Will Smith warned that “parents just don’t understand” in 1988—he was right then and that’s one thing that seems to resonate with all generations. At that time, it was the Gen Xers feeling like their Baby Boomer parents could not relate to them. Before that, it was the Boomers themselves rocking and rolling away from their parents. Millennials are in the workforce and Gen Zers are in school, and according to Knikki Hernandez there are ways to reach each generation with purposeful communications.
Hernandez, a millennial herself, is a Spanish teacher at William Monroe High School, teaching Gen Z students and interacting with Gen X and Millennial parents. Her book, “Empowering Gen Z: Practical Lessons to Take Students from Z to A++,” was released last week and is intended to be a guide for teachers to understand how their students process information to help students succeed.
“When the pandemic started and the school shut down, I needed a creative outlet,” Hernandez said. “I started talking to my mom and different people about generational differences and I learned a lot … and began studying communication differences between Zers, Millennials, Xers and Baby Boomers. I was like, ‘Wow, we really do have to adapt the way we teach to the way people process information.’”
First, let’s determine the years for each generation:
- Baby Boomers were born between 1946-1964
- Gen Xers were born between 1965-1980
- Millenials were born between 1981-1996
- Gen Zers were born between 1997-2012
- Gen Alpha falls between 2013-2025
“Some of the parents of Gen Z are Millennials; if I’m speaking with a Millennial parent, the very first thing that I typically have to do is acknowledge any kind of sensitivity they may have toward a policy, a challenge in the classroom, their child—whatever is going on there,” Hernandez said. “I have to acknowledge the sensitivity first and once I do that, that opens the door for more fact-based discussions.”
With Gen Z students, it’s the opposite, she said.
“They like stimulation,” Hernandez said. “A key difference between Millennials and Zers is that Millennials already think they have the answer—to pretty much everything—and then Zers don’t necessarily feel that way. They want variety—of thought, of perspective—different takes on the world.”
Hernandez said often what may come across as apathy for learning from a Gen Z student is really just them being underwhelmed and under stimulated by how things are taught in classrooms—such as a packet of work or a worksheet.
“When I’m talking to a Zer, I understand that they want components of structure and order, but variety is really where it’s at,” she said. “As a high school teacher, the majority of the parents that I’m working with are Xers and Millennials.”
Hernandez is already preparing for when the parents are all Millennials.
“I’m going to have to switch gears in terms of how I communicate with them and how I talk to them,” she said.
Hernandez said there are traits that can be attributed to the different generations that come from the time period that they grew up in.
“Gen X parents want me, as the teacher, to tell them how they can support their child,” she said. “Millennials are different; they don’t want to be told what I think they should do. They want input over the teacher and classroom. It’s a different way of approaching things, but you can still get to the same goal.”
Hernandez said the most important thing she has to do is make sure the person in front of her is the most important person in the world at that time.
“It’s being in the moment. It’s not about having an agenda,” she said. “It’s about looking at the people in front of me, treating them with dignity, understanding how they process information differently and being in the moment with them.”
When a parent and Gen Z student is in the room, Hernandez said she has to relay the message to the Zer in a different way because they’re not speaking the same language as their parents.
“With Zers I communicate all the information upfront. I keep it simple and just straightforward,” Hernandez said. “They want it logical, quick, easily chewable bite-sized information. Xers want details; they want facts—grades and remediation information. Millennials are more about the feelings—how does their child feel in the classroom. For me it can be tough to switch gears constantly, but I’m learning.”
Gen Zers are processing information faster than their parents, visually, and it’s because of the technology that’s always been at their fingertips, she noted.
“It’s not a broad stroke; you have to look at everybody as an individual at the end of the day,” she said. “One of the biggest differences with the Zers in particular—it’s very unique to them—is the fact that any kind of world event is basically boiled down to a soundbite. That’s what they’re consuming. It narrows their perspective of the world. As a teacher, if their world is this little square box (phone, tablet, computer) you’ve got to expand the bounds of that box.”
Hernandez said she works to create a space in her classroom where everyone is open to other perspectives, even if it doesn’t align with theirs.
“There’s a mutual level of respect and understanding that it’s not what divides us that’s important,” she said. “It’s what unites us that’s important. What unites us is that we have freedom of thought and the freedom to express ourselves. If we have those two things, there’s nothing that can’t be solved, and nothing that can’t be understood. I think that produces a very robust, dynamic, energetic and lively class.”
Hernandez said one of the things she learned throughout the process is that sometimes—unintentionally—she can communicate with negative undertones.
“This is not a slight on Millennials at all, but I think this where being authentic and being humble comes into play,” she said. “Millennials really do believe that we’re the smartest people in the room. I think it was part of how we were raised. Not all Millennials, of course, but there are definitely some significant patterns in that area. If you go into a situation where you think you already have all the answers, I think that’s where the negative undertone comes from.”
Hernandez said another thing that Gen Z students need is good guidance and when they get that they will thrive.
“Empowering Gen Z: Practical Lessons to Take Students from Z to A++” is available on Amazon.
“I’m very surprised that I wrote a book, but it was inspired by the students. I tell them that every day,” she said.
How does each generation tackle issues:
Boomers: “When Boomers see obstacles, they plow through them.”
Gen X: “When Xers see obstacles, they develop a plan.”