Yesterday’s Guardian’s Secret Teacher column caught my eye: ‘I feel too old for the job but I’m trapped.’
Having taught for over 20 years now, reached my mid-forties and this year published a book on teacher wellbeing, I thought I’d share a few thoughts
Firstly a few concerns. No matter what age we are, we have to keep growing and developing as teachers. The writer refers to poor student evaluations of her teaching and her frustration that CPD sessions are being led by younger more enthusiastic staff. I am not convinced that our teaching has to decline as we get older. I think I am a better teacher now in my forties than I ever was in my twenties. Mindset is more important than age
Secondly I am not convinced that the age gap to our students is necessarily a problem. What matters is our ability to connect and relate as human beings not our ability to make references to popular culture or music. Hence I’m not sure that this is as big a problem as it may seem.
Having said that there is actually a valid point that the writer makes and I suspect it is her main point. Those outside the profession don’t necessarily realise the physical and mental energies that teaching requires. The feeling that ‘I can’t do this into my sixties’ is common amongst very good teachers that I talk to who are a similar age to me. I’m not sure whether this is age related or just the wear and tear of having done the job for a number of years. Certainly I will watch what happens with Lucy Kellaway who has decided to retrain as a teacher aged 58 with interest.
Those who, like the secret teacher, may feel they are becoming too old to teach have some unfortunate evidence for their view. On two separate occasions when speaking to union officials I have heard it said that most capability proceedings are being brought against staff in their 50s. Why should this be the case? Whilst it may be that they become disengaged and their skills decline, I believe it is more likely to be a simple case of the body slowing down and not keeping up with the energy required. We need to find a more dignified way of supporting these colleagues rather than managing them out as ‘failures’ in our compliance led regimes.
Some colleagues may counter this by seeking promotion to senior management. A few years ago I complimented one of our Assistant Principals on his lesson which I had overheard whilst in the departmental office next door. His honest and very modest reply was that given he only taught a few hours a week his lessons should be excellent. He didn’t feel he would have the energy to cope with a full timetable now. I think he would have been in his mid-fifties at the time. Senior leadership is hard work and stressful but it doesn’t seem to bring the same exhaustion as full time classroom teaching.
Clearly we need to find ways of helping ourselves and each other; some of my own strategies are in my book. (Shameless plug…) We can make some progress in ensuring we have some success and longevity but I’m not sure what the overall solution is. We certainly need to manage workload and expectations nationally; there have been positive signs here and the better leaders understand this and don’t pass on their stress to staff.
Perhaps we also need to be more open to part time working – and not just for those who are returning after children. Maybe we need to encourage younger teachers to career plan and think about what they may do – indeed what else they may do in later life. In my own case I have never seen teaching as a job for life; I love it and feel I’m doing as good a job as I’ve ever done but it would be naive to think that I could go on indefinitely. I have plans in place to do other things if the moment comes that my energy levels lag way behind the pace of the job but I wonder if that makes me unusual.
I hope that our secret teacher rediscovers her enthusiasm for teaching and is able to maintain some balance in her life. There is nothing worse than feeling trapped in a job you no longer enjoy. I also hope that as teachers we can find a way of harnessing the wisdom and skills of our older colleagues