My count-down to summer series this year is all about teaching those unfamiliar beings in our classrooms popularly referred to as Generation Z. Four weeks ago, I discussed how I make lecture work for them. The week after was all about research. Then, I addressed creating a sense of urgency surrounding assignments so that our students, well, do them. Last week, I discussed ways to get them to take action on feedback. This week, I’m going to discuss the timeless secret to teaching these elusive creatures effectively.
In the introduction to this series, I identified five traits Gen Z collectively shares (give or take):
1. They have smaller attention spans than previous generations.
2. There’s a lot of “noise” in their lives. They don’t always listen unless we are addressing them directly (one-on-one).
3. They are more interested in what “real people” are doing (on social media platforms like YouTube) than in popular television shows or movies.
4. They never, ever have to be bored and don’t expect to be.
5. They already are, or anticipate being, entrepreneurs.
I’m going to take these sweeping traits and use them to attempt to explain one timeless secret about teaching Gen Z.
I want to talk about the most important way we can reach Gen Z. And this has always been true, but it seems more important now than ever. It could be the busy world they grew up in, the bombardment of information from every direction, the increasing lack of face-to-face personal connections in their lives. But whatever the reason, these timeless secrets to teaching are vital today:
We must get to know our students. We must believe in them. We must care about them.
And we cannot fake it. They know if we’re faking it. They have a radar.
I have one response to most typical teenage questions in my class:
“Why did you change our seats?”
“Why are you making us do this project?
“Why do you keep making us do all this work?”
“We hate it.”
“It’s not fun.”
“LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE.”
Sure, there’s a part of my response that’s tongue-in-cheek. Over-explaining is a pitfall with teenagers, and the idea that we always need to explain why we do everything that we do is misguided. They want us to over-explain. It wastes time and gives them a chance to argue.
So my response to why I do most things is simple, a bit sarcastic, but also true.
I do it for love.
I love them and I care about their futures. I want them to grow emotionally and intellectually. I want them to learn my subject, but I want them to learn reasoning, skepticism, independence, and confidence more.
The reasons I make them learn how to judge whether a source is reliable, create an annotated bibliography, understand where they come from, participate in community politics, etc., is not always easily explained. Further, lengthy explanations can be counter productive, detracting from the task at hand. They often learn the reasons in doing the task–we often cannot understand the big picture until we’ve put all of the pieces together. There are times when, “Because I said so” is the most expedient way to achieve our goals.
But if our students know that we care about them–that we care about their futures and have their best interests at heart–they might not like what we are doing, but they will be more likely to accept it because they trust us.
And this has nothing to do with Gen Z. This is human nature.
I go back to my 12 year-old self as a reference. I was always strong-willed, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But I remember the first time it dawned on me that I could simply tell my parents, “No,” and there was not much they could do about it. I reveled in my free will.
But they stood firm and punished me. I could endure it, and still win–I knew this.
But as I was defying them, as I was telling them, “No,” I saw the hurt on their faces and the love behind it. My defiance melted away. I knew at that moment that they were doing what they did (even though I didn’t understand and wholeheartedly disagreed) because they genuinely cared about me. They didn’t have to explain. I could see it on their faces. I capitulated.
Holding our students to high standards and holding them accountable is a similar thing to my 12 year-old epiphany with my parents.
It is imperative to build relationships with them and to make it clear that we care. They are our future. They are individuals deserving of respect and, yes, love. This is why we assess and work and work. This is why we get to know them. This is why we don’t over-explain, but allow them to discover. This is why we teach.
So how do we build these relationships? I know so many teachers who do these things naturally, and through years of talking to them and just being in the classroom, I’ve identified eight concrete actions that can help us build relationships and get Gen Z’s attention:
1. We talk to them. Greet them at the door. Smile at them. Let them know we’re happy they’re there (even when all of us would rather be somewhere else). If they have a crazy excuse for something–listen at the appropriate time (it could be valid, provide insight into who they are, or just make them feel heard, which we all need).
On the first day of school, I have students fill out an index card with their name and interests. I make a game out of going around the room, making eye-contact with each student, and having a short conversation about one of their interests with them. This is how I learn their names and something about them right away. I wrote about this several years ago.
During the first week of school, we create avatars. Students get into it. They go online and create an avatar that represents them. Then they explain to the class what each component of their avatar means. This is a great way to let students express themselves and explain their creativity and who they are to the class.
2. We play music. Music speaks to the soul. It creates memories and bonds us, even if it is (gasp!) my music. Music creates an ambiance in our classrooms, just like it does in a night club (yes, please, a different kind). Getting rid of the institutionalized feel of school is imperative for Gen Z. Most of them won’t work in institutionalized feeling jobs (the economy has changed). Let’s make school pleasant.
I create a play list on Spotify for my classroom. I add to it based on my interests and theirs. There’s energetic music, relaxing music, inspiring music….
3. We build a community. We do this in many different ways. We do this through meaningful group work and collaboration. We do this with competition among classes. However we build a community, we construct it so that our classroom becomes a safe place for collaboration, achievement, and mistakes.
I have done this for the past few years by gamifying. Students are on a quest and they level-up with individual accomplishments and accomplishments as a class.
4. We hold fast to our rules, but we also make room for “do-overs.” We understand that everybody needs to follow the rules. This builds citizenship and prevents chaos. But we also recognize that everybody has bad days and makes mistakes. We do not classify them by how they’ve messed up, but by how they are trying to do better.
I use a Google Form to have students reflect when they misbehave. It asks them what they’ve done and what they will do instead in the future. Even though teenagers will not always take this seriously (and this is timeless, as well…), I have a digital record of behaviors and they have the opportunity to think through a better reaction. You can read about it and grab the form here.
5. We recognize that they have talents outside of our classes. The teachers I know who develop the best relationships with their students recognize that their students are multi-faceted. We celebrate their soccer goals and their placement as third chair in band. We ask them about their video games and social media business endeavors. We encourage them to start a Dungeons and Dragons Club or to join Mock Trial.
6. We find the humor. We know that this job is many things, but never, ever boring. We see the humor in our own and our students quirks. We make time to laugh in class.
I have written before about finding the humor in your classroom, so I won’t go into great detail here. But I will say that one vital thing is to embrace your own flaws. When you make mistakes, own it, and let the students laugh. I have been on the end of this many times, as with my natural grace, I have gone to sit down and missed my chair or tripped over a chord and landed flat on my face.
7. We keep their parents and guardians in the loop. We take advantage of email blasts and class newsletters. We let parents know when behavior needs to improve and when it has. Generally speaking, parents of Gen Z will not automatically be on our side. We need to keep them updated so that they know what’s going on, can help motivate their student, and can hear our side when something goes wrong.
8. We remember that they are our future. We understand that we are teaching our future leaders. We take that seriously, and try to give each of them the best education possible. We want them to have research skills so they can be discerning. We want them to know their history so they can be skeptical. We want them to have math skills so they navigate their world and think abstractly. We want them to understand the scientific method so that they can think logically and rationally and recognize “bad” science.
Here is how relationship-building speaks to Gen Z:
1. They have smaller attention spans than previous generations. They are more likely to pay attention if it’s coming from someone they care about and they know cares about them.
2. There’s a lot of “noise” in their lives. They don’t always listen unless we are addressing them directly (one-on-one). Again, if they know we care, it’s not the noise of constant ads they are bombarded with. It’s information specifically for them.
3. They are more interested in what “real people” are doing (on social media platforms like YouTube) than in popular television shows or movies. Building a classroom community creates a real-life microcosm of what they are looking for on social media–connection and fellowship.
4. They never, ever have to be bored and don’t expect to be. Relationships are not boring. As a matter of fact, they are the most exciting thing out there, even in the world of video games and social media.
5. They already are, or anticipate being, entrepreneurs. If we see this in them, they appreciate it. They may not feel like they are “good” at our subjects. If that’s the only way we evaluate them, they may feel like we see them as failures.
Be sure to check out all of the posts in this series on teaching Gen Z for helpful tips and tricks: