Good Old Teachers

Knowledge alone cannot give rise to value. It is only when knowledge is guided by wisdom that value is created. The font of wisdom is found in the following elements: an overarching sense of purpose, a powerful sense of responsibility and, finally, the compassionate desire to contribute to the welfare of humankind.” Daisaku Ikeda.

According to many reports and reviews, we are approaching a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. We are told this is particularly marked for young teachers. Organisations such as Teach First have a lamentable record in retaining teachers (60% leave within 5 years of teaching) and figures from the other methods of teacher training are not much better. There is clearly something going on which is causing the younger generation to blow up early. And if they don’t leave teaching altogether, many more escape to Dubai or Shanghai, where the money is better, the sun shines, and they’re not returning home to the ‘Beast from the East’ each evening.

Anecdotally, teachers in their 50s are leaving in droves too. It’s something I’ve thought about often. With the retirement age increasing and the job getting tougher, what on earth do we do to assist ‘older’ teachers in the autumn of their careers?

We can’t just throw them on the scrap heap in the box marked ‘obsolete’, though many clearly feel that this is how they are treated. At last year’s NASUWT conference, it was such a concern that one member called it the ‘wilful vandalism of people’s careers.’

This may be a little harsh; emotions clearly run high. For there are entirely understandable positions on both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, with 25+ years of experience, teachers feel a sense of professional pride that merits a respectful and inclusive treatment from school leaders and managers. Their years of service matter. For their part, leaders need teachers to respond positively to the dizzying changes to school curricula and methodology, and to the technological and societal changes that dominate children’s lives.

Both are right of course, but something ‘at the chalkface’ clearly isn’t. More and more older teachers appear to be leaving early; those that stay are made to feel surplus to requirements.

I think there are three key reasons for this:-

  1. They are expensive and budgets are tight. Simple.
  2. There is a widening consensus from business managers and efficiency-focused headteachers that older teachers can’t give the extra hours a day that some younger teachers are prepared to give. Instead, they have really annoying stuff to deal with such as looking after their children or their elderly parents. Or engaging in time-wasting acts such as cooking a meal for their family when they could be analysing the progress of disadvantaged boys in Year 3.
  3. Older teachers look at the way some schools are run now and feel like they’re extras in Bladerunner. They look around their schools and feel like intruders.

Their flight is worrying for the profession, mainly because there aren’t enough people queuing up to replace them. We tried to get a supply teacher the other day and there wasn’t one available. In the entire city.

But older teachers should bring something which is priceless. Wisdom. So much of school life is not black or white. So little of educational discourse runs in a linear direction. It’s confusing and often disorientating. To deal with such pressures requires experience and discernment. Knowing how best to discipline a confused teenager for instance, or dealing with an irate and out-of-control parent, or knowing how best to support a cocky but flawed new teacher (Answer: tell them Dubai is great.)

Increasingly anxious pupils, angry parents, and atrophied communities need wise heads and a voice of experience to find a way through these turbulent times.  Yes, some teachers new to the profession rise to this challenge remarkably quickly, but they are the exceptions. Nothing can beat the wisdom of a battle-hardened professional in these circumstances. Getting it wrong can spell the end of a career. Just ask David Cameron.

We need our good, old teachers, and the system needs to find a place for them. Nobody would want our children taught by some narky Victor Meldrew; the bad ones should rightly leave. But we must be careful not to waste a precious resource, one that can mould the next generation. Wisdom is to be sought out and treasured, not thrown on the factory floor and trampled on.

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