How can an older teacher stay on pupils' wavelength?

As an age 'chasm' opens up between you and your students, you worry about becoming out of touch, says Alan Gillespie

Alan Gillespie

How does an older teacher avoid becoming out of touch with students?

Here we go then, getting battered into a new school year, and this will be my tenth as a teacher. A decade in the classroom. If time has flown by fast – and surely these past two pandemic years don’t really count? – it feels like a happy milestone to reach. I no longer have the same anxieties about how to do the job that I did when I was younger. I know my way about the curriculum more smoothly, despite the best efforts of those in charge of secondary assessment to derail me. Experience has made me better at the work.

I feel the impact of ageing and maturity on my teaching persona. I have become more patient and less impulsive. I sometimes used to fear silence in the classroom, and feel that I had to fill it with follow-up instructions and questioning. Now I appreciate a quiet, concentrated atmosphere when that’s what’s needed. And while physically I may be feeling the hurt a little more often – in my back, in my knees – I am emotionally better equipped to process the highs and lows of a school’s daily rhythm.

It seems a silly, obvious thing to say, but as I grow older, the pupils remain the same age as they have always been. A chasm is opening up between my worldview and theirs. At the start of my career, I was only 10 years older than senior students, and the gap felt slight – a little stream over which we could recognise one another. Now, I am the same age as their parents, sailing off into middle age.

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There is a meme of Principal Skinner from The Simpsons that hits a little harder each year. It is difficult to accept that I am out of touch. But youth culture moves so quickly now – it has probably always done, but I never noticed. Having current cultural capital can be a huge benefit in the classroom. Recently I heard about a teacher talking about Michael Jordan’s famous quote about failure with a class of 12-year-olds. The theory behind it was sound, the quote made sense – but Michael Jordan played his last game of basketball five years before these students were born. They didn’t know who he was. The message fell flat.

I try to keep up. The memes, the hashtags, who’s been cancelled, who’s trolling whom. The music students are listening to and the world events that are captivating them. The evolution of language, those quirks of phrase that rise and ebb to nothing again in the course of a week. At times this can feel like trying to boil the ocean. There is just too much.

A teacher's fear of becoming out of touch with students

There’s no getting away from it, I liked being a young teacher. And as I age, I want to retain that sense of being involved in the same world as my students. If I cannot quite have the same frame of reference, I can at least strive to remain in the same gallery.

Twitter has an excellent teaching community, sharing resources and ideas. By engaging with this dialogue we can learn more about the connective tissues of the online space. I am also keen to adapt and tailor my resources to react to global and local events, and teach contemporary content. Last year, for example, I organised a few lessons looking at the poetry of Amanda Gorman following her performance at president Joe Biden’s inauguration. I know I was not alone in doing this. I was also struck by the reporting of the Pollokshields immigration raid in May 2021, and the protesters who gathered around it. The next day, I taught a lesson on the journalism and media reporting that had surrounded the event.

Maybe the best thing we can do to remain on the same wavelength is to build relationships with our senior students. Talk to them about what is going on in their spheres of interest. Ask what the language they are using means. Challenge our ideas and theirs, educate ourselves alongside one another, do the work. And try to keep it going for another 10 years.

Alan Gillespie is principal teacher of English at Fernhill School in Glasgow. He tweets @afjgillespie and recently published his first novel, The Mash House

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