Wednesday, June 11, 2008

On Aging and Teachers

This made me pause, from the Chronicle Review:

It's expected that athletes will slowly decline in ability as they age. Every athlete accepts that. But not every professor does. It seems more or less forbidden to talk about what happens to academics as they age. There is virtual silence about the kind of age-associated changes that affect teaching, learning, and research. Baby boomers, known for their willingness to talk about everything having to do with themselves, have been open on issues from breast cancer to erectile dysfunction, empty-nest syndrome, and depression — but in academe, no one dares utter the word "old." Is this because we think that the intellect is ageless, and in an era of Botox and Viagra, there should be no excuse for the vagaries of time? Or are we just worried about keeping our jobs?
I’ve only been teaching for 8 years, and won’t see my 30th birthday until later this summer. I still regard myself as a young teacher, even though les enfants terrible fresh out of college might disagree. From that perspective I can’t truly relate to what it’s like being an “old” teacher. There are stereotypes about old teachers, though, that bear examination:

  • Old teachers are inflexible. It would be a waste of money to put a Smart Board in Mrs. Sliderule’s classroom, because it would be a substitute for a movie screen instead of the interactive learning tool that it’s meant to be. She’s still teaching out of the old math books, because that’s what feels right to her. And please don’t tell her that there might be a way to get through to Little Johnny—she’s already decided that his bad home life has made it impossible for him to learn, because he hasn’t responded to anything she’s tried.

  • Old teachers are jaded. Mr. Memento has seen it all, usually more than once. He can trace the course of his career through pendulum swings: GESA was big, then it went away, then the WASL made the idea come back with a different name, and now it’s gone again. His career has carried on through 5 principals and 35 school board members, and he’ll outlast the new messiahs as well. His favorite joke: “I teach in the IB program. IB here when you get here, IB here when you’re gone.”

  • Old teachers aren’t energetic. If you want your child in an upbeat, positive classroom where every day is an adventure, you don’t want them with Ms. Tepid. Her fibromyalgia rules her life, and any suggestion that comes her way is apathetically ignored because of the time and effort that would be required. She’s taken Harry Wong to heart and believes that she should end every day with as much energy as she began; she practices this by not using any energy during the day.

  • Old teachers are just in it for the health insurance. Mr. Goiter considered retiring when he turned 60, since he had 38 years in, but when he priced health insurance and compared that to his pension he knew that there was no way he could afford to leave. So he soldiers on, doing just enough. Maybe when he gets old enough for Medicare he’ll call it a career.

  • Old teachers are just biding their time until retirement. Mrs. Entitled worked hard, damn hard, the first 25 years or so, but now she’s earned the right to slow down. She should get the best kids, because that’s appropriate for reasons that are never fully threshed out. Asking her to serve on a committee is OK, but only as long as the money paid for being on that committee is pensionable.

....and I’m sure there are others that I am missing.

As I wrote that I could think of someone who fit every description; I could also think of another veteran teacher (often more than one) who defies the mold. The job may change, but dedication never will, and teachers who care can be successful at any age.

The important piece here is how age relates to tenure. It's long been assumed that anyone who achieves tenure will be able to keep teaching until they don't want to, which is a rub to many who wish to reform education. They may have a point--should two years of success at the beginning guarantee you anything?--but the system is what it is.

Are old teachers a problem?

(for a nice poetry tie-in, Old Teachers by Robert Bly)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

A related, interesting question was discussed as part of the BEFTF.

what should the salary schedule do in terms of teachers at different ages in their profession?

Currently, the range of salary based upon the two dimensions allows the best paid to make 88% more than the starting teacher.

One proposal made it over double.

Question: What should it do?

I recall how the union took the original starting teacher pay raise which was granted by the legislature, and locally bargained it as percentage-based raises for everyone. When a subsequent budget forced it to be passed on, the union sued the state for meddling.

Is an experienced teacher twice as good as a starting teacher?

Would anyone stay in teaching if the 20-year wage was only slightly better than the starting wage?

Why should the public pay more merely for longevity if it isn't tied empirically to effectiveness?

With each I-732 pay raise, the salary schedule telescopes. Is this OK? Will it be OK in forty years when the telescoping gets nearly absurd?


4:17 PM  

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