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Whippersnappers and Geezers

Trey Reely | September 2018

    “I could have changed your diaper when you were a baby, you little whippersnapper!” I have often been tempted to say that to my current principal but haven’t had the guts; it might not look good on my permanent record. I could see this generational chasm approaching years ago – the dreadful time when I would have to work under someone much younger than I am. Interestingly, in mid-career I worked for several years under a principal who was the same age as I was, even down to the same birthday. However, it has been downhill ever since, and I have been teaching longer than my current principal has been alive. 

    Somehow that doesn’t seem right, but it is becoming more and more common, and not just in education. A 2014 Harris survey found that 38 percent of American workers had a younger boss, and I am sure that figure is higher now. This has been a source of stress for older workers; a September 2016 study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that most workers with managers younger than themselves reported negative emotions like anger and fear more often than those with older managers. I am sure the same is true in educational institutions where you have the dynamic between administrative teams and the faculty. Age differences also be an issue between members of a music department.
    To be fair, I’m sure older faculty members (who for the purposes of this article I will call geezers) can create their share of stress on the younger co-workers (whippersnappers), so to help bridge this gap, I’m going to give suggestions for both sides of this generational divide.

To the Old Geezer
    Be understanding. Whippersnappers are perfectly aware that they are in the odd position of having to tell people the same age as their parents what to do and how to do things. They are going to make mistakes with this unusual dynamic even with the best of intentions.
Be respectful. As an older subordinate, you must always show respect to your boss. Remember, you may need a letter of recommendation someday.
    Lead from below. This can be tricky. As an older faculty member, you will most likely have more life experience, especially when it comes to human relations and communication. Take the time during calm, informal, one-on-one discussions to suggest ways to get the most out of the faculty. If you are lucky, a younger administrator will see you as a mentor, not a threat.
    Get everything on the table. Why skirt around the issue? When I met with my new whippersnapper principal for the first time, I told him right up front that it the age and experience gap between us was going to be an adjustment for me, and that I would do my best not to constantly give him advice like he was my son.
    Be open to new ideas. Be careful not to reflexively give comment on how things were “in your day” implying that the new day is wrong. Even if the new ideas are actually old ones, maybe they will be implemented better than in the past when they failed. It also wouldn’t be a bad thing to reexamine some of the ways you have been doing things and see if they could be improved.
    Find things to praise, and communicate these to the whippersnapper. At the end of my first year with a much younger principal I sent him a note with a list of seven things that I liked about his first year. I didn’t mention any of the things I did not like, saving those for future conversations.

To the Young Whippersnapper
    Do not act like the world only began when you arrived. If you are not careful, you could come to represent everything that’s wrong with administration, from needlessly taking up the faculty’s time to requiring things that ultimately do not further the education of students.
    Do not be afraid to ask teaching veterans their opinions. Many of the things that you present as new and exiting have been tried before with varying degrees of success. Veterans can point out the pitfalls of some of your new ideas and pare things down to what is most likely to work. Develop your listening skills to the highest degree possible.
    You may have the expertise on the latest trends, but be aware that without good leadership and management skills, getting them implemented may prove very difficult.
Just because older faculty members might not understand today’s most popular social media does not mean they aren’t people. Ask how their weekend was and try to remember their children’s names. You work with them, but make sure it’s not all work. 
    Do not take things too seriously. If you keep your cool in tough situations, workplace veterans will be more willing to help. When something goes wrong, have a laugh. When faculty members are unafraid to talk to you, they will tell you what you need to know.
    Do whatever you can to make their job easier. Help them learn new skills. Older faculty members want to enjoy their final years. Make it your mission to make this happen. You will be there some day.
    Be sympathetic to the difficulty of change for those who are having to change the most. Last year I had a whippersnapper curriculum director who could access my online grade book from his computer. I did not know this until he was talking to me one day about how I assigned grades and how he thought I should do it. To me, that was like sneaking into my office and pulling a grade book out of my desk while I was at lunch. In an age where things are increasingly less private, he thought nothing of it, but I was aggravated.
    Do not send texts and emails any time day or night. In general, older workers have more of division between work time and off hours. Explain why things need to be done a certain way and make sure those reasons are sound. You do owe those under your care a sensible explanation or they will not respect you.

   Regardless of which side you are on, keep the big picture in mind. Ultimately, when educators, both young and old alike, come together, the students benefit most.