My Millennials, My Self: 8 Things I’ve Learned from Teaching Millennials

“I never got a C before,” Nicole said, the quaver in her voice audible through the phone line.*

I avoided blurting out to my Millennial student, “How did you ever get anything better than a C?” When I started teaching, this tongue biting was so routine that my anger became boring, even to me.

I knew students would have a range of ability. But the bar for the least experienced was lower than I expected. But I discovered that fixating on their earlier schooling and what I thought they should know is wasting energy on the immutable past.

I also wearied of cross-generational posturing and speculation about the root causes of student attitudes, attention spans, and skills. I needed to do something different.

So I’ve been trying ways to encourage my protégés to improve their work quality and professionalism, wherever they are academically. I don’t have the keys to the kingdom. But through closely monitoring student progress during the semester and via their Yelp-like course evaluations, the classroom has served as a continuous feedback loop for everyone. Through trial and error—sometimes it feels like more of the latter—I’ve learned a few things I wished I’d known Day One.

1. Identify Early

I ask students to submit a profile and a course-related anecdote on the first day (with a selfie to help me remember their names). They also do in-class writing in the opening session based on their homework. These small tasks provide big insights into student capacity and adherence to extracurricular responsibilities. Based on this work, I often send support-service referrals or notes about the necessity of doing homework. Not everyone takes my advice. Some drop the class instantly after my communiqué. But all are given immediate exposure to my vigilance and expectations.

2. Parlez-Vous Student?

I’ve realized my Millennials, and I are speaking different languages vis-à-vis grading. Shortly after I started teaching, I had an hour-long meeting with a student whose project garnered a B. What seemed like a good grade to me filled her “with rage.” She didn’t say so outright, but presumably, she assumed she was getting an A. Consequently, I now assign low-point-value writing and oral communication tasks in the first few weeks to impress upon the class my version of grading. Though articulated in my syllabus and rubrics, I want students to experience my policies.

3. Question Reactions

It’s primal to be irritated with Nicole’s inability to uphold standards. But her failure to assess her work is a cumulative, team effort. The Dunning-Kruger Effect, or the tendency for the less skilled to overestimate their abilities, doesn’t mix well with the delusion fostered by a history of A and B laden report cards.

Remaining neutral about my students’ skills is an exercise in accepting life on life’s terms. It’s a test I sometimes fail. But as I tell my classes, I look for “progress not perfection”—in them and me.

4. ​​Teach the Subject and…

If you want better work from your Millennials, you may have to provide instruction beyond your subject matter. Writing exercises divert attention from my primary themes, but my alternatives are limited. I can ignore underdeveloped skills, hope they’ll receive instruction elsewhere, or get annoyed. Instead, I fit in a few lessons about the evils of excessive passive voice and the indiscriminate use of Google search results as “evidence.”

5. Re-Assess Entitlement

I’ve heard “entitled” thrown around more times since I’ve started teaching than in all of my previous years combined. Do young people have inflated self-worth? Those who’ve taught longer than I have may be in a better position to comment on this subject. Given my puffy ego, I’m not the best judge. So without a definitive measure, I avoid the skirmish. Even if a metric existed, what could I do other than to learn how to manage it?

6. Provide Clarity / Take Suggestions

At first, I assumed students could figure out how to do tasks on their own. I offered broad-brush instructions to allow for creativity and individual expression. But my Millennials are uncomfortable with ambiguity. At first, I questioned if this was a characteristic of the Nannystate I read about. Now I wonder if it’s a symptom of information overload. There’s so much coming in; it’s even more critical to clear a path through life’s morass. I review each assignment—including readings and where they’re located—the week before it’s due to confirm understanding. For complex tasks, I divide the class into small groups so they can explore the instructions as a team. In this way, students help each other fill in the gaps, and I get ideas for crafting more explicit guidelines.

7. Brace Yourself

I gave Nicole her first disappointing grade. But it’s not easy to be number one. Her tearful reaction was manageable. Others are furious at me for identifying poor performance. So when possible I now give marks by phone or in person. Students are less likely to express rage without the protection of an email shield. The alternative is to post the grades and wait for the livid e-missives from those imagining they’d do better, despite ample feedback indicating otherwise during the semester. Then there are the shockingly personal anonymous evaluations. I can sometimes glean a few gems if I’m able to sort through them. When I waver and question why I’m adhering to this exhausting truth-telling path, I seek guidance from supportive colleagues.**

8. Buy a Mirror

It’s difficult to actualize the superficially simple idea that I am not my students. There’s only a slight veneer of civilization separating my passion for teaching and my subject from a “my way or the highway” stance. I believe my class is imperative and the assignments easily managed with a bit of effort. But there’s no known cure for the horse, water, and drink dilemma. When my belief turns into certainty about my “rightness,” students who can’t or won’t keep up are “wrong.”

This is a growth area for me. I’ve committed to reminding myself often that black and white thinking is a disservice, and appreciating how difficult it is to adhere to this ideal.

Yet, while recognizing the need to separate myself from my students, I’ve also discovered that in each Millennial I see myself, trying to make sense of the world, believing that my opinion is fact, and standing in my way.

Sometimes, all’s well that ends well. One student who cried after learning he earned an F, happily shared his story of transformation a few months later. He listed the steps he was taking to avoid a similar fate in the future, like going to the university’s tutoring center regularly.

No matter how imperfectly I implement my ideas, having a set of principles as a touchstone and classroom experience has allowed me to put distance between my feelings and the facts.

* I used pseudonyms for stories involving students.

** I deeply appreciate the support and wisdom of Anne Ward, Bob Noltenmeier, Craig Mills, Ruth Danon, and especially Jesse Scinto.

Diane Rubino is an activist, an adjunct instructor at New York University, and an applied communications professional who seeks to make the world more healthy and humane.


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