are better equipped to offer support and guidance, which broadens experiences and strengthens the fundamental beliefs pivotal to the organization’s success. Such synchronization will carry a cross-generational team a long way. It also prompts administrators to start recruiting people who have the capacity to go two or three assignments beyond what they’ve been hired to do. Generational forecasting also can help flatten the hierarchical nature of school systems. It will make teaching in isolation obsolete and give educators permission to let go of traditions that are instructionally outdated.

Beyond Coffee
Several companies make headlines by epitomizing a harmonious and growth-oriented work environment. Although skeptics would argue that private enterprise isn’t in the delicate business of educating children, optimists (boomers, most likely) would counter that we all can learn from one another. From Starbucks to Ben and Jerry’s to Microsoft, these corporations are doing remarkably well in creating age-friendly workplaces. Through an emphasis on flexibility, respectful relations, customer service, appreciation for differences and an expansive employee talent pool, these standouts adhere to the ACORN imperative as their blueprint for success. The ACORN operating principles are easily applied to the important work of educational leaders:

• Accommodate employee differences.
Paying lip service to accommodating differences and actually doing it are two different things. Allowing teachers to work part time, principals to share a contract, psychologists to complete individual education plans at home in the morning or permitting bus drivers to work a four-day, 10-hour work week are all examples of how the varying needs of today’s school employees might be met. Putting people in the right assignments, at the right work site, with the right boss is symbolically powerful and organizationally prudent.

Create workplace choices.
Public education got its roots during the manufacturing era that called for predictable and regimented structures. Designed to produce the kind of workers industry needed, schools weren’t expected to educate large numbers of children to a very high level. Thus teachers were left alone in the privacy of their own classrooms to dole out one-size-fits-all curriculum, while principals roamed the campus confronting operational problems. Superintendents and boards of education spent the bulk of their time adopting archaic policies to maintain order and sameness. Today’s successful school districts mold themselves around the needs of students first, the expectations of parent customers second and their own needs last. While the superintendent establishes priorities and goals that are few in number, measurable and time bound, teachers and principals are given choices about how to meet these objectives. Through a loose-tight operating network, collective responsibility is promoted in a more relaxed and friendly climate.

Operate from a sophisticated management style. Effective school leaders amass a team of people who embrace a shared vision and collaborate to realize it. They behave with a certain finesse, yet are direct and clear about what is expected of each employee. Their supervisory style varies depending upon the person and situation. They know how and when to make exceptions without being accused of favoritism or causing a faculty revolt. By balancing a concern for task attainment with a concern for people, sophisticated administrators skillfully decide when it’s best to slug and when it’s best to hug. Some days you’ll find them pushing the wagon and other days you’ll see them pulling it. Through this sensible approach, successful bosses can get a team to follow them to the moon!

• Respect competence and initiative.
In the industrialized model of personnel management, it was believed that employees lacked the intrinsic motivation or initiative to perform at particularly high levels. Therefore people were prodded and closely supervised so that productivity steadily increased and problems were immediately identified and solved. Thankfully, these rudimentary views of human behavior have been disproved in the sciences of organizational theory and practice. Clearly, when an institution’s human capital is devalued, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like stellar corporate executives, stellar educational leaders treat everyone from the custodian to the mailroom clerk to the almost-ready-to-retire teacher as if each has something great to offer. They get the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and take advantage of staff strengths by making sure everyone is in the right seat. By assuming and expecting the best of people, including themselves, employees trust their supervisor, feel respected and are eager to go the extra mile.

Nourish retention. Some educators have yet to fully recognize the shortage of administrators, teachers and qualified labor in the domestic marketplace. School districts that disregard or underestimate this reality run the risk of higher than normal turnover rates, are likely to fill vacancies with candidates unqualified or ill-prepared for positions and tend to promote insiders prematurely. Exceptional superintendents are keenly aware that the reputation of their organization is the most influential recruitment and retention factor around. They don’t expect employees to bend to the “our way or the highway” mentality, which is sometimes found in entrenched cultures. Instead they are committed to drawing newcomers into the mix and holding on to seasoned staff members through stimulating assignments, mentoring and coaching, expanded roles and opportunities for personal and professional growth. Successful school districts know how to become a magnet for excellence.

Meet the Parents
Looking at the generational needs of employees is certainly important in creating a quality workplace. But educators also know you can’t have synergy in schools without establishing good relationships with parents. The Ozzie and Harriet era, which viewed the questioning of authority as taboo, has been replaced by boomer and Gen-X moms and dads who see their obligation to their offspring as emotional and involving. A columnist from the San Francisco Chronicle summed up this phenomenon well when she wrote: “We Mappies (Middle-Aged Professional Parents) have elevated child rearing to a sacrament. We arrange our schedules around our children’s soccer games, volunteer as much as we can in the classroom, hover over every science project and book report, and take our kids on outings with such frequency that it makes our own parents snort and roll their eyes.” Today’s generation of parents must be respected and heard. Forming alliances to decide what’s really in the best interest of students will help everyone become more reasonable. An Iowa teacher put it in perspective when she said, “[Parents] are mama grizzly bears. They’re going to defend their cub no matter what and they don’t always think rationally. If I can remember that, it defuses the situation.” Contemporary parents and contemporary school employees have more in common than some might like to believe. Both are adamant that their opinions and desires be heeded. Both want children to grow up to be well-rounded, productive citizens. Both are devoted to student learning and improvement so each successive generation has the chance for a better future than the one before it. As with any flourishing partnership, each side needs to do its part. For school leaders, it’s about alignment, not alienation and about maestro instead of machismo.

Leveraging Assets
Creating a synergistic workplace really boils down to two choices: leveraging every stakeholder group as an asset or ignoring the presence of some so they turn into obstacles. To manage the clashes, it’s simply a matter of acknowledging that youngsters, oldsters and middle-of-the-roaders all have the potential to contribute to the betterment of the organization. By choosing words carefully, selectively screening mentors and protégés and refusing to pigeonhole people, modern day school leaders can foster productive learning communities where age-diversity is seen as an attribute rather than a liability. Most individuals are reluctant to be labeled. However, without searching for common ground as conflicts or controversy pop up, student achievement is impeded. To ensure lousy relationships don’t manifest or fester within your workplace, look for the best in people. Employee fulfillment is maximized when the portrait of each generation is leveraged to reduce tension, breed understanding and create harmony inside the schoolhouse. Suzette Lovely is deputy superintendent for personnel services in the Capistrano Unified School District, 32972 Calle Perfecto, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675. E-mail: slovely@capousd.org. Copyright © by Suzette Lovely.


Suzette Lovely suggests the following works for those who want to know more about the subject:
  • Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in Your Workplace by Ron Zemke, Bob Filipczak. American Management Association, New York, N.Y.


  • When Generations Collide by Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman. Harper Business, New York, N.Y.


  • Additional reading on generational differences can be accessed at Claire Raines’ website