Follow the Leader: School Leadership Woes

Prior to joining the BridgeWorks team, I worked as an educational psychologist and school administrator for 10 years. During those years, I felt a kind of disconnect from my staff that I couldn’t put my finger on. Thanks to joining BridgeWorks and gaining heaps of consequent knowledge, I now know that I was experiencing invasive generational ClashPoints. I was a Millennial school administrator managing a staff of four generations in a Traditionalist–structured and bureaucratic industry. I was the ultimate example of “managing up.” My leadership style didn’t always mesh with the established work styles or union regulations, and while my intentions were always student focused and staff supportive, they were not always received that way.

I remember my first day as a new administrator. I suited up that first morning, looked in the mirror, and called out affirmations of success: “I will change education! I will give my team everything they need to educate our students.” I arrived early to welcome the staff to a new year with a warm smile. The first meeting with my staff was a warm-fuzzy session of explaining how I work with the hopes of building a cohesive team. During the first week, I supported teachers by checking on classrooms and seeing if the teachers needed assistance. I entered my first class with a pad of paper in hand and a smile on my face to silently express to the teachers, “I am here, I got your back. We are in this together.”

The first teacher, a Millennial, welcomed me and asked me to join the class in a game. Energized by the activity and interaction, I walked into the next classroom. I observed an interaction and as soon as the kids were off and running, the teacher, a Gen Xer, pulled me aside. She drilled me with questions: “Why are you here? What do you need? Why didn’t you send me a warning that I would be observed today?” As my hopeful smile slipped away, I calmed the teacher, explained my intentions, and left the room with tail between my legs. By the end of my day of “teacher support,” I had received an urgent call from my supervisor, an e-mail from the teacher union president, and I saw one teacher come to tears for fear my presence signified an official observation.

There is nothing more Traditionalist in structure than the hierarchy of a school. I had entered that school’s domain without warning, which was enough to raise red flags. While the collaborative, affirmation-seeking Millennial was thrilled to have me there for support, the Boomers and Gen Xers didn’t feel comfortable having the disruption of an administrator, especially one who was so unannounced.

As a school administrator, with the school boundaries so clearly defined by unions, laws, and logistical boundaries, it is even more essential to consider generational dynamics in the workplace. Experienced teachers are staying in the field longer than ever, and Millennials are entering and leaving the profession in droves. While one in five Millennials will become teachers, 40% are leaving the profession within five years of starting, according to the US Chamber Foundation. In order for schools to stay relevant with a vibrant cohort of educators, school culture and policy have to match the changing generational demographics. School administrators and teachers have to understand how generational differences can put a strain on the school community, its students, and the future of the education industry.