Student voice: Gen Z school leaders like to feel empowered

Educators can play an important role in the development of those they teach by listening to them and supporting them in their philanthropic endeavors
By: | October 8, 2020
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A recent study of 4,000 people done by Echelon Insights and the Walton Family Foundation notes the surprising optimism shared by Generation Z and Millennials. More than 80% say that if they work hard, they can succeed in life. And more than 65% say they believe that they can achieve the American Dream.

Of course, their views of the American Dream are far different from previous generations. Kristen Soltis Anderson, co-founder at Echelon, says students and young adults aren’t looking for the “white-picket-fence, two-car-garage life,” but rather asking these questions: “Can I build the life I want? Can I customize the things in my existence? Am I doing things that I find fulfilling and meaningful and line up with my values?”

That insight offers a unique view for education leaders and teachers on the mindset of students and young adults as they carve their paths through the system. Many are looking beyond schools to make their mark and be activists on social, political and economic issues that are directly affecting them and will impact future generations. Many believe they can make a difference. But will they have the support to get there?

“We did find that there are really big barriers that a lot of people in the Generation Z and Millennial generation are facing,” Soltis Anderson said. “Over 4 in 10 say that the cost of higher education is something that poses a very or extremely big problem to them. We find that education is really considered a cornerstone of creating opportunity. When we ask what are the things that are most likely to create opportunity, they say, my family and loved ones, the public schools in my community and the environment.”

Public schools and higher education institutions can be the drivers that lead the current and next generations to greatness, she says. Understanding the challenges that face them and opening lanes by allowing them to share their thoughts and embracing their ideas may be key to helping them achieve their dreams.

“Everything we found in our research shows that optimism from Gen Z and Millennials is not because they’re not facing barriers, it’s not because things are great, and sunny and wonderful,” Soltis Anderson says. “These are two generations that have grown up in the shadow of a pandemic, economic crises, two wars. Nonetheless, their generations are persistent, resilient and adaptable. For Millennials, that’s really how they view themselves, to roll with a lot of punches and still come back strong. For Gen Z, they are very conscious, very optimistic. They’re going to speak out and use their voice to bring about change.”

Where students stand

Echelon and the Walton Family Foundation invited two students who are also strong activisits in California to discuss their views on the future, the issues facing their respective generations and their involvement in social causes. They also had strong opinions on the state of education.

Genesis Butler, a 13-year-old activist from Long Beach (and one of the youngest people to ever give a TEDx talk) says reaching students in Gen Z starts with educators giving them platforms to be leaders in and out of the classroom.

“They should [understand] how important it is to empower youth,” she says. “Luckily at my school, they’re really working on this and trying to help kids find their voice. But I’ve been at schools where they don’t. We’re the generation that can make the change. We just need the support from adults.”

Backed by family and educators who have been open to her drive and ambition, Butler has been leading Youth Climate Save, the first student-run environmental organization that focuses on animal agriculture’s impact on climate change.

Like Butler, Jonathan Piper II, a 19-year-old who attends Chabot College in Hayward has also been a Gen Z trailblazer and high achiever, the recipient of the Steph Curry Rising Star Award and the Youth Activist Award, State of Black Education Oakland. He says educators can do more to connect with, lift up and inspire young students.

“Sometimes we have the imposter syndrome where you feel like you don’t belong, like maybe education is not for me, or maybe I wasn’t meant to be in the space,” Piper says. “Just because they’re on campus does not mean they’re just a student. It does not mean they’re another number or statistic. You have a human individual in front of you. Your position as a school teacher, as an administrator … you can positively impact someone’s life. But you also have the opportunity to negatively impact a life.”

According to a May-June, 2020 YouthTruth survey of 20,000 students, only 53% of high schoolers said adults in their schools listened to them when making decisions.

Piper says many youths feel left behind by the education system, especially in the black community. He serves as a media assistant for the Kingmakers of Oakland, an organization that provides black youths opportunities to reach their full potential, while helping districts transform their school environments through “professional development, narrative change, resources and curriculum.”

He says the type of positive atmosphere Kingsmakers fosters can be done at schools through simple outreach and understanding.

“I think a lot of students need to know that they have power in their voice,” Piper says. “And that for blacks, specifically that we are not criminals or thugs. We don’t have to be gangsters to be seen in this world. The sky’s the limit. Invest in the youth in terms of where they’re going, where they’re coming from, and how you can impact their life positively.”

Looking for guidance, support

Causes matter to Gen Z and Millennials, according to the work done by Echelon and the Walton Family Foundation. Piper says to ignore them in a classroom setting is a mistake. Utilized productively, they can engage students.

“I have teachers who gone off of curriculum to kind of educate their students on things that are happening in the community,” he says. “If you’ve seen George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s name on the TV screen, you can’t just go into the classroom talking about why A squared plus B squared equals C squared. That’s not how our brains work. Right now, we’re dealing with the trauma that we’re seeing in our community. And that’s affecting our ability to learn.”

As for modalities of learning, the push to virtual yielded some interesting responses from the two Gen Z leaders.

One of the best parts about remote learning? Butler says, being able to do remote work in her pajamas. Likewise, Piper jokes, “I’ve definitely been on some Zooms with my basketball shorts on, but I put on my tie.”

The worst part, according to Piper: “It can be very taxing to be on a computer screen over and over again, especially when you’re balancing school and even being on social media. Our generation has grown up with the evolution of technology, so there’s heavy addiction being glued to our iPads, being glued to our screen. You expect us to sit on a computer screen for a long period of time and to really learn something?”

Butler says she misses face-to-face interaction with her friends and in her outreach through her organization, “not being able to make the connections with people in person. It’s not the same.”

Piper highlighted a much-talked-about negative of the virtual experience, or lack thereof – the ability for every student to get online.

“Some students come from low-income communities where they don’t have a hotspot, so they don’t have the technology accessible for them to actually be involved in school,” he says. “How are we going to get students involved? How we’re going to give them the resources to be involved?”

He also posed an interesting topic for educators to ponder over the coming months as schools try to return to in-person learning. Much is made about caring for the physical environments, adhering to CDC guidance and proper PPE protocols, as well as considerations for administrators and educators. But will student voices be considered in the discussion?

Piper offered this thought: “What will be the support given to the students moving forward who might be suffering from emotional distress, social issues, and physical issues because of the taxing position they’re in to be on Zoom multiple hours a day? There might be difficulties connecting with students, when you’re actually in person. There might be emotional stress that we’re going to have and anxiety when we’re actually in large crowds with people just because of the fear that’s been put into our mind after all the months of this pandemic.”

Through it all, the challenges haven’t deterred either student from pursuing their goals or remaining optimistic about the future, especially in their endeavors outside of school.

“It hasn’t really impacted my activism that much, Butler says. “I think it just made me expand my mind. I think if anything, just not being able to travel [has been a challenge], but this is a way that I can lower my carbon footprint on this planet!”

And at Kingsmakers of Oakland, Piper says the mission goes on, to help youths “realize that they can change their narrative because they have the power to tell their own story.”

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at