The Day I Met Gen Z
I have a 24-hour rule. I do not reply, respond or react to something that upsets me until after the Earth has completed one full rotation on its axis. However, as far as rules go, this one is aspirational. I’ve been known to break it. And, when I broke it back in 2017, I was unprepared for what happened next. But, before I tell you what happened next, let me give you some background:
Back in the fall of 2017, I was invited to co-teach a Master’s class in innovation at another university. The class had about 15 students from various disciplinary backgrounds broken down into project teams. Each team was matched up with a project sponsor (a local firm) and tasked with helping their sponsor launch a new product into the marketplace. Awesome class design. I was pumped to participate. Even better, I was also a sponsor. One of the project teams was tasked with helping La Ceiba (the microfinance institution my students and I ran in Honduras) launch a financial literary program. At the midpoint of the semester, as outlined in the course syllabus, each project team was required to invite their sponsor to campus and present the current state of their work. Project teams were encouraged to extend these invitations to their sponsors (who were all executives, minus myself) at least one week before the presentation. I did not get an invitation from my project team. I saw them in class. So, I was patient and waited for them to ask me. They never did. However, other project teams invited me to attend their presentations. Anyways, on the Thursday night of the presentations, only one of the three students on my project team was in attendance. A second team member arrived a bit later. I greeted them to see if they were going to mention the presentation. They did not. So, I attended the other presentations. And, at the end of class, I went home.
The following Sunday (October 29, 2017 at 9:18 pm) I received an email from the two students I just mentioned. Let’s call them Jack and Katherine. In this email, they displaced responsibility for not presenting their project to me onto me. Very politely, I might add. However, here’s the thing about me. Someone not taking ownership of their mistake is not something that I tolerate very well. I do not tolerate it from my undergrads. And, I thought for sure I would not have to tolerate it from students in a Master’s Program. So, on Monday (October 30, 2017 at 6:37 am), less than 24 hours later, I replied back. My reply was blunt. The emails are below. Jack or Katherine did not reply back. However, the next day, while I was at Mary Wash with my La Ceiba students, I got a text from the Curricular Head of the Master’s Program. The text seemed urgent. So, I excused myself from class and called her back. She asked me about last Thursday night’s class. I told her and then she said:
“One of the students no longer feels safe with you in the classroom.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They no longer feel safe with you in the classroom” she repeated.
I went quiet. I did not know what to say. Honestly, what was happening was outside of my human experience. I had been a professor since 2002 at that point. And, before that, I had been teaching or coaching in some shape or form since 1992. I had been called tough. I had been called hard. And, I had had students drop my classes and stay clear of me in order to stay clear of my high expectations. But I had never had someone tell me that I made them or someone else feel unsafe. My mind started racing. Did I raise my voice? Did I encroach upon their personal space? Did I gesticulate too forcefully? No, no and no. I stacked up my physicality against theirs. I am five-foot-eight in boots. Jack was bigger than me. Katherine was bigger than me. Nothing made sense. I did not know what to say. Because, when I thought of safety, I thought of physical safety. And, as someone who was bullied and abused, the physical safety of my students was (and is) of paramount importance. But I had to say something. So, I assumed it was Katherine (a sexist assumption, I know) and said:
“Please tell Katherine, that I am sorry.”
“It isn’t Katherine.”
“Jack doesn’t feel safe around you.”
“This is serious Shawn. You are going to have to apologize.”
“All right. I’ll do what I have to do to make things right.”
I hung up, rejoined my La Ceiba students and sat in my chair in a heap of confusion.
“What’s wrong Dr. H?” they asked.
I told them. We sat in puzzled silence together. And, then, Alli, one of my seniors, said:
“Those master’s students are a bunch of crybabies.”
That was reassuring. Because, I’ve sent plenty of emails like the one I sent to Jack and Katherine to my Mary Wash students over the years. None of my Mary Wash students ever ran off to be saved by college administrators. I send emails like the one I sent to Jack and Katherine because I am committed to making my students better. And, sometimes, making them better requires me telling them some hard truths. Moreover, I have never been asked to apologize to my Mary Wash students for asking them to step it up and own their mediocrity. However, after sending such an email, I have sat them down and said “I know what I said in that email stings. However, my job is to tell you the truth. And, I would rather you get the truth from me right now than later from someone else.”
Now, having said all of that, I apologized to Jack and Katherine via email. And, when I saw them in class, I apologized again. I apologized for two reasons. First, the whole incident put me back on my heels. It had me questioning everything about my pedagogy. Essentially, I lost confidence in my teacher-self. And, second, I was curious about the possibilities of working at the Master’s level and I did not want to miss this opportunity. So, I did what I was told. It’s that second reason that sticks in my craw. It was selfish. I wanted something (the experience of teaching Master’s students) and I feared that if I did not apologize then that something was going to be taken away. So, I put my desire for that something ahead of what my students needed. And what they needed was to hear a hard truth and stew in that hard truth for a bit. And, in order to stew, they needed me not to apologize. I failed in my role as their educator that day.
Jack and Katherine were young. Right out of undergrad. And, what’s interesting is that when I went to apologize to the third member of their team, a single mom in her 30’s who missed the presentation because she was out of town on a business trip, she said “No need. I’m not in this fight.” It took me a few years to understand what happened. You see it was not about physical safety at all. It was about emotional safety. I didn’t know it then. But, looking back now, October 29, 2017 was the day that I met Generation Z. Not the Gen Z students that I had a hand in raising. No. On that day I met the Gen Z students that our education system was raising. Now, this is not a rant against Gen Z. On the whole, Gen Z has an unprecedented level of care and compassion for other people and the planet. This is truly inspiring. Moreover, they are not monolithic. I have plenty Gen Z students who share my worldview. However, on the issue of emotional safety, let me just say that there is some work that needs to be done. And, that works starts with me.
I should not have apologized that day. I apologized out of fear and self-interest. And, when I did, I confirmed for Jack and Katherine that if and when their emotional state is ever unsettled by the world and those around them, then upon their request to higher authorities the world and those around them will make things right by them. But that’s not how the world works. So, I have some work to do. And, some of the members of Gen Z have some work to do too. But, our education system has the most work to do. And, that’s gonna require our education system putting what’s best for our students ahead of its own self-interest (namely, tuition dollars).
Thanks. — shawn
On Sunday, October 29, 2017 at 9:18 pm, I receive an email titled “Last Thursday Class (10/26)”
We appreciate you bringing up the communication misunderstanding last Thursday during class time. That night we heard you ask us to stay for the duration of the class period, even though we had no instructor present, intending to address the subjects of clear communication and our project’s status. Katherine and I waited until 8:45 and received no communication from you.
We were disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to talk to you about our project and we wanted to know if you would like to discuss it still.
As high performers we are more than happy to execute on assignments, however, in the future having a more clear understanding of expectations would be helpful. Despite the miscommunication, we were willing to present (even though we were not asked to).
Instead, during class Katherine and I continued to work on and research our project. Is there anything that you would still like to address with us at this time?
Jack and Katherine (not their real names)
On Monday, October 30, 2017 at 6:37 am, less than 24 hours later, I replied back:
I cannot believe that I am receiving an email like this from graduate students. Own your mistake. A presentation to your sponsor is in the syllabus. Every other project team coordinated with their sponsors to schedule a place and time to present. That was their responsibility. And, they did it. You did not. I am your sponsor. It is not my responsibility to schedule the presentation. And, since I did not hear from you, when other project teams asked for my attendance at their presentations, I attended. Unbelievable.
(Maybe I shouldn’t have ended on “Unbelievable”.)