By Sean McGrath February 26th, 2014 11:30 AM
Every day, there are unscientific surveys that seem to point an accusatory finger at my generation – the so-called Millennials – and inculpate us for just about every social ill and societal moor. Why don’t millennials have relationships? Because we’re “selfish narcissists“. Why are we depressed? Because we have a “strong sense of entitlement.” Why are so many members of Generation-Y unemployed? Because we’re frustrated at work and expect more of our employers and society. While some people think that these traits are troubling our workforce and threatening the country’s future, I’d argue that it’s these very traits that are going to change our world, especially in the classroom.
From childhood, we millennials have been exhorted from all corners of the country – from our parents’ advice, to teachers, and even commercials – not to settle for something that doesn’t fit us; to strive for something better. We were the first generation who grew up not only reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but watching them on loop in our VCRs. This repetition and inculcation of the story’s moral has become a parable for our lives: If you don’t like the culture of your job, and you can’t change the culture of your job, change your job until you find a culture that’s right for you.
When I finally began visiting colleges, I went to seven before I found the one that was right for me. I went on ten job interviews before landing my first job, and sat down with six principals before I was handed the keys to my own classroom here in DC. We are, admittedly, idealists. We want our jobs to be like a pair of pants and fit us well. Those fashion-savvy among us wouldn’t settle for too-baggy or too-high slacks, so why should we expect that our jobs be any different?
In addition, we are a generation of doers, a generation that wants to take on the responsibilities to advance goodness in the world. We see it as our civic duty, and we take this mentality with us into the classroom. It’s not enough for us to become teachers and then say, “Okay, I’ve done my part in educating kids.” We are obsessed with progress, we thrive on moving things forward, we make sure to ask “why?” and we encourage our students to do the same.
These traits have been on display since joining DC Public Schools five years ago. I have been a team lead, a social media ambassador, a liaison to an Afghani embassy, a presenter at a conference, a member of the Chancellor’s Cabinet, a sponsor of Student Government, a Geoplunge! coach, a baseball coach, and a disc jockey at school dances. Not to mention the five classes of U.S. History I teach per day. These positions obviously bring me great joy, but the reason that belies that joy is that connection, that fit that I mentioned earlier. The reason why I love my job, and why I strive to do more than the bare minimum, has little to do with money or incentives (though those both help, especially around the holidays). Instead, it is about feeling that connection to a school or a district solves that Goldilocks parable- we want to get it just right. I feel a sense of connection to my community and a greater sense of self-worth. Moreover, human beings are social creatures who crave communal acceptance. As a teacher, that doesn’t mean throwing down the latest slang in class or wearing fashionable clothes to class. It means sending the message, through your work, your lessons, and through your commitments to the school, that you are a part of a community of learners just like your students.
I’m fortunate enough to have a wonderful administration that encourages me to build my role of a teacher into one that is challenging and rewarding. Sometimes, as was the case at previous jobs, that didn’t happen. I often had to claim minor victories, such as when I convinced a former principal to get teachers to start using online grade books. These mini-wins affirm the notion that progress is inevitable, and I implore all teachers who care about their school culture as well as their students to take part in this great culture shift. Change that old pair of pants for one with a better fit. It’s what’s been happening on the macro-level within DCPS for the better part of the decade.
Sean McGrath is a social studies teacher at Stuart Hobson Middle School and a member of the 2013-14 Chancellor’s Teachers Cabinet.