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Managing Generational Diversity

School leaders must understand generational differences in order to help teachers work together.

Jane, a high school principal, decides that it is time to change the daily schedule of classes for the next school year. Her goal is to maximize instructional time. Many staff members like the current schedule. It rewards the most senior teachers with the best sequence of classes. Other teachers are ambivalent, as they have accepted the status quo. In proposing a major change like this, a leader will often face intense opposition from those with the most to lose, while those with the most to gain will sit on the fence. Jane recognizes that this will be a significant event and begins the groundwork to prepare for the battle ahead.

First, she floats the idea past two veteran teachers, Jim and Marge, who are the gatekeepers of school tradition. Wisely, she frames the idea in the form of a question and defers to their history and prime position in the pecking order at the school. Jim and Marge like the idea and begin to spread the word with colleagues. After a couple of weeks, the principal proposes the schedule change to her leadership team. They form a study group to examine different schedules. A veteran teacher, Alice, who is five years from retirement, heads the group. She assigns tasks and develops a time-line. Kurt, who has taught for 15 years, and Isabel, a 12-year veteran, research schedule options and report back to the group. Hannah, who is four years into her teaching career, compiles data and prepares a PowerPoint presentation to make to the staff. In a number of staff meetings, facilitated by a focus group, consensus is reached and plans begin for implementation of a new schedule of classes. In September, the school year begins with a new block schedule.

What Is Your Generational Intelligence?

In the preceding scenario, Jane strategically assigned tasks based on the experience level of her leadership team. She displayed an intuitive sense of situational leadership and generational awareness. Many school leaders have explored the issue of diversity when it comes to students, teachers and staff. Their focus typically has been on gender and ethnicity. Generational diversity has received less attention. However, it is an area of diversity that warrants serious consideration.

School principals provide leadership for teachers who range in age from their early 20s to mid-60s and beyond. If you look at each generation in terms of a 20-year span, this means that a principal must manage three or four generations. Each generation is formed by its life experience and the reaction to the actions of the generation that preceded it. For example, the Baby Boom generation rebelled against the stereotypical Ozzie and Harriet conformity of the Eisenhower years with flower power, sit-ins and self-actualization. Members of Generation X, born between 1960 and 1980, grew up in a period of diminishing expectations, during the 1970s in particular, and are characterized as self-reliant and skeptical of Boomer authority. There are many implications for educational leaders hoping to bring about change in schools. Any new idea proposed by a school principal will be evaluated according to the generational outlook of the different constituencies on campus.

In Generations at School: Building an Age-Friendly Learning Community by Suzette Lovely and Austin G. Buffum (Corwin Press, 2007), the generational intelligence such as that displayed by the principal in our hypothetical scenario is given a theoretical and practical framework. The authors describe four generations commonly found in any school organization and outline practical strategies to help these diverse groups get along. I spoke with Lovely, assistant superintendent of human resources in Placentia Yorba Linda Unified School District in California, this past July about these four generations (see sidebar).

Why Look at Generational Intelligence in Schools?

Generational intelligence is important today for two reasons. First and foremost, schools are expected to improve student learning. No Child Left Behind mandates a 100 percent student proficiency level by 2014; the stakes have never been higher. Teamwork is essential to meet this challenge. Second, generations tend to view the needs of students differently and will advocate competing solutions to improving student learning. For example, Boomers will emphasize the mastery of a defined body of knowledge and will advocate hard work and individual responsibility. Generation X teachers will emphasize mastery of transferable skill sets as the technological age constantly redefines knowledge. These teachers will emphasize teamwork and problem-solving approaches to learning. A school leader must learn to accommodate both orientations to improve student learning.

The professional learning community approach, espoused by Richard DuFour and Roland Barth, places meaningful and focused teacher collaboration at the heart of any attempt to improve student learning in a systematic and successful way. This collaboration goes beyond mere congeniality or “getting along,” as teachers must address tough questions about the nature of learning and teaching. Lovely states that school leaders must understand and plan for generational differences to make teacher collaboration pay the dividends expected.

What Does a Good Generational Mix Look Like?

In our hypothetical scenario, Jane, the school principal, recognized that diversity on a school staff extends beyond gender and ethnicity. Jane wisely brought her Boomers, Jim and Marge, on board first. They place a high value on their status as innovators who made the school what it is today. They are good leaders. Kurt and Isabel are the Gen Xers. They are creative, work well in teams, and like developing options and choices so that they are not dictated to from above. Hannah is the Millennial. She is technologically savvy and responds well to direction from those with more experience and status in the organization. Jane’s team works well together.

What Happens When Things Go Bad?

Things don’t always go this smoothly, however, especially when educational systems contract due to pressures exerted by a troubled economy. School districts across the country are cutting budgets and services to students. California faces a $26 billion deficit, and thousands of teachers have been laid off. Different generational groups react to diminishing educational resources and the resultant reduction in school personnel according to their worldview.

In California, for example, it is helpful to view the spate of teacher layoffs through a generational prism. In Orange County, many districts issued reduction in force (RIF) notices, or pink slips, to teachers hired after 2000. Some districts went even further back. In accordance with state law, teachers were notified of a possible layoff by March 15, and final layoff notices were issued by May 15. This meant that teachers were under the threat of a layoff for almost half of the school year. Cracks and fissures among faculty communities were bound to appear.

Additionally, layoff lists were created based on the hire date of teachers. Therefore, the most junior teachers were the most vulnerable to layoffs. These are the Generation X and Millennial teachers. In many school districts, the public seeks salary rollbacks for teachers in order to maintain smaller teacher-student ratios in kindergarten through grade 3, in effect, saving some jobs for junior teachers. Veteran teachers are less likely to sacrifice salaries won through difficult collective bargaining in order to preserve smaller class sizes, and veteran secondary-level teachers are less likely to concede salary to save the jobs of less-senior elementary teachers. Obviously, the potential for a split along generational lines is immense.

Teacher seniority is one fault line. Boomers fought hard for collective bargaining in response to the sometimes capricious decisions by school boards and administrators in the past. Teacher seniority is one of the sacred cows to teacher unions. Veteran teachers feel that they have paid their dues and should be protected by their veteran status during teacher layoffs. Generation X teachers, and Millennials in particular, favor merit over hierarchy, and many have voiced displeasure over the unfairness of using seniority rather than teacher performance to reduce teaching staff.

Interestingly, these two groups differ in their general reaction to the process. Generation X teachers tend to be more resilient and have been quicker to seek jobs in other schools or in other professions. The Millennials, by contrast, have been slower to move on to other options and continue to rail at the unfairness of it all. The finality of a layoff, which they experience as a type of failure, is new for many teachers who were promised the world upon entering the teaching profession in the past five years. Remember, this is a group that won trophies merely for participating in youth sports and was sheltered from failure by helicopter parents. How they react to adversity will define their future as teachers.

During troubled times in the past, teacher unions could be counted upon to maintain a united front. Now that solidarity is cracking, and many union leaders have come under attack from younger union members for not providing enough protection for their jobs. Similarly, Boomer and Generation X teachers have criticized their Millennial peers for breaking some unwritten rules and crossing boundaries regarding teacher seniority. Millennials have protested at board meetings about the use of seniority to determine layoffs, rallied parents against principals and school leaders, and, being the Facebook generation, blogged about the unfairness of seniority status for veteran teachers.

The split is evident upon even a cursory perusal of blog posts responding to stories about education in the online versions of California newspapers, such as this post from the Capistrano Dispatch’s Beyond the Blackboard blog: “We are absolutely losing some good young teachers who will be very good with more experiences to draw upon. But let’s not convince ourselves that these young teachers are the reason for the successes of this district. ? The very best teachers are the ones who have been doing this for a while and have learned how best to educate kids. Conversely, some of our newest teachers are more worried about whether their students like them than they are about whether the kid is learning.”

A Los Angeles Times article entitled “Deal Could Restore Jobs” on July 15, 2009, suggesting a pay freeze to solve the Los Angeles Unified School District’s budget woes, prompted one blogger to post the following: “It takes 30 years to get to 90K. I don’t make 90K a year or even close. ? I will lose 4,000 dollars this year if this freeze goes through. I can’t afford that. The new teachers should not expect us to sacrifice.”

Many schools in California will open in September with a teaching staff radically altered by layoffs, and many school leaders will be eager to foster teamwork in an atmosphere that may have been spoiled by ill feelings and harsh words.

What Can You Do Now?

At the very least, school leaders should analyze their school staff along generational lines. Lovely and Buffum suggest a number of activities in Generations at School to help school teams become aware of generational orientation so that they can build a solid foundation for true collaboration. These activities include surveys and exercises to build awareness of generational similarities and differences.

Generations at school are defined by their life experiences and their reaction to the generation preceding them. This creates the potential for misconceptions and communication problems in school teams that are unaware of this dynamic.

The good news is that generational differences also create the potential for balanced teamwork once the dynamics of the group are extensively explored and finally understood. DA

Eamonn O’Donovan is assistant superintendent of human resources in Los Alamitos Unified School District in California.