Our Generation X-pert series continues with Heather Anderson, Instructional Coach at Martha B. King Middle School in Bradenton, Florida. Throughout her nearly 20-year career as a middle school language arts teacher, she has witnessed generational transitions in both students and teachers/administrators. Last year she was named Manatee County (FL) Teacher of the Year. She also happens to be my awesome cousin. My conversation with her about her career path, K-12 education and Generation X follows, edited for clarity. After I checked in via FaceTime with her and her adorable 8-yr old son, we got down to business.
GenX Manager: First I want to ask you about what it means to you to be a part of Generation X—what you think of now and what you remember from the past.
Heather Anderson: At this point, we really are the sandwich generation. We have more responsibilities with our own parents and we’re raising kids at the same time. And the same goes for work—we are in the middle. However, as GenXers, we are now rising to leadership positions in our respective fields. The Boomers might be ready for a well-deserved retirement, but here come the Millennials–who see things a little differently, which, is a positive because new ideas help encourage innovation at all levels.
GXM: What has that been like for you?
HA: I work with a lot of new teachers. They bring a new, refreshed energy. I had an intern last year who taught me some current Millennial and Xennial slang, like “salty” and “pro tip”, that—you know—we, as Gen-Xers, don’t really use. But, I was then able to use my new, more current vernacular to better connect with my middle school students, which they loved!
GXM: I would think as a middle school teacher that’s kind of important as a way to try to connect with younger students, right? Maybe even impress them, like “Wow, she knows that…”
HA: Right! As a teacher, the older you get, the more important staying current with pop culture is. I can’t remember exactly when it was, but I remember when I realized, “Oh. I’m not the young, cool teacher anymore.” You must ride the “awesome and trendy” wave as long as you can! But, when that phase of your life is over, you need to still find ways to connect with your students, on their level, to help build positive relationships with kids.
GXM: We all have that “I’m-not-the-young-cool” moment, believe me. In a school setting, on the teacher/administrator “grown-up” side, how do you see GenX-ers showing up?
HA: I think we’re able to connect—with Boomers, with younger teachers, with students. I think we really care about connecting with people. We have always taken work pretty seriously and been responsible. GenX has a sense of commitment that maybe doesn’t come through as strongly in other generations. For example, ever since I started working, I would never dream of leaving any job without giving at least two weeks notice. However, I have seen several Millennial staff quickly leave if the job didn’t seem right for them after a very short amount of time. The people who left were living with their parents. That wasn’t an option for us, nor did we want it to be.
GXM: Um, nope. So you’ve been teaching over 19 years. What was your career path? I know you’ve known you always wanted to be a teacher.
HA: Yes, it started with giving my brother actual homework when we’d play school in the basement. I was a swim instructor and camp counselor, and in high school, I worked at a daycare center. It was all a stepping stone. I went to college right after high school and got my undergrad. In New York, at the time, you had to get your Masters’ degree within five years. I taught for four, then took a year leave and got my graduate degree. And I am so glad I did it that way, because I had actually been in the classroom. I was taking classes with others who had never taught before. But getting my Masters’ really helped me hone my craft.
GXM: You were recognized as the 2018 Manatee County Teacher of the Year, and one of your strengths is your use of technology in the classroom. What made you decide to embrace technology early on in your teaching career?
HA: I knew our students were changing and I had to make sure they were engaged in the lesson for their knowledge to grow. We had a great tech person at one of my schools who was able to secure funding for laptops. We also had an electronic platform to deliver content and assessments to students online. So I created a “blended classroom”. I was using the new technologies in conjunction with older, yet effective, techniques like writing notes and creating graphic organizers in a composition book. Incorporating the technology connected my students with the content and changed my instructional approach; it really involved the kids in their own learning.
GXM: And that became your thing?
HA: But not the only thing. Technology can’t stand alone. ‘Rigor, relevance, and relationships’ should be at the core of every classroom. Rigor is the challenge related to the course of study with the content, relevance is connecting to what students are learning to their lives and the world. And the relationship piece is helping students build connections in their classroom, school and community. Technology was a way I knew I could achieve rigor with all levels of student, as well as to help students make connections beyond our classroom wall, all while building the positive relationships we needed to have as a classroom learning community.
GXM: What do other teachers, especially those who might be older, think about schools embracing technology in this way?
HA: There might be some resistance at first. As a professional development trainer and instructional coach for other teachers, I try to be as helpful and accessible as possible. If I can show them how new technologies which can benefit them and their students, that it’s not technology for technology’s sake, that helps. I’ve had teachers that I have trained who were hesitant at first who now send me emails that they are “blown away” by what they can now do in the classroom with their students.
GXM: As a middle school teacher, you are now dealing with Generation Z students. There is a statistic that about 20 percent of young people have some kind of mental health issues, and teachers are on the front lines.
HA: In teaching middle schoolers, it seems like there has always been an awareness of mental health issues because they seem to manifest at the adolescent stage of development. But yes, now there is a better understanding of issues that our kids face, as well as a heightened sensitivity of our current educational climate. However, more resources are being directed towards helping students in various capacities. Staff also work together to help best support kids, especially those who are struggling.
GXM: Right now there is a shortage of teachers across the U.S. and enrollment in educational programs for teachers has been in decline. Is it still possible to draw people to become teachers?
HA: I am an optimist when I think about the teacher shortage because teaching is a passion and a calling. I would really like to believe that there are many people, even considering the current climate, who are really called to help kids and who want to help them grow. And not just teachers—guidance counselors, administrators, and others. I feel as though those people will eventually find their way to, or back into the classroom. I am currently working with a teacher who left teaching to go into the business world but was “called” back for the purpose and meaning that being a teacher gave her.
GXM: What advice would you give someone who wants to become a teacher?
HA: First and foremost develop a sense of relentlessness. The “I’m-not-going-to-give-up-on-you” kind. Then, make sure your students know how much you love them, even when the content gets hard, or their behavior may not be appropriate. Also, have a sense of flexibility is key. A relaxed sense of humor will go a long way too.
And have something outside of school. Don’t let teaching be your only thing. You need other outlets. And practice. Your instructional craft takes time to develop. Being an effective teacher means using the highest-impact pedagogic strategies, but that takes time to develop.
GXM: Relentlessness and not giving up? Very GenX by the way.
HA: Totally. In education, we now call that not giving up “grit,” which is very important for students and teachers to have.
GXM: Lessons you’ve learned along the way?
HA: Oh yes! You never stop evolving. I told a teacher the other day that I wish I could go back to my first-year students just apologize. Lol
GXM: Wrapping up, what do you remember most about growing up GenX?
HA: The pop culture. Roller skating. Leg-warmers. Big hair, high bangs. Cuffed jeans. Stonewash. High-top sneakers. Footloose. Goonies. Growing Pains. Facts of Life. Madonna. Michael Jackson. Cindy Lauper. I heard the Go Go’s the other day and thought of us belting out the songs followed by our belly laughs. Our generation was so over-the-top and goofy, but it made people smile and connect with each other over something positive.
To connect with Heather Anderson, follow her on Twitter @mrsandersonkms.
Are you a Generation X-pert? We’re looking to interview GenX-ers about their career paths, their experience leading employees, and how their specific industry interacts with Boomers, GenX, Millennials and more as part of a series for TheGenXManager.com. Email Heidi@TheGenXManager.com for more information.