Millennials…even though I am technically one myself, I feel that my place on the outer bubble of this generation leaves me disconnected. I work in a high school with LOTS of millennials and nowadays even kids who fall into Generation Z. Every day I walk into a buzzing sea of over 1500 of them, and I try my best take in what they can teach me.

I have about 150 students in my classroom (a small number compared to many of my colleagues)  throughout the day and over 200 more in the groups I sponsor. These students fall in various places on a very wide spectrum of abilities, home lives, and personal expectations in areas more than just personal hygiene. There are days that I am over stimulated to the max. A phone ringing as a student asks a question, as a book drops to the floor, as an announcement comes over the intercom, as I remember that I forgot to make those few extra copies. I’m sure there are hundreds of things that go undone in a week’s worth of time, and I am positive there are things I could always do better.

In the ten years that I’ve been in the classroom, I’ve found that the students change rather quickly. There are often days when I feel l like morals are easily left at the door (if they ever had them at all), and it seems like any attempt I make at recovering them leaves me on the calling end of a phone conversation that no one wants to receive…lots of rings, maybe an option to leave a message, but rarely a return call or explanation.

Here’s a short list of some of the trouble I see:

Millennials are smart mouthed. They have a quick comeback for almost anything. They also have low expectations (or it’s probably more likely a total cultural shift) on what kind of language you should use at school or in front of adults. It’s cool to be bad and hard to stand up for what is good.

Students easily ridicule those around them. The online world makes it so much easier to say mean or derogatory statements about other students and even staff members. They don’t always use these tools in effective, productive ways. And instead, they are often distractions and safe places for the bullies to hide.

Another favorite pastime of these millennials is to challenge authority. You’re right guys, my degree and, more importantly, time on this earth mean nothing. You know ALL of the answers, and you should feel free to point out my flaws at your every convenience.

My list of problems could go on and on. Like a lot of people my age or older, it’s so easy to look at the younger generations following us and wonder why they aren’t filling our shoes. But this is where it gets messy. Why should I expect them to fill my shoes when in their minds (and in the bigger, realistic picture) my boots are clearly going out of style?

This thought extends well beyond the circle of teachers that I happen to be in. It carries on across different job environments, cultures, and generations. Millennials are experiencing and tackling life that is nothing like what it used to be. So my secret weapon for hope for the future always starts with playing my empathy card to these people who will be one day be our leaders.

So if I’m going to say millennials are smart mouthed, I want to take a moment to focus more on the smart part of this idea. There are students sitting in my classroom who can easily rival my own academic skills. I work hard and hope to challenge and help them grow, and sometimes this means over extending myself by studying texts long after all of my own kids have gone to bed, rereading questions, and perfecting my pronunciations. I have to meet all students where they are, and some of them require me to go even further than above and beyond. But I happily accept this challenge because we want our future generation to be bright and curious, don’t we?

If I’m going to say millennials are found wanting in the empathy department,  I should be willing to recognize the moments when kindness is obviously present. I have students who go out of their ways to help others with special needs. I have students who volunteer their time and raise money for organizations who make positive changes for our community. I also watch students welcome each other in and comfort each other when their friends’ worlds seem to be crumbling. There are students who’ve watched my own children, and students who’ve taught me so much in terms of how to be a good teacher and, maybe even more importantly, a good mom.

I got to see the solar eclipse with some pretty special people. It was an awesome experience.

If I am upset with my students for challenging my authority and the other professionals in the building, I should be more willing to redirect that down a positive avenue. I tell my students (on a daily basis) to be skeptical as they read the texts I assign and to carefully calculate the bias. Any question is a good question even if it’s challenging the work of a published author our country recognizes as one of the best. So I don’t really have room for ridicule when they do the same to me. It’s exactly what I want them to do, right? Be confident? Stand up for what they believe in? Pursue truth?

You might not be like me in the fact that I so clearly and directly work with our future generation, but it is still happening to you in one way or another. So my challenge for you this week is to keep grace in your back pocket when you interact with them. There is so much they have to teach us, and we need their smarts, their empathy, and their questions . I think the idea for this post sparked inside me when I realized how often I’d been thinking to myself: “Kids just aren’t like they used to be. If they only knew what it had been like for me.”  The fact is that it doesn’t matter; life is so incredibly different, and  I don’t want to be that person. I want to be flexible and adapt to the world around me, so that I’m never too overwhelmed to learn something new. I rely on our future generation to help keep me in check, and that starts with being willing to admit that they have valuable knowledge worth spreading.  

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