In praise of older teachers

Okay, it's not going to come as a shock that I'm going to be pro- older teacher. A cursory look at my bio or, dare I say it, my photo, will tell you that I'm one of them. I've also stepped out of the classroom, although I'm still in education.

There's been a rash of articles recently about the plight of older teachers, notably the fact that the cost of having them in schools who have challenging budget issues makes it tempting to try and get rid of them:

On the other hand, there is hand-wringing about the fact that the exodus of older teachers from the profession is leaving new teachers unsupported and children deprived of a wealth of experience in classrooms.

Bias aside I think that societally, the current obsession in the UK with youth and novelty which has made its way into the education system is a worrying trend for a variety of reasons.

Firstly there is a very practical dichotomy which makes the position of older teachers problematic. While the government has decreed that public servants should continue in post until the age of 67 or sacrifice pension entitlement. In practice, according to the OECD TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey) of 2018, the average age of teachers in the UK is 39, well below the international average of 43 and significantly younger than our European colleagues. Our school leaders, on average 52 years old, are significantly younger than their international counterparts.

The highest level of the teaching pay scale for those teachers who elect to stay in the classroom is UPS3. If a teacher comes into the profession and applies for promotion every two years as they are entitled to, and is successful, it will take them 16 years to reach UPS3. Say a teacher starts at the age of 25; this means that once they reach their early forties there is no career progression path for them to follow, unless they elect to move into management and take up responsibility points. Remember too that those school leaders probably climbed that career ladder quite quickly, and there may be a temptation to dismiss colleagues who have chosen not to take the same path as unambitious plodders and decide that they are not worth their salaries.

So we have a situation where people are expected to work until 67, ie a career of up to 42 years, but there is not a presumption that their incremental knowledge and experience is worth extra after the first 18 years of their career. And the only way they can continue to be worth more is if they are managers. As we can generally assume that in any sane school system there will be more teachers than managers, mathematically I would suggest that this only works if large numbers of older teachers leave the profession, or suck up the fact that the careers of a significant number will be stagnant for the second half of their career.

When I finally left my last school, I was the oldest teacher, nay the oldest adult, in the place by some margin. Ten years older than my Headteacher and my Head of Department. At least ten years older than all the SLT (not combined - I'm not Methuselah...)

Actually I wasn't a teacher for all that long, coming to education from another career (when all my contemporaries were busily going in the opposite direction), and then taking the better part of a decade out to raise my children. But I had a lot of experience nonetheless and was a confident classroom manager and practitioner, as well as an enthusiastic mentor of young teachers, whose company I enjoyed increasingly. I learned from them, but they also benefited from my experience. I heard from some that they'd had terrible experiences in schools where they were 'mentored' by young teachers, sometimes even NQTs who were too frazzled by the challenge of their first full year in teaching to be of any help to a PGCE or Teach Direct colleague. In fact, these junior teachers, struggling with workload, actually tried to turn away their student colleagues from their decision to come into teaching.

Years of experience do not endow someone with magical powers but they do mean that you have, well, experience. And students, especially older students who are at a more advanced level of their studies, like the range of knowledge which that experience brings with it. A competent teacher cannot fail to build up a mass of experience if they live through different curricula and different fads and obsessions, each of which adds tools to their toolkit. Young teachers have a nice tidy set of shiny and very efficient new tools, but those toolboxes don't tackle as wide a variety of tasks.

What was it Malcolm Gladwell famously said about 10,000 hours and genius? There's a “critical minimum” amount of time that you must spend practising your craft in order to become a genius at it: 10,000 hours, to be exact. In other words - a LONG time.

We need those older teachers - let's value them properly.

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