'Older teachers need to be ignored a bit more'

Old teachers have had an exceptionally positive press. But, says Stephen Petty, older does not necessarily mean wiser

old rocker

A colleague is at last retiring at the end of this term and, to be honest, most of us will be glad to see the back of him. He was hopelessly set in his ways. He had started to fall asleep in front of the children and was increasingly seen wandering off and peeing into the bushes. 

This time it may only be the reading dog at our lower school, but he is just one example of why it is not always great to have us older staff on board. 

Positive stereotyping

We have had an exceptionally positive press in recent times. People have argued here in Tes that we may be expensive, but that we need to be cherished and celebrated. We are said to bring years of accumulated wisdom and knowledge to the workplace. Even the most grizzled old mavericks – as depicted in Emma Kell’s magnificent “Barry” character – are considered to have a heart of gold. We are viewed as objects to be treasured in this otherwise transient world. 

There is truth in all of that, plainly, but it’s surely time for a little balance. There are indeed plenty of superb senior practitioners around, but let’s go easy on the positive stereotyping. What might be true for some older colleagues may not be true for all of us, or not true for us all of the time. 

Frankly, some of us need to be ignored a lot more. Being aged does not, in itself, confer on us the wisdom of Solomon, and yet too many younger colleagues listen to us for way too long. We are just as likely to be wrong and misguided as they are. I still make the same mistakes in my work as I did at 25 – I just make them more slowly. 

Unbelievably annoying

And, let’s face it, many of us seniors can be unbelievably annoying, especially with our unwillingness to embrace modern technology. The technical-support team must dread hearing from some of us as we whine on yet again about the speakers mysteriously “not working” in our classroom. (“Have you checked that you haven’t got the computer on mute?”) 

Others among us will talk drearily and predictably in training sessions about “the wheel turning in circles” again or will reminisce about some imagined golden age for schools, even if we can never be pinned down to suggest any particular year. 

We are also the teachers most likely to become grumpy with our classes, purely by dint of it being the afternoon, when many of us will get more tired and scratchy than our younger colleagues. We probably woke up too early, anyway. 

Cover version

We are the ones most likely to irritate pupils with our attempts to borrow their language, with our smart comments such as, “You realise that isn’t the original version of that song, don’t you?” and with our regularly mystifying them with casual references to television programmes going back deep into the last century. 

Alternatively, we find ourselves overcompensating for our age. I know of a senior secondary teacher who, upon hearing that it was Transition Day, eagerly put on a supportive “Be whoever you want” badge. She was a bit surprised when Transition Day turned out to be a load of Year 6 pupils visiting the school for their induction. 

Older teachers can obviously offer schools a lot, yes, but, as with all ages of teacher, it’s not all good.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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