Intergenerational Conflicts: Why Do Veteran Teachers and New Young Principals Clash?

Tom Porton is a teacher who changed lives. For forty-five years he toiled as an English teacher at James Monroe High School in the Bronx and at a successor small high school. A new principal dismantled all that Porton created, David Gonzalez in the January 24th NY Times chronicled the drama, “A Beloved Bronx Teacher Retires After a Conflict With His Principal,”

Now he is at the center of drama: Last month he clashed with Brendan Lyons, the school’s principal, who disapproved of his distributing H.I.V./AIDS education fliers that listed nonsexual ways of “Making Love Without Doin’ It” (including advice to “read a book together”). This month, he said the principal eliminated his early-morning civic leadership class, which engaged students in activities such as feeding the homeless, saying it was not part of the Common Core curriculum. Mr. Porton was already skeptical of that curriculum, saying it shortchanged students by focusing on chapters of novels and nonfiction essays rather than entire works of literature.


I was sitting next to a senior teacher at a faculty meeting led by a newly assigned principal; he leaned over and whispered, “My tie is older than he is.”


A new principal, with a decade as a teacher and a couple of years as an assistant principal, was frustrated. His senior staff was hypercritical of everything he tried to do. “There were three assistant principals, one was ‘acting,” I put her back in the classroom and formed another first grade class, the first grade teachers were happy, everyone else whined, I was ‘punishing’ the acting assistant principal. Nothing happens during common planning time, the culture of the school is ‘leave me alone.'”


I was planning to answer questions from a group of new teachers, which rapidly disintegrated into complaints about the senior staff.  “Just because they’ve been teaching a long time doesn’t mean they’re good teachers … they treat the kids like crap.”  “She’s my mentor, not my mother, all she does is criticize.”

Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard professor, leads the Project for the Next Generation of Teachers,  “Intergenerational conflict is usually unaddressed, …principals … often have difficulty bridging the divide between independent, sometimes complacent, veteran teachers and inexperienced, often distressed, novice teachers,”, Johnson describes the senior cohort of teachers,

When the cohort of teachers now preparing for retirement entered the profession in the late 1960s and early 1970s, public service was respected and long-term careers were the norm. Throughout society, individuals were expected to pursue just one career—for example, engineering, accounting, or law—and many even dedicated themselves until retirement to a single employer …  public schools attracted a talented and committed cohort of new teachers at relatively low expense.

And comments on their behaviors,

Most of [these teachers] have chosen to focus their careers on becoming better teachers within the classroom instead of seeking administrative positions   … As a group, they prize the privacy of their classrooms and rely on their colleagues primarily for social support.  … The egg-crate structure of schools, with each teacher working alone in a classroom, reinforces these preferences and discourages the development of specialized roles for teachers.

The current generation of teachers lives in a different world, with a different view of their job, themselves and their future,

Members of the new generation of teachers enter the workforce in a different context. Fields that once excluded talented women and people of color—such as technology, law, business, medicine, and finance—now actively recruit them. In contrast to public education’s low pay and static career path … As society’s career patterns change, young people now routinely anticipate having several careers over the course of their working lives … teachers studied by the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, only 3 were entering teaching as a first career and planned to remain in the classroom full-time until retirement …  many new teachers today are career switchers …  the conventional image of the new teacher as a young, fresh college graduate fails to fit a significant portion of those entering classrooms today.

{Career changers] and their younger counterparts tend to be surprised by the isolation of a classroom, expecting instead to learn from colleagues and work in teams. They also hope to have varied responsibilities and gain increasing influence over time but quickly realize that the egg-crate school—with its separate classrooms and uniform teaching roles—does not encourage this kind of growth.

New teachers today repeatedly state that they hope eventually to assume roles that extend their influence beyond the classroom.

In school after school senior teachers feel under assault by much younger school leaders.  Conversely younger school leaders are frustrated by veteran teachers who are seen as resistant to change and disrespecting the young school leaders.

The cultural differences, Boomers (1946-64) versus Generation X (1966-79) and Generation Y (1980-1994), can divide staffs, instead a collaborative staff sharing practices schools divide along age divisions, frequently distrusting each other and retreating into their classroom.

Johnson muses,

The retiring generation of teachers is relatively uniform, having prepared in traditional university-based programs, entered teaching directly after college, and committed to work in the classroom long-term. In contrast, the profile of new teachers entering schools today varies much more widely. This cohort includes first-career and midcareer entrants, those who prepared in traditional programs and those who prepared in alternative programs and many who do not plan to make a long-term commitment to classroom teaching. To ensure that these two cohorts work together, schools must become more flexible and collaborative workplaces.

Johnson urges principals to organize their schools so that they can “…  augment [teacher] capacity for continual learning when they give veterans explicit responsibility and the authority to assume leadership roles, especially those that involve advising new teachers.”

The UFT contract created a number of new titles, for example, a Lead Teacher receives an additional stipend and works with other teachers. In a few schools the Lead Teacher functions as a department chair, works with the staff with no formal supervisory responsibility.  The veteran teacher in the role of Lead Teacher continues to teach, works with staff and receives additional compensation.

The contract also requires that principals meet with school union leaders at consultation meetings; schools can use the consultation process to collaboratively create union-endorsed approaches to instructional issues.

Over 150 schools have taken advantage of a new contract section,

Of all the breakthrough ideas in the new contract, none has more potential to empower teachers and their school communities than the PROSE initiative. PROSE stands for Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence, and the opportunities for redesign at the heart of this program are predicated on the UFT’s core belief that the solutions for schools are to be found within school communities, in the expertise of those who practice our profession.

Schools can craft changes in school schedules, length of school days, teacher assessment, a wide range of changes, a “flexible” contract approved and supported by the union and the department.

New principals may have been granted the scepter and orb; however, the serfs no longer take oaths of homage and fealty.  How many principals use their 40-minute required faculty conference to “talk at the staff?” How many “engage the staff?”

How many principals use the faculty meeting as a lesson:  A dialogue between the principal and staff and among staff members?

Why don’t school leaders create a sociogram (a graphic representation of social links that a person has. It is a graph drawing that plots the structure of interpersonal relations in a group situation) … who are the isolates, the “witch doctors,” the subgroups (example: the car pool from New Jersey, the Friday TGIF crowd), and, how can the principal use the social links to engage the staff?

Sometimes a single act of kindness can win over a staff  … a new principal was assigned to a school over the summer. On the first day of school a district-wide strike commenced. I was walking the picket line when the side door of the school opened, a lunchroom worker appeared rolling out a cart with a 50-cup coffee urn – the lunchroom worker pointed to the window, “It’s from the principal.”

For governors, mayors, commissioners and chancellors the goal is higher graduation rates and higher scores on state tests. Principals are “scored” based on metrics – their success or lack thereof is measured; teachers interact with students daily and the success of a student validates the work of the teacher: teachers spend their days with living and breathing students. The trials and tribulations of students are part of the daily lives of teachers – the socio-emotional life of a child trumps the score on a test. Porton, the teacher referenced in the New York Times article spent a long career changing lives, AIDs awareness and prevention saves lives, engaging students in fighting homelessness or feeding the hungry was at the top of his agenda. Immersing students in the lives of Romeo and Juliet made far more sense than reading a chapter here and there which supposedly would help a student on a standardized test – to instill the love of literature, the love of learning was the goal of his teaching, not a score on a single test.

The principal sits at endless meetings with the superintendent, the metrics are clear and the route to the metric is clear. High schools are measured by graduation rates and that means passing subjects and regents exams – all else of superfluous.  Teaching about AIDs or lessons impacting homelessness took away time from preparing for regents exams.

Principals and teachers can live in different worlds.

For the principal, and, sadly, far too many in the top echelons of school systems, the single goal is improving data.  The veteran teacher who volunteers his time to run a leadership class and developing the skills necessary to pass a regents exam are not in conflict. The competent principal makes use of the skills of his/her staff. Studying homelessness can include developing research skills, understanding the use statistics, upgrading computer skills; all of which assist a student in passing a regent exam. All of which engage students, and, student engagement is far more effective than test prepping for an exam.

I’ve been in schools made up of clusters of teachers that never interacted, the principal directed, everyone “saluted,” and went their own way. Others schools were vibrant, teachers working together, principals utilizing the varying skills of the entire staff.

Knowing how to blend the skills of both veteran and newer teachers, boomers and Gen Xers is a necessary leadership skill, too often absent from the leadership tool kit.


                                Characteristics of Generational Cohorts 

Boomers (1946-64):   This generation began to challenge some of the rules, but were more consensual, team-oriented, and horizontal thinkers.  They are self-oriented and very creative.

Generation X (1965-1979):  This is a generation where for the most part there were two working parents or single parent households.  For the first time, latchkey kids were common.  This generation became fiercely independent because they had to be.  They were less afraid to take risks.  They grew up with computers for work and play.

Generation Y: (1980-1994): Everything is online, including educational programs.  There is a lot of pressure to perform both in educational settings, and in the workplace.  They like to collaborate with others, and their way of collaborating is multifaceted due to the many ways they can communicate with each other.  Unique to this generation is “Make it meaningful to me.”  It has to be something that they can immerse themselves in.


2 responses to “Intergenerational Conflicts: Why Do Veteran Teachers and New Young Principals Clash?

  1. Teaching is only a fraction of education. The two elements that are missing from most if not all discussions and debates are B, C and what administrators should be allowed to do by teachers.

    A. teachers teach–whatever method works for each teacher, if it is getting the job done, should be up to the teachers as long as it isn’t breaking laws
    B. that Children learn
    C. it is the duty of parents to support the children and teachers so the educatoin process works

    But B and C are often missing and this causes learning not to happen

    How children learn has changed too. There are far too many distractions that get in the way of learning—no teaching method that I know of deals with these in class and out of school distractions that make learning a challenge for children who are easily distracted.

    Parenting has changed from generation to generation too. Many parents of today expect teachers to do it all—the teaching, learning and supporting while the parents are also distracted by similar distractions that are getting in the way of their children learning.

    I think the focus on teachers has gone too far. The focus should be on the children to learn how to learn and focus, and the parents on how to focus their support children and teachers.

    As far as administrator are concerned, their job should be to support teachers and make sure the school environment is a place for children to learn. Administrators, with teacher approval, also organize learning opportunities for teachers to improve their teaching methods. That’s it. Administrators should NOT be telling teachers how to teach. Once an administrator, they aren’t teachers anymore. They are office managers and the longer they are away from the classroom, if they ever taught, they lose touch with the reality of what challenges teachers face everyday that walk into their classroom.


  2. I think so too, Lloyd.


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