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Millennials and Boomers: Building Intergenerational Learning Environments

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

Each generation has a personality, characteristics and preferences that define their behavior and their views of the world. Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000, are no different. Their arrival in the professional world has significant implications for the workplace, across sectors but including – and perhaps especially – education.

The October issue of Learning Forward’s JSD features “Boomers and Millennials: Vive La Difference,” an article by Suzette Lovely that examines ways to blend different generational styles in the learning environment. The article poses five suggestions for creating a generationally friendly culture. They pay homage to the distinct differences between generations in the same workplace. What’s more, they aim to foster a more collaborative learning environment, helping ensure that an older, more experienced generation of teachers can pass on their knowledge to a new energetic teaching force. This new generation of professionals, in turn, must feel embraced by their older colleagues and respected for their ideas, innovation and energy.

“Don’t paint every generation with the same brush.” Assumptions and generalizations about generations are rarely constructive, and not every clash is attributed to a generational difference. However, when one brings an understanding of their counterparts’ beliefs and values to the table, it can help facilitate collaboration in the learning environment. Millennials’ values prioritize home, community and family, and in turn, they want a work-life balance. Their hyper-connectivity means that working remotely is highly favored and they generally regard clocking-in and out as archaic.

“Let people argue with you.” While Millennials respect their elders, and are eager to learn, they were raised to offer their opinion and speak their mind. As Boomers share their expertise and years of acquired wisdom, engaging Millennials and their ideas in the process will facilitate the collaboration. These younger individuals do not expect to be treated equally, but they do expect to be treated fairly. While Boomers tend to see fairness as equality, Millennials view fairness more through the lens of ability, perhaps suggesting they are more likely to support the removal of ineffective colleagues to raise the bar on performance.

“Show respect differently.” Similar to the above, it is important to acknowledge that respect translates differently between generations. While Boomers associate automatic respect with years in the field, Millennials feel respected when there is serious dialogue and engagement – of true substance – around their ideas and suggestions. Because Boomer parents pushed self-esteem, their children have high levels of confidence and believe they “can do and be all”; hence, young people are relatively unafraid to question authority. The positive flip side is that Millennials want to be in the know and have high expectations that they will succeed; looking for constructive feedback and affirmation from their principal and school leadership is a distinctly collaborative trait among this generation.

“Give it to ‘em their way.” Both generations share a strong desire for professional development, as continuous learners. Teachers want staff development that is related to their current work - it doesn’t have to be generation specific. Millennials aren’t just interested in online learning, and many Boomers are eager to learn about the newest classroom technologies to help their students be college and career ready. Millennials are not guaranteed to stay in the same profession throughout the course of their professional life. To keep talent in classrooms, rigorous and relevant professional development must foster a sense of growth, strength and success in their craft.

“Offer a survivable experience.” There are two other reasons that young people leave the teaching profession: a sense of isolation and difficult classroom assignments. Half of Millennials depart due to job dissatisfaction or opportunities to purpose a better career. Including Millennials in conversations around school changes and initiatives increase their sense of connectivity to their work and the mission of public education.  Difficult classroom assignments affect new teachers of any age, a common experience that professional development and support can address.

Millennials, as a percentage of the population, are still coming of age as parents, professionals and voters. Securing buy-in as professionals within the public school system will require compromise. While Millennials are eager to learn and strive to improve their performance, they also consider themselves to be lifelong learners. In order to keep them in classrooms, the education community will find a significant return on investment when it comes to professional development and extended learning opportunities. In particular, policy-makers who tout education as a pathway to the middle class and source of economic strength and prosperity would do well to reflect on millennial priorities and generational characteristics, specifically when it comes to policies surrounding the teaching profession. As Millennials transition into the teaching force, building strong learning environments that foster collaboration will help them get their footing, stay in the profession, invest in our nation’s schools and educate future generations.