Skip to Content

Cover Story: Look Out World!

The Millennial Generation is on a mission to educate

Mary Ellen Flannery

Let’s be frank. Some of your future colleagues in schools across America don’t…um, how can I put it nicely?

They don’t like you. They think you’re difficult to work with! They think that “the kids today” (that’s you…) have a sense of entitlement.

They call you the “trophy generation” because you played soccer in 1999 and got a chrome-plated ball, like everybody else, without actually scoring a single goal.

They worry that you don’t listen—that you don’t respect their decades of experience.

And the truth is? They’re a little bit right.

You are the Millennial Generation. And let’s be fair, you also are ah-mazing! You are eager, enthusiastic, comfortable with diversity, and much more team-oriented than your predecessors. You’re rah-rah about saving the children, gung-ho about saving the world! And you’re determined to take charge and get it done now.

Give you a computer—nah, that’s old school, isn’t it?! Give you a hand-held, an MP3 player, or a SmartBoard and stand back. You’re the techno-generation, and so much smarter about using the latest gadgets in new, creative ways.

You are ambitious.

You are optimistic.

You are the future of education.

“This is a challenging field, but I love challenges,” says Jennie Levy, a 23-year-old, first-year teacher of autistic children in Aurora, Colorado. “My kids inspire me.”

Who Are the Millennials?

Better than birth order, more reliable than star signs, the new hot predictor of workplace behavior is generational differences. According to popular research published by Harvard University and other academic presses, each generation has its own work style and expectations.

Your mentor, Ms. Baby Boomer, she stays awfully late, doesn’t she? “I do work very long hours,” agrees Evelyn Smith, a 56-year-old Pennsylvania elementary teacher. That generation is known for its work ethic—and its professional loyalty. They’ll stick by your side. (It’s said that a lot of Boomers love the Millennials. They do!)

Now, think about your department colleague, the guy who still hums songs from Reality Bites. (Get over it, buddy!) “We grew up in the 80s, the whole Madonna, techno-time, MTV thing…and we integrate it into part of who we are,” says Yvette Fleming, a 37-year-old teacher. “We’re critical, very skeptical of authority. We look at our principals and think, ‘Hmm. What are you going to take now?’”

And then, there’s you…

Most new teachers are Millennials, born between 1977 and 1998. (Although, of course, there are plenty of career-changers who come to teaching after years of soul-deadening corporate work… .) Also known as Gen Y or The Nexters, this generation has its own set of attributes and quirks—and they don’t always mesh with the old folks.

“Everybody clashes with the Millennials!” says Alexandra Levit, author of They Don’t Teach Corporate in College and a frequent lecturer on generational theory. “The Gen X’ers are clashing, the Boomers are clashing…they all think this generation is narcissistic. But they’re really not.”

“What I tell them is, this generation tends to be entrepreneurial, very ambitious, and determined to change things for the better.”

They’re upbeat, less edgy than the X’ers, close to their parents and families, and optimistic about the future, write Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.

They can make absolutely fabulous teachers, Levit suggests. “This generation has the biggest sense of civic responsibility,” she says. “They want to have a hands-on approach to solving some of the problems of the world.”

Consider NEA Student Program Chair Anthony Daniels. After a knee injury sidelined his college basketball career, Daniels sat back and thought, “What can I do to make a difference?” he recalls. And he turned his attention to elementary education, where he knew he could change a child’s life for the better.

“I decided to commit my life to public service,” he says.

Like Daniels, Sheena Royster, an elementary education major at Bowie State University (and the model on the cover of this magazine!) says she just wants to make a difference for kids.

“We’re really passionate about being teachers.”

Of course, every theory has its limitations—and you might be thinking right now, “We’re not all alike!” But the researchers who study generational theory would argue that two 20-year-olds are more alike than a 45-year-old mother and her college-age daughter. While the mother remembers when the Challenger blew up and the AIDS epidemic took off, her daughter grew up with a “Baby on Board” sticker in her car window and “family values” books on her library shelf.

The differences are: How were you raised as children? What public events did you witness in adolescence? And what social missions will you take on as you grow into adulthood?

   “What we have found is that generations shaped by similar early-life experiences often develop similar collective personae and follow similar life trajectories,” write Howe and Strauss in the Harvard Business Review.

Off to Work!

For most Millennials, the green years were all about you, Levit says. Think children’s menus and private tutors, and a very child-centric era. This is the age of the “helicopter parent,” so-called for their habit of hovering over children. Mom and Dad told you again and again that you were wonderful—and you believed them.

“‘Look at me! Look at how fabulous everything is that I do!’” mimics Millennial Amanda Wetzel, a 27-year-old high school teacher in Pennsylvania. “You might have great ideas. But so does everybody else in this building,” she cautions.

On your first day at work, you’re going to meet a whole bunch of gray-hairs whose first car was a VW Rabbit—and, no, they don’t make those anymore.

 They will think you’re oh-so-terribly young! (Eyes roll.) But if you want to be successful in your professional relationships, say other on-the-job Millennials like Wetzel, you will not think of them as old.

You will think of them as experienced.

   “When you’re trying to find your feet, you can go to them and say, ‘Talk me through this! You’ve been in this situation before…help!’” says Heather Mielke, a 28-year-old high school math teacher in Wisconsin.

Mielke works with 10 other teachers, ranging in age from 20-something to 50-something. They get along better than many multi-generational families because “we accept the fact that we have different styles,” she said. “We’ve made a point of getting to know each other, and discussing problems openly.”

Likewise, at Shady Grove Middle School in Maryland, the seventh-grade team accommodates members of all ages at daily meetings, where the agenda ranges from troubled pre-teens to secret Santas. The youngest is a 26-year-old counselor who says she draws on the experience of her older colleagues. The oldest is a 59-year-old reading specialist who says, “It’s never been like, ‘You’re 24. I’m not.’”

Around a conference table, they work together to raise the student achievement of every seventh-grader at their school. They laugh, they listen, and they respect each other’s input—and that’s exactly the way it should be, says author Levit. “[A good working relationship] requires respect from all sides,” she says.

“Just because we’re younger doesn’t mean we don’t know what we’re talking about,” 22-year-old Royster says. “Keep an open mind,” she urges her future colleagues. “Maintain an open dialogue.”

To her fellow Millennials, 24-year-old Erin Wiggins, a Kentucky social studies teacher, has one big piece of advice: “Listen, truly listen.”

To everybody else: “Be patient!”

Hang in There!

Along with that do-gooder nature, which makes you perfect for the underpaid and often underappreciated profession of teaching, Millennials also are characterized by their eagerness to do it now.

You’re accustomed to innovation. Think about it: Gen X’ers went to schools that pretty much looked like the schools that Boomers went to, which pretty much looked like the same schools that the previous generation (called “The Traditionalists”) attended. But your schools had computers. You had the Internet! You have Facebook and MySpace and all sorts of newfangled things.

You might think change happens like that… .”I know, when I have a kiddo who has a meltdown in class, I want to solve that problem immediately,” Levy says. “I like to work quickly, and I like things to be perfect.”

And so, it can be a little frustrating to work in a school where Mrs. Math has had the same bulletin board for 33 years and wants to know why on God’s Earth she should work collaboratively on thematic lessons that span the departments.

Don’t get frustrated.

Don’t get discouraged.

“It’s not always this peachy-keen atmosphere where everybody gets along. Sometimes people are vindictive. Sometimes people are out to get people,” warns 26-year-old Rachel Levine, a first-grade teacher in Connecticut. (Sounds like dorm life, doesn’t it?) “You have to keep in mind the bigger picture. I tell myself to go into the classroom, that I’m there for my children.”

“With time, you’ll find your place,” she promises.

And, for every stick in the mud that you might meet, you’ll also find a dozen teachers like the ones that Levy has met in Colorado. “I look up to them as mentors, as my mom away from mom. And they’ve been very welcoming and very open to my new ideas.”

Consider Levine’s colleague Cindy Roberson. She might be just a few years from retirement, but says she loves working with younger teachers. They give her the daily juice to keep going.

And you should keep going too!

More than other generations, Millennials have a rep as quitters. They’ll often walk away from jobs out of frustration, sometimes after just days or weeks, Levit says. “Stay at least one year!” she advises.

That’s a completely reasonable goal—especially if you take the advice of your working peers, you’ll find it’s pretty easy to stay much longer, and love (almost) every day.

Mielke, for example, is in her sixth year at Burlington High School. When she started, she hated the geometry book—a little thing, but maybe not so little if you have to use it every day. Rather than throw her hands up in disgust, “I sat down with two of the other teachers and we completely revamped the curriculum so that we don’t even use that book.”

Lesson learned: You can make changes if you show a little initiative and work collaboratively with your colleagues.

Getting involved in the school community and the greater community can help immensely, Mielke advises. She coaches sports and extracurriculars, but also serves as a very active member of her local and state associations.

“I love the fact that I’ve gotten involved—it’s helped me know the community, from the custodial staff to the aides to the members of all the other departments—and it makes me feel like I fit in more,” she says.

Levine agrees: “Being involved can only help—it makes you feel like part of a community. And, when you feel valued and important and needed, that’s when you do your best work.”

It’s a great idea to organize groups of new teachers around issues, Levit advises. Technology adoption is the perfect example. You know how to use technology to connect with kids—and you can easily show your colleagues how to do it right. “Even if you’re feeling frustrated, because it is frustrating to be a new teacher, you’ll feel like you’re making a difference,” she said.

“In my school, there is some of that eye-rolling,” Mielke acknowledges. “But you just have to be happy with what you’re doing, and you don’t have to be the same way that everybody else is.

“You can find your own happiness.”

Feeling unsure about how you’ll fit in with the other generations in the teacher’s lounge? Here are some pointers from second-year teacher (and Millennial) Hannah Sitzman:

  • Respect the wisdom of those who have the most experience; try not to get frustrated if they resist change.
  • Discover what each person on your team has to offer and call that person into play whenever possible. Know who is great at reaching at-risk kids, who has great management ideas, who is the math genius, and who knows which of the latest reading strategies work best. Ask them for help and talk them up to other people.
  • Be willing to share things that you know, too. Some strategies taught in college won't work in your practice, but some are awesome. Don't be afraid to do what you feel is in the best interest of your students.

  • Ask lots of questions. Most teachers are willing to help, but they sometimes forget that you are new and need assistance.

  • Use a work period to observe another teacher. Not only will you learn by watching, you'll prove you’re dedicated to improving. Talk to the teacher afterwards about specific strategies or activities. The follow-up discussion is often even more beneficial than the actual observation.

Playing the Generations Game

The Millennials! (1977 to 1998)

The Scouting Report: These rookies are impatient to get into the game and, oh boy, do they love the applause—but they often deserve it! Fluent with technology and full of positive energy, the kids can handle multiple plays at once. When the game is on the line, let them know it. They want to save the world.

The X’ers! (1965 to 1976)

The Scouting Report: Give ’em the ball! (And don’t expect it back!) Gen X’ers tend to be self-reliant, independent workers. But be careful what you say, Coach—they don’t much like authority or formalities. Fabulous on special team operations, they also bring a lot of creative juice to projects.

The Boomers! (1946 to 1964)

The Scouting Report: When the team goes into overtime, put a Boomer on the forward line. They never let up. (Do they have any fun?) They’re loyal to employers, enjoy working in teams, and will practice, practice, practice for far longer than really necessary.

Published in:

Published In