Picture this all-too-familiar situation: hollow eyes, masked faces, and slouched shoulders—and you, standing in front of your leadership group trying to get your message across to a class of teenagers. At that moment, you may find yourself thinking: How can I get through to these kids?

With both students and teachers returning to school separated by computer screens and masks, the task of understanding the intricacies of the modern teenager’s mind has become even more difficult. Although it’s not an easy job, actively attempting to know today’s youth is the single most important step adults can take to help them flourish. So, we’re here to help you decode the teenage mind—welcome to the ABCs of Generation Z.

Generation Z—otherwise known by the very fitting nickname “the Zoomers”—will be the generation to improve this world. Maybe we’re a little biased as Zoomers ourselves, but we’ve come of age in a turbulent world, and at this point, we’ll do anything we can to leave it in a better state than when we arrived.

Since we’re the unique group that’s spent majority of our lives with the existence of smartphones and can remember little of what life looked like before the iPhone (we know you think it’s funny, but please stop asking us what a cassette player is—we don’t know!), the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t disrupt our lives, at least in terms of technology, as much as it did for others. That’s right; you’re on our turf now. If anything, this pandemic gave us a platform to show our true colors: our concern for the world around us, our frustration with traditional thinking, and our burning passion to do what’s morally right.

So, you may be wondering how to get through to us. First, you need to understand who we are.

We Are Complex Thinkers

We promise you that behind the masked faces are extremely complex minds. As we’ve returned to school under unusual circumstances, it may seem like students check out 30 minutes into class. But most of the time, we’re actually thinking about whatever you’ve asked us to reflect on in a unique and multifaceted way. We’re trying our best to put our complex thoughts and emotions into tangible words and actions, but sometimes, in the classroom and out, we fail to do so. Despite wanting to show you we pay attention in class, we fail to speak up. Despite wanting to be changemakers, young voters have consistently failed to show up in past political elections. But we promise you, we’re getting much better at speaking our minds.

We’re Globally Minded

Social media and the wide breadth of the internet have connected us with Zoomers all over the globe. However, with this gift comes the price of being exposed to all the ugly truths of the world. Headlines are no longer just about isolated, far-off events. Through our many social media outlets, we’re able to hear about the stories of those affected and get a glimpse of their lives on an incredibly personal level. The nitrate explosion in Lebanon that occurred in August, for example, may have been a dismissed news article a couple decades ago, but this year, we saw Snapchat posts of teens who were taking selfies seconds before and live reactions of the event.

We Get Caught Up in the Details

Since Gen Z has instant access to the crises plaguing our planet, we tend to lose sight of the big picture. We become so caught up in the details of what it’s going to take to solve the world’s problems—how much money it’s going to cost to halt climate change, how many laws we’ll have to pass before we have equal rights for all—that we forget that we have the most powerful asset of all: time. A perfect example presents itself in the COVID-19 pandemic. For many members of Generation Z, we got overly caught up in what we had lost—senior traditions, planning school dances, dressing up for spirit days. While our feelings were valid, it got to a point where we couldn’t envision a life past the pandemic and, in turn, this contributed to a continuing mental health crisis for Gen Z members across the globe.

We Can Take Progress for Granted

Often Zoomers forget that there was a time where Black and white people went to different schools and when Social Security didn’t exist. We don’t think about how the rights that Zoomers have are a product of the fights that Boomers fought. Instead, we think of how much progress is overdue and all the messy systems we have to fix.

You get it, we’re pretty awesome. And though we still believe we’re going to be the generation that drums up change, this prospect can feel like more of a burden than an opportunity. Journalist Charlie Warzel phrased it best: “Alienation is not a feature of the Gen Z experience—it is the overarching context.”

The conditions we’ve lived our lives in have been so different from any other generation. Sometimes it feels we only understand each other, so much so that it’s difficult for us to ask for help. People may be relying on us to “save the world”—and trust us, we want to—but at times the pressure on our shoulders is overwhelming.

So, how does one save the world? That’s where we need some help from you:

  • We’re complex thinkers and big dreamers, though often this comes off as apathetic. To support us, we just need a nudge to turn our passionate Twitter debates into actions.
  • We get caught up in details and take progress for granted, and as a result appear entitled and extreme. To assist us, help us pick our battles and encourage us to appreciate how far we’ve come.

There you have it. We hope you better understand the minds behind the masks. We could sit here giving you explicit directions on how to get through to your students, but before all of that, it starts with the simple step of understanding who we are. The next time you find yourself standing at the front of a room full of blank-faced kids, you’ll be able to see beyond the masks with the context for our world: the ABCs of Gen Z. —

Elishevlyne Eliason is a senior at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, CO, and is the current student body president at her school. Sanaa Sodhi is a senior at Eaglecrest High School in Centennial, CO, and she serves as the current student body vice president. Both students will graduate in 2021.