Generations At School: Building an Age-Friendly Workplace

If professional learning communities are the engine of quality work, finding cohesion among groups that don’t see eye to eye is the daunting task at hand by SUZETTE LOVELY

Superintendent Anne Smith is aghast at the flip-flops, halter tops and tattoos streaming into her school district’s New Teacher Breakfast. One teacher no sooner sits down before “The Brady Bunch” theme song pierces the room. “Hi, Mom!” the teacher gushes into her cell phone.

In another corner, a male teacher with two black earlobe plugs is texting away. He barely looks up to answer a question from his principal, who happens to be sitting next to him.

The superintendent leans over to the assistant superintendent of personnel and whispers, “I didn’t realize we’d done our recruiting this year at the Santa Monica Pier.” The 45-year-old assistant superintendent glances around the room quizzically. “Oh. I hadn’t even noticed,” she replies. “Most of our teachers come to work dressed this way. We hardly think twice about it anymore.”

Suzette LovelySuzette Lovely, a central-office leader in California, is the co-author of Generations at School: Building an Age-Friendly Learning Community.

In schools around the country, Gen Xers, Millennials, Baby Boomers and even a Veteran or two are working side by side. While anyone holding a job in this shaky economy is grateful, gratitude doesn’t make generational clashes less difficult. Adding to the mix, many Baby Boomers initially poised for a mass exodus by 2010 are holding on for dear life. With a “spend now, pay later” attitude, many Boomers hadn’t saved enough for retirement even before the financial meltdown.

Composing 38 percent of the workforce, older teachers crowd out younger ones, making coveted jobs even harder to come by. Christine Nelson, a 58-year-old teacher from Indialantic, Fla., told USA Today she had planned to retire at age 62. But now she intends to work until age 65 or 66. Nelson says her salary has been frozen for two years and the tax-sheltered annuities she’d been counting on have plummeted. “If I have to work in retirement, at least it’s doing something I love to do. … I’m not going to complain,” Nelson said.

While Nelson’s decades of experience might be good for students, it’s not necessarily good for a school district’s bottom line. Older teachers are more expensive. Decreasing revenues coupled with spiraling payroll costs makes for a grim situation in many of the nation’s school districts.

Setting the Tempo
Although there are no hard-and-fast rules about where one generation ends and another begins, four milestones provide a benchmark:

•  If you remember V-J Day, you’re probably a Veteran.

•  If you remember the day President Kennedy was assassinated, you’re a Baby Boomer.

•  If you watched the Challenger disaster on a classroom TV, you’re a Gen Xer.

•  If Columbine and 9/11 are etched in your memory from adolescence, you’re a Millennial.

Some wonder why they should be concerned with the obvious reality that schools are filled with people from mixed generations. Haven’t we always struggled to get along? The fact of the matter is that professional learning communities are now the engine of high-quality work. Sustaining cohesion among groups that don’t readily see eye to eye is a daunting task, since collaboration doesn’t come naturally to most educators.

The style and customs of younger workers also can become a source of tension for Baby Boomers and -Veterans. Millennial teachers, for example, are known to ignore the hierarchy and share their opinions freely. They think nothing of e-mailing the superintendent directly with a concern. Consider this correspondence:

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Recently, I approached a sink in an airport restroom and waved my hands under the faucet. When nothing happened, I waved them again. Still nothing. As I tried the next sink, an older gentleman pointed to a knob by the basin and said, “Push that.”

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Dear Dr. Miller:

Our school was supposed to have SMART Boards installed over winter break. But they aren’t in our classrooms yet. Do you know what the holdup is? I asked my principal, but she has no clue.

Chloe Patterson
3rd-Grade Teacher
Parkview Elementary

For younger teachers, such assertiveness was cultivated throughout their lives as parents encouraged them to speak their mind. But skirting around the boss can throw Baby Boomer principals into a tizzy. If they had an issue when they were teaching, they wouldn’t dream of taking it straight to the top.

Superintendents must learn to push for change while also protecting the comfort zone that gives each generation a sense of pride and stability. The idea is to keep the workplace tempo fast enough so younger employees don’t lose interest, but slow enough so that older employees aren’t overwhelmed. Just because a practice is old doesn’t mean new ideas should be jettisoned. At the same time, just because something is new doesn’t mean there’s no room for the old. Understanding the generational underpinnings that drive employee behavior makes it easier to gain the commitment required to boost student achievement.

Hot Buttons
At the heart of the clash between Baby Boomers and younger counterparts is the issue of work-life balance. Boomers revolutionized the meaning of career, productivity and success — often at a price to family and friends. The “Boomerocracy” is known to define its very essence by professional achievements. As a result, seasoned teachers and administrators struggle to accept a perceived unwillingness to work hard on the part of Gen Xers and Millennials. While Boomers stay after school for meetings, attend Saturday events and serve on committees without expecting extra pay, Gen Xers and Millennials won’t do much of anything for free.

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This “live to work” ethos lies in stark contrast to younger employees who want flexible work schedules and a life outside of school. While a Boomer principal wouldn’t dare leave the office before 5 p.m., an Xer has no qualms about dashing out at 3:30 to catch his son’s lacrosse game. With Blackberry in hand, the superintend-ent or anyone else can reach him if something comes up. Similarly, Millennial teachers are often spotted making a beeline to the parking lot at 2:30 p.m. to beat afternoon traffic. As multitasking marvels, 20-somethings head to yoga class, meet friends at Starbucks, catch an 8 p.m. movie, grade papers and climb in bed at midnight still wondering if they couldn’t have squeezed in one more activity today.

While Boomers are idealistic and loyal, Xers are pragmatic and independent. Growing up, slogans like “a pill in time saves nine” didn’t impress upon them they were wanted or deserving of much attention. Between Watergate, oil embargoes and unemployment, Xers learned to take care of themselves. They become restless quickly. After all, this is the generation that invented the X Games, zip lines and the Internet. But sometimes that Indiana Jones spirit can exasperate older bosses and co-workers.

Like other generations, the Millennial psyche is shaped by the experiences and influences of its youth. While Grandma and Grandpa hung out at the corner drug store and Mom and Dad took the bus to the shopping mall, teens of the 1990s found their sanctuary in cyberspace. Although their power to communicate and compete globally is astounding, Millennials have a hard time establishing boundaries. Inexperienced teachers may suddenly find themselves in trouble as they Tweet, text and invite students to visit their Facebook page. Older colleagues view such casualness as offensive and unprofessional.

Raised by helicopter parents who insisted on second and third chances, Millennials began leaving college in 2004 thinking they could write their own ticket. But dwindling job prospects have left overconfident Millennials struggling to come up with Plan B. Last year in California, more than 26,000 teachers received pink slips as school districts cut positions to balance 2009-10 budgets. At a local school board meeting in Orange County, two mothers of teachers lambasted trustees for eliminating class-size reduction and “taking away” their daughters’ jobs. The Boomer moms pleaded with the board to reconsider its decision not for the sake of students, but for the sake of their own precious children.

Parents who confront employers on behalf of their adult children is a scenario never witnessed in the days of Ozzie and Harriet. Yet for the T-ball generation where everyone gets up to bat and is assured a hit, rejection isn’t in the sphere of reality. Millennials can become quite persistent with a personnel department, too, when told “no thanks” after a job interview.

Labor Pains
Baby Boomers fought hard for their rights in the classroom, demanded better pay and turned collective bargaining into a cottage industry. They expect to be honored for their sacrifices that helped improve working conditions for the masses. Fighting for change isn’t as important to a Boomer as it is to maintain the status quo. This explains why concepts like site-based management and shared decision making haven’t been well received in schools. Seasoned teachers and administrators tend to view the hierarchy as a safe, predictable structure. When direction comes from the top, subordinates don’t have to shoulder too much responsibility or accept too much blame.

While Baby Boomers demand equality in the workplace, Gen Xers and Millennials strive for equity. Logical questions persist: “Why can’t I make the same salary as an older colleague who’s only half as good as me? Why do senior teachers have more rights even though I pay my fair share of union dues?” Merit pay and performance incentives are attractive concepts to quintessential Xers like President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. To those who’ve competed with Boomers all their lives, more effective workers should earn at least as much as less effective ones, no matter who has done the job longer.

In the not-too-distant past, teachers’ unions could be counted on for their solidarity. But a generational fissure has made its way into the milieu of organized labor. Neither Xers nor Millennials share the same homogenized views about their union as older educators. Nor do they join things the way their parents or grandparents once did — especially if nothing’s in it for them. In a 2003 Public Agenda survey, only 19 percent of teacher respondents felt their national association accurately reflected their values and beliefs.

After layoff hearings in California last spring, the clash turned nasty. Some Millennial teachers confronted co-workers in staff lounges and in the blogosphere for an unwillingness to take a pay cut to save jobs. The riff continued throughout the summer months when many teaching positions still were not restored. The divide was evident in this blogger’s response to a laid-off neophyte:

“We are absolutely losing some good young teachers who will be [even better] with more experiences to draw upon. But let’s not convince ourselves that these young teachers are the reason for the success of the district. The very best teachers are the ones who have been doing this awhile. … Conversely, some of our newest teachers are more worried about whether or not their students like them than they are about whether the kid is learning.” (Posted on the blog Beyond the Blackboard of the Capistrano Dispatch by Enough of Bashing Older Teachers.)

Such interactions cause Boomers to complain that the newbies aren’t team players. The fact is, Gen Xers don’t mind working on teams as long as they have some control over who they work with and how projects are completed. Millennials, who were raised on cooperative learning and team sports, actually value teamwork. However, both generations want to make certain job duties or peer expectations don’t compromise their extensive outside interests.

Unnatural Dialogue
America’s schools are for the most part led by Baby Boomer superintendents, principals and school boards. Those who grew up in the post-WWII baby boom will continue to occupy these seats into 2012 and beyond. Schools, however, are full of Generation X teachers and administrators who perceive things much differently. Millennials are also starting to make their mark. Their size and achievements are predicted to rival, if not surpass, those of the Boomers.

At the very least, superintendents should analyze career ideals, pet peeves and grudges through a generational lens (see page 12). Disagreements have to be handled civilly, constructively and speedily. There’s little tolerance among the public for petty bickering, whining or latching on to outdated traditions that hinder students’ ability to leave high school ready for the global marketplace.

The intergenerational dialogue so vital to the development of strong learning communities doesn’t come naturally to educators. But when age-based differences are factored in to professional development, hiring practices and staff assignments, it sets the stage for a collaborative outcome. On the other hand, if we ignore such differences, culture wars will obstruct progress. The wider the divide becomes, the harder it is to bridge. Knowing what binds staff together or pulls them apart allows you to bring out the best in your people.

Suzette Lovely is assistant superintendent for personnel services in the Placentia Yorba Linda Unified School District in Placentia, Calif. E-mail: slovely@pylusd.org. She is the co-author of Generations at School.