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October 1, 2007
Vol. 65
No. 2

The Principal Connection / Supervising Generation X

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That's a matter of opinion,” the young teacher said, and I gulped. “I mean,” she continued, “I appreciate what you think, but that's not how I see it.”
What in the world is going on? I wondered. Of course, it's an opinion: It's my opinion and I'm the boss! This young teacher and I were having her end-of-year evaluation conference. Barb was a good teacher, but she, like all of us, had areas in which she needed to improve.
At the end of each school year, I meet individually with each faculty member at New City School to discuss my annual evaluation of that teacher, which I share in writing beforehand. I focus on strengths, but I also make a point of raising issues that need attention. I begin by asking, “Do you recognize the person I described?”
To make the meeting as positive as possible, I begin by talking about growth. I often cite a particular student who has flourished because of the teacher's skill. In the case of the teacher who made me gulp, I had already talked about the progress Barb had made and shared my enthusiasm for working with her. But I wanted to address my concerns about Barb's wait time with students. I had watched her teach a lesson on estimation, and I used that as an opening, telling her, “I think sometimes your lessons move too quickly and you don't build in enough time for students to reflect.”
That's when Barb let me know that she didn't agree. From her perspective, moving lessons too quickly was a weak area that she and I had discussed previously—one which she had diligently worked on and improved.
I wanted to say, “Yes, it is a matter of opinion, but it's my opinion that counts.” That would have felt good, but it wouldn't have been the least bit productive. What was happening in this evaluation? Was Barb a defiant, anti-authority teacher? No. Barb was talented, hard working, and a good team player. She was simply a Generation X teacher.

Who is “Generation X”?

Fortunately, just before this conversation, I had read quite a bit about Generation X, people born between 1965 and 1980. Although it's always dangerous to generalize, it seems clear that Gen Xers share some particular characteristics: They respond well to change, are comfortable with technology, and are not intimidated by authority. “Not intimidated by authority” indeed!
Gen Xers are far less bound by structure and hierarchy than are those born in previous generations. They are reluctant to defer to another's opinion or expertise. A person in this cohort gives less credence to the degrees and experience of a boss (and may even be bothered by the wordboss). The advent of e-mail has flattened the hierarchy traditionally found in organizations because every employee is just a few keystrokes away from every other employee. Thus, Gen Xers are more likely not only to wonder why but also to ask—and argue about—why.
Principals may disagree as to whether these generational tendencies are productive or not—indeed, many young principals are themselves Gen Xers and may find this more back-and-forth way of relating natural. In situations like my conference with Barb, I need to remember that this sort of attitude isn't really about me. We are all captives of our context, and teachers Barb's age are part of a generation that looks at things quite differently than does mine, the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), or the Traditionalists (born between 1900 and 1945). A good resource on workplace relationships between generations is When Generations Collide by Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman (HarperCollins, 2002).

Accepting Gen Xers—While Remaining in Role

What's important is how principals respond to teachers. As in every supervisory relationship, the key is to take the time to listen and get to know the employee. Because I knew Barb, I realized that she was simply being candid: In her opinion, her lessons were well paced.
Of course, I am the boss, and I nicely and appropriately made that point. The challenge for principals like me is to accept the attitude toward authority commonly held among Gen Xers without abdicating our role and responsibility. I told Barb, “Well, the reality is that I'm the one who does your evaluation, but let's talk about this. Tell me why you disagree.”
A couple of things happened because of how I responded. First, Barb and I talked about our differing perceptions of what was taking place in her classroom and developed a plan to pursue this issue during the following school year. Second, my response let Barb know that although I am in charge, I value her and her opinion. I asked, I listened, we discussed. That's what Gen Xers need.
Of course, that's what we all need. My chat with Barb reminded me that although not every teacher will push back during an evaluation, my job is to create an atmosphere in which everyone feels free to engage me in dialogue.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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