Photos by Scott Buschman
It’s mid-May, but pouring rain dictates that recess will be held in the classroom at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Oakland. Aasha Trosper joins her second-graders in a dance called the Floss. Students are surprised she has heard of it — and shocked she can perform it with gusto. Afterward, they create memory books on their iPads, graphing out their favorite things. One of their favorites, unsurprisingly, is Trosper.
“She’s cool,” says a student.
“She’s amazing,” explains another.
“She’s so fun,” say several.
This cool, fun and amazing teacher is a member of Generation Z, whose oldest members have recently entered the workforce, or are on the brink of doing so. Currently, CTA counts about 650 Gen Z members (some members choose not to disclose their age when they sign up). More are expected to join this fall.
Born between 1995 and 2012, Gen Z has never known a world without smartphones, Amazon and social media. They’ve experienced the Great Recession, terrorist plots and fake news. They’re a huge cohort: Gen Z will make up 24 percent of the global workforce by 2020. While there has been lots of research on millennials, little has been invested in understanding Gen Z.
There are key differences between what motivates Gen Zers in their career and how they expect to be treated in the workplace, says California Faculty Association member Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State University, who refers to them as iGen. Twenge is author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.
“Businesses and managers need to take note,” says Twenge. “A new generation is arriving at your doorstep, and its members might not be what you expect.”
Here’s what educators should understand about their Gen Z colleagues.
They’re not millennials
Miyuki Manzanedo, born in 1995, once considered herself a millennial because people called her that. Then people called her a “post-millennial.” Now she strongly identifies with Gen Z.
Gen Z entered school after standardized testing became part of the state accountability system in 1998. “No Child Left Behind [in 2001] created a lot of anxiety among us because there was always testing, testing, testing,” says Manzanedo, former president of Student CTA. “I think that’s one reason why we have more anxiety and need more reassurance.”
According to Twenge, while Gen Z is generally creative and tech-savvy and advocates for social change, they’re also stressed out and anxious. They’re more practical and cautious than millennials. They have a good work ethic and want job security, having seen the economy collapse when they were youngsters. Saddled with debt, they worry about the future.
While millennials were labeled the “entitled” generation, Gen Z doesn’t feel entitled to anything, says Manzanedo.
Twenge’s research shows that Gen Z is experiencing high levels of depression, anxiety, loneliness and suicide. It began in 2007, coinciding with the skyrocketing usage of smartphones and social media.
Gen Z members are growing up more slowly than millennials did, with adolescence an extension of childhood instead of an entryway into adulthood, reports Twenge. Younger Gen Zers are delaying dating, getting their driver’s licenses and working. Older ones are delaying getting married, having children and moving away from their parents.
They connect with students and the world
Gen Z teachers can relate to their students, because they are also Gen Z. For example, they understand that Momo — a scary-looking cartoon figure linked to a viral hoax — evokes terror in young people. They understand the pressure of trying to look perfect on social media, cyber bullying, FOMO (fear of missing out), and other stressors their students face.
“We bring a level of empathy and compassion to the profession,” says Manzanedo. “We draw on our own experiences.”
“We relate to the kids and understand their jokes and pop culture references,” says Trosper, an Oakland Education Association member. “And we use an egalitarian style of teaching, treating them as if they are equals instead of making powerful demands.”
Gen Z sees things from a global perspective and is socially conscious, says Erin Githens, Student CTA secretary-treasurer, who recently graduated from CSU Fullerton.
“We see how issues overlap each other and try to find a successful solution. For example, the issue of systematic racism overlaps with public education’s institutional racism. And if we want our students to do well, it’s best to address both issues and not one over another.”
Having grown up with the Great Recession, climate change and school shootings, Gen Z teachers want to make a difference, says Githens.
“I’ve always felt that public schools were a way to transform communities, and that through teaching, I can be an agent of change.”
They face economic hardship
College is more expensive than it was for previous generations, and Gen Z is paying the price. Moving out of their family’s home, driving their own car and dining out are among the top expenses that they are willing to sacrifice. In more expensive areas of the state, new teachers live dormitory-style in apartments with roommates or with their parents.
“It’s a very hard time to be a teacher economically, politically and emotionally,” says Trosper. “Most of us disregard the idea of owning a house any time soon. Most of us are living with roommates.”
Brandon Giovannoni, vice president of Student CTA at CSU Stanislaus, wakes up early to attend class, even when he has worked past midnight the night before.
“Most of us are broke, even if we have a degree,” says Giovannoni, who will receive his credential in 2020. “I live with my parents. I don’t rely on them for financial help. But I have bills that don’t allow me to live on my own.”
He resents that Gen Z is labeled as lazy or only concerned with social media.
“We get a bad rap for being us. We just need time to figure out life. Ideas have changed, and are still changing rapidly. It’s scary to think that in a year, I am going to be teaching young minds. So we just need all the support and feedback we can get.”
They see tech as the solution
Gen Z teachers are engaging students with technology in the classroom.
Trosper’s students use Minecraft, a game where students overcome obstacles, and create a storyboard on how to solve problems.
“We believe in project-based learning, gamification of curriculum, and getting kids to interact with technology in a purposeful way,” says Trosper, who earned her master’s degree with a focus on digital learning.
Technology allows her the freedom to scaffold her lessons. Instead of creating three different lesson plans or worksheets, she can build different levels into lessons on iPads and Chromebooks, instantly assessing student progress. Integrating technology and differentiating instruction is invaluable with a class that includes students with IEPs and English learners.
Raquel Chavira, a second-year kindergarten teacher at Caswell Elementary School in Ceres, loves Seesaw, a program where students record themselves so parents can see what they have learned. The youngsters can decide whether to post recordings of themselves on classroom “threads” in this age-appropriate social media platform.
“Our generation easily engages students with technology,” she says. “Using a program like Zearn for math, where students play games and go to the next level at their own pace, is fun.”
Like previous generations, Gen Z educators strive for classroom management skills that allow for fun, but keeps them in control. This is typically learned on the job — but technology helps. Chavira, for example, uses ClassDojo, an app that offers points for good behavior and allows parents to see instantly how their children behave on any given day.
But sometimes in-person support is helpful.
“I went to the CTA New Educator Weekend and took a workshop on classroom management, which I’ve found challenging,” says Chavira, Ceres Unified Teachers Association. “There was good information on helping students’ social and emotional well-being.”
They expect instant results
Gen Z educators want to know immediately if students comprehend a lesson, so they can change direction if necessary.
At Hidalgo Elementary School in Brawley, for example, Edith Alvarez Garcia uses a wireless pencil on a handheld tablet to draw math figures and equations, which are transmitted by the Apple TV app to a projector on the ceiling and displayed on a screen. She uses Educreations, an interactive whiteboard tool that allows her to annotate, animate and narrate nearly any type of content on the fly, based on her students’ answers.
Next, she asks students to log in to Quizizz, an online program with free gamified quizzes. Teachers can pick an existing quiz or create their own. Students compete for the top three spots posted. Meanwhile, her tablet reveals privately who understands the lesson and who is struggling.
“I love the immediate feedback. I love being able to implement new ideas. Our generation is comfortable with technology and how to integrate devices and apps to make our instruction more engaging and captivating. And we are very lucky that our district provides all the technology tools, support and training we need.”
Across town at Myron D. Witter Elementary, her husband Francisco Garcia uses Pear Deck, a Google-compatible program that allows him to create and present interactive slides. Students can instantly join the presentation right from their device.
His students use Plickers cards to answer multiple-choice math questions. Each card has a scannable code that identifies the student; students simply rotate their card to the letter A, B, C or D, and the teacher scans the cards with his smartphone camera. The Plickers app immediately displays the students’ answers on a screen.
These Gen Z teachers are changing the way things are done in their district, says Maryann Vasquez Moreno, co-president of the Brawley Elementary Teachers Association, of which the Garcias are members. “Although they are new to the profession, they are doing amazing things with technology. They have completely impressed their principals, superintendent and our school board.”
Gen Z teachers are often considered tech experts at their school sites. Most don’t mind helping veteran teachers who are technologically challenged; it makes them feel helpful and valued.
“Our generation brings efficiency with the utilization of technology,” says Garcia, who is beginning his second year. “We are not afraid to jump in and learn. We try to be as productive as possible. And it’s all for the benefit of our students.”
They’re OK with students’ phones
Gen Z educators are more willing to allow students to use their smartphones and iPads in the classroom, says Laura Hernandez-Flores of the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, which trains mentors to work with new teachers.
“Generation X and millennial teachers often tell students to put their phones away because they are distracting, while Generation Z teachers have learned how to implement and integrate them into teaching and learning.”
Sarah Landis, who mentors new teachers in Pleasanton, has seen this firsthand. She was delighted at the creativity of a young teacher who asked students to create Instagram profiles of Great Gatsby characters.
“You might as well leverage what kids are doing anyway,” says Landis, a member of the Association of Pleasanton Teachers. “I’ve found that younger teachers are more comfortable with the technology kids use, instead of feeling scared or intimidated.”
Cellphone apps eliminate the need to buy expensive graphing calculators, dictionaries and other items. They can record lectures and convert talk to text for note-taking. Gen Z educators capitalize on all this, but must also make sure students’ phones are used for learning and not playing.
They question the status quo
Landis has worked with many new teachers over the years as a coach in the TriValley Teacher Induction Project and as a K-12 professional development coach, thanks to training from the New Teacher Center. She appreciates that Gen Z teachers question the status quo and embrace diversity.
“They definitely have a willingness to use their voice. For example, they are questioning the traditional literature being taught, in hopes to expand the reading list to include more current readings and represent diverse cultural perspectives.”
Landis tells them to listen to their inner voice and that it’s OK to do things differently from the way they’ve always been done. She wants newbies to learn from veterans, but also to share.
She is proud that second-year English teacher Cassidy Booe is already demoing a lesson on writing narratives at Hart Middle School in Pleasanton.
“I’m so glad veteran teachers want me to share what I’m doing and learning,” says Booe, a member of APT. “Our generation is more willing to try different things, and if we fail, it’s OK. We were raised in a growth-mindset way.”
Sometimes Gen Z-style teaching can look different from the typical classroom, she admits.
“I think my generation is actively trying to break the mold. We are intentionally creating classrooms that may be a little louder and maybe a little more interactive. We are putting an emphasis on interactive learning that’s different than direct instruction. But just because our classrooms are a little louder doesn’t mean we are off task or goofing off.”
They’re taking control of their professional development
Gen Z prefers texting to talking, and email or Google Hangout to meetings. They are extremely collaborative, but they don’t always need to collaborate in person.
“We don’t need as many formalities,” says Trosper. “We’re fine having instant communication on text or emails. And we want more of a voice in our professional development.”
Indeed, Gen Z educators are taking more responsibility for their professional development, says Landis. Instead of waiting to be told what they need, they send her blog posts or articles they have seen online, asking her to help them implement new ideas.
“They can look at Twitter daily and discover things they want to try. Their style of learning looks different, and they want to make sure what they are learning is relevant to what they are doing.”
Hernandez-Flores of the New Teacher Center says that without being asked, Gen Z teachers send mentors videos of themselves teaching and request feedback, which never happened with millennials. But Gen Z members think nothing of it, since they are used to sharing their lives online via social media, and see it as a way to grow as professionals.
They support unions
According to techrepublic.com, 46 percent of Gen Z members are freelancers. While providing flexibility, gig-economy jobs lack security, benefits and a reliable income, which Gen Z values because it represents safety and security.
That may be one reason why unionism is being embraced by Gen Z workers.
“Jobs are precarious, health care costs are skyrocketing, and wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living — no wonder young people are organizing,” writes Michelle Chen in The Nation, noting that workers age 35 and under are the main component of an unprecedented surge in union membership over the past two years. Nationwide in 2017, nearly 860,000 workers under age 35 got hired, and nearly a quarter of those were union jobs.
“Gen Z is not afraid of the word union,” says Manzanedo. “New teachers and those entering the profession are signing up in large numbers for union membership. It helps that the union is expanding from bread-and-butter issues to student-centered issues.”
The power of unions has been noticed by Gen Z teachers, who closely followed the strikes in Los Angeles, Oakland and New Haven. Some, like Trosper, went on strike.
“We saw that CTA was fighting on behalf of students,” says Manzanedo. “Teachers took a stand, so their students could get the education they deserve. Generation Z has buy-in. We understand that together, we are stronger.”
This is the second part of a special report on Gen Z. For part one (on younger Gen Zers), go to californiaeducator.org/generation-z-a-new-cohort-comes-of-age.
Support Gen Z educators
- Treat them as colleagues. Explains one Gen Zer: “Sometimes veterans have a deficit way of looking at younger people as if we were blank slates that needed to be filled up, rather than looking at what we know.”
- Keep an open mind to their new ideas. Give them a voice.
- Offer lots of feedback. Give careful instructions and expect that they will need more guidance.
- Let Gen Z educators know they are in a safe environment and that you want to help them succeed.
- Reduce the time at formal meetings and increase virtual and informal learning encounters. Text or communicate electronically for little things.
- Offer them the professional development (such as CTA conferences and trainings) and technology resources they need to succeed.
- Allow time for collaboration.
- Go visual. They prefer image-based information and would rather see than read about an issue. FAQs and YouTube-style tutorials are among their favorite ways to learn, along with problem-solving.
- Don’t automatically expect them to be the “technology person” on-site. Make sure they are not too overwhelmed themselves before they are tasked with helping others.
- Don’t assume that if they are on their phones, they aren’t working. It’s very likely they are.
- Communicate that their local CTA chapter supports and appreciates them. Ask if their needs are being met. Explain what CTA has to offer.
From a variety of online sources and Gen Z members.