Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How to Be More Generationally Savvy: Skills for Collaborating - Part 2

By Jennifer Abrams — March 10, 2015 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today’s guest blog is written by Jennifer Abrams, co-author with Valerie von Frank of The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicate, Collaborate, & Create Community.

The generational filter continues to pop up in the day-to-day work in schools. The ‘generational filter,’ understood well, along with so many other filters, helps us all “play well” with other adults in our school. Without it, things can go awry. Since blog posting #1, I have been privy to what I term are a few ‘saliva moments.’ For me a ‘saliva moment’ is where something goes amiss, and was said inappropriately. You hear it aloud and you squint, grimace, clench your teeth, catch your breath and take in some saliva.

With generational missteps, ‘saliva moments’ are common.

Example #1: One Gen Xer told her student that her paper ‘sucked.’ The parent and student weren’t too pleased by the blunt feedback. Example #2: A Boomer, thinking she had been clear with her diplomatic suggestion (aka ‘do it’ directive), was surprised when she found herself being told that suggestion was appreciated but not going to be followed. Hey, it was a suggestion, not an expectation, right?

Oh, the generational miscommunications we find ourselves in. Blog #1 focused on a tips for working well with Traditionalists and Boomers. This blog will focus in on the younger two generations working in our schools, The Xers and the Millennials.

As a reminder:

Gen Xers

b. 1965-1981

Born in the era of women’s rights, the introduction of the birth control pill, legalized abortion and higher divorce rates, Gen Xers might be a smaller group compared with the generational groups on either side of them, but they leave an impression with their direct style and attitude. Xers want to respect the individual in a given position, and don’t give respect to someone solely based on their role in a hierarchy. Title doesn’t mean as much to an Xer as authenticity and competence. And, as many HR staff have found, this generation is interested in a life-work balance (emphasis on life), which can lead to the use of PN days, an interest in job sharing and creating roles with a few part-time assignments combined together or just part-time work, period.

b. 1982-2000

The Millennials, teachers and administrators who are in their early 30s or 20s, grew up with adults very aware of and interested in how to meet their needs educationally, socially and culturally. Many grew up with tremendous support and constant connection to family members, and they continue to expect similar just-in-time supports and structures within their school workplaces. Some might say this group is coddled. Others say they are entitled. Millennials will say they have strong support structures and they appreciate connecting with them any chance they can. Calling home during the day to talk to Mom? Why not?

So how best to work with these two groups?

A few thoughts:


Focus on pragmatism and results.

The key driver for many Xers is autonomy. Xers value independence and often feel that some meetings or required interactions with staff and colleagues aren’t worth their time attending. Meeting to meet isn’t their ‘thing'; many agenda items could be better handled in an email. Discussions would be more productive and effective if all involved had a clearer understanding of the expected outcomes from the onset. We don’t meet just to ‘schmooze,’ Xers might say. Xers are interested in doing meaningful work collaboratively and individually via Google Docs, Twitter Chats, and Skype conversations. Some Gen Xers have commented to me how delighted they are when their meetings aren’t “full of fluff.” Such language might sound too blunt for other generations, but for many Xers, results are as important as relationships.

Explain the ‘why.’ Transparency matters.

Xers want to know the rationale for what is being asked of them. And if they don’t get one, they can rub others the wrong way when they ask, “Why do we have to do that?” rather than the more neutral, “Can you help me understand the thinking behind ...” It is for questions asked such as the “Why do we have to...? " because of the response of “Seriously?!” that Xers are perceived as resistant and having an attitude. (The same is true with Millennials’ asking, “Why can’t we do it this way?”) Leaders working with Gen Xers need to understand that transparency and real-ness is a big deal and the more authentic the person, the more respect offered. Anticipate the questions and be real. Authenticity goes a long way with Xers.


On teams, make sure everyone has a voice, including the new person, the younger person. Millennials want ‘in.’

The unspoken hierarchies or power structures that might diminish a new teacher’s voice would be frustrating to any new teacher, and are especially so to Millennials, who believe in collaboration and co-creation no matter how few or many years of ‘experience’ one has.

Key to Millennials’ satisfaction is having opportunities to participate. Leaders who want to reach this generation should ask, “Do they feel acknowledged?” Millennials want opportunities sooner and faster. Just as on Facebook, where all voices are heard equally, this generation expects their voice to be acknowledged in their professional learning teams.

Traditionalists, Boomers or Xers who might expect their voices to hold greater sway over the group based on their experience can be challenged by these newcomers’ expectations to ‘chime in’ from the get-go. Eyebrows often go up in groups when Millennials suggest that the way things were done last year might not work for them as they join in and that a different way of doing the annual (pick the event) sounds more up their alley. Millennials want to contribute to the team, and they voice their thoughts to show engagement. Their suggestion for what they are willing to do or not do isn’t a show of insubordination, but a sign of commitment.

For example, after the first day of a two-day training, one Millennial participant approached me after the workshop to suggest several changes that could make the next day’s session even more effective. After an initial moment of shock, I realized he was demonstrating his sense of engagement and a desire to be involved in the process. One might have heard the feedback and thought, “Who does he think he is telling me what to do?” but then the session wouldn’t have gotten better. Millennials see their actions as collegial and collaborative, no disrespect intended. Leaders need to not take offense and find ways to acknowledge and include Millennials’ perspectives.

Don’t patronize.

Newbies, green beans, the baby of the group. These names for new staff members, who often are Millennials, diminish their credibility among colleagues. They often are viewed as youngsters without status and significance.

One assistant principal told me, “I am almost 30. I have taught for seven years. I am an administrator, but some of my more veteran colleagues continue to call me ‘Sweetie.’ It’s really disrespectful. I wear a tie and am professional. Why aren’t they?” Underlying assumptions about competency can diminish a relationship. With Millennials, examining your approach and watching your words are critical for creating community.

All school leaders need to be more generationally savvy to co-create a strong school climate and to communicate with all staff members in constructive and supportive ways. Adding the generational lens to your view of your staff will increase your generational dexterity and ability to work effectively with colleagues of all generations.


Abrams, J. & von Frank, V. (2013). The multigenerational workplace: Communicate, collaborate, & create community. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Bryk, A. S. & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.


Jennifer Abrams is an educational consultant and co-author with Valerie von Frank of The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicate, Collaborate, & Create Community (Corwin, 2013) and Having Hard Conversations (Corwin, 2009). She can be reached at jennifer@jenniferabrams.com and @jenniferabrams on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.