As educators, it’s easy to fall into the trap of judging this generation (Gen Z) for their foibles—their limited attention spans, addiction to technology, and so forth. Odds are, most of your students spent this past weekend bingeing on Stranger Things or any myriad of other Netflix originals. It’s tempting to assume our generation worked harder, studied longer, and cared more. Nostalgia is funny that way. “Youth is wasted on the young,” goes the old saying by George Bernard Shaw. Or is it really?
Research is beginning to suggest otherwise. For example, a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that in many ways, today’s students are more advanced academically than students from previous generations. In fact, evidence suggests their writing skills have improved over the last 10 years. On top of these intellectual advances, the students in your classroom have increased levels of compassion when it comes to real-life issues like racial injustice, poverty, and sexual harassment. Gen Z is far more likely to participate in social justice causes than we are (unless you grew up in the ’60s!). Gen Z is 43% less likely to binge drink than high school students in the 1990s. They possess an uncanny balance of skeptical criticism and brimming hope. One student is quoted in the Chronicle piece: “I find myself being reminded by young people every day that life is good and beautiful and exciting and worth living.”
So, instead of bemoaning their faults—no matter how tempting!—we can strive to acknowledge the goodness of this generation while challenging them to reach their God-given potential. Here are three simple ways you can foster that goodness by cultivating the spiritual formation of your students, while simultaneously expecting excellence from them in your classroom.
Trust them to own aspects of their own education.
Most of us grew up in classes centered on rewards or punishments, carrots and sticks. So we habitually learned to do what we were assigned (and not much more) in order to receive a satisfactory grade. We didn’t learn for the sheer joy of it all; we learned to escape punishment. Great teachers figure out ways to encourage their students to shoulder the responsibility of their own learning. This means moving beyond rote knowledge to higher, critical thinking experiences that give students the freedom to come to their own conclusions while trusting the Holy Spirit to guide them toward the truth. That’s risky and time-consuming and can’t often be measured on a standardized test—but try it anyway! Use your abilities to inspire a love of lifelong learning. And remember, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires” (attributed to William A. Ward).
Remember students are people, not products.
It’s easy to reduce students down to test scores and tax dollars. But their worth is not based on performance, college admittance, or scholarships; it is intrinsically given to them by God. When we treat students like products, it’s easy to exploit them. We pressure them to perform for us, and it leads to anxiety. Research suggests 62% of college students experience “overwhelming anxiety.” Meanwhile, depression and suicide rates among teens are at an all-time high. Why? In their own words, unhealthy academic pressure.
Take the time to personally get to know each of your students. What are they passionate about? What does their home life look like? What are their dreams and biggest fears? Every kid in your class is an image-bearer with unique gifts, talents, and abilities. Foster the skills you see, encourage the kindness you witness, and help them lean into the unique calling God is giving them. Students are also not problems to solve. Ask yourself these questions at the end of your teaching day: “Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I forgive? Did I love?” If you can answer yes, odds are you’ve made an eternal impact in the life of the children God has given you to steward.
Remember that education isn’t about how much they know.
For generations, we’ve believed that education consists of building an edifice of intellectual knowledge, cutting the line between the head and heart, and believing that facts alone are enough for formation. But are they? Our students might be able to recite information about the Civil Rights movement, but have they been moved to tears over the deaths of Medgar Evers or Emmitt Till? Can they feel the weight of history on their shoulders? Have they been motivated to do something about it? “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire” (William Butler Yeats). Or, to borrow from Charlotte Mason, it’s not about how much they know; it’s about how much they care.
There is no separation between the intellectual and spiritual formation of a child. All truth is God’s truth. All formation is sacred formation. Per James K.A. Smith, Christian education is therefore a holistic effort that engages the mind, heart, and body around formative practices, ideas, and emotions that “aim our desires, prime our imaginations, and orient us toward the world” from a Christ-centered perspective.
The next time you are in the lounge and the conversation turns to the latest harebrained thing a freshman did in biology class, redeem the conversation by reframing it around the goodness that this generation is bringing into the world. High expectations encourage excellence. The way we think and talk about our students not only shapes our expectations of them, but also forms who they will become.
Editor’s Note: In partnership with Axis Ministries, ACSI is proud to present ENGAGE: A Framework for Cultural Literacy, a one-day training event designed to equip adults with a framework for thinking biblically about culture—and ministering to the teens immersed in it. In addition, for more insights, subscribe to The Culture Translator, a weekly email on the pop culture, technology, and media influences affecting today’s students.
About the Author
Gary Alan is vice president of Content & Development at Axis, as well as the editor-in-chief of The Culture Translator. He has 23 years of experience working in nonprofit leadership and Christian higher education. Prior to joining Axis, Gary Alan helped lead The Truth Project at Focus on the Family, and served as assistant to the president at Milligan College. He has an MA in European history from East Tennessee State University and BA from Milligan College. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children and live in Monument, Colorado. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.