Editorial: High praise and selective memories

20th March 2015 at 00:00

Teachers could be forgiven this week for thinking they'd died and gone to heaven, as the Pope called for the "beautiful profession" to be paid more, and former and current world leaders fell over themselves to praise what they do.

Over the weekend, the Global Teacher Prize was awarded as part of the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai. During the very sparkly ceremony, Bill Clinton lauded the profession - "I would have never been elected president of the United States without my teachers" - while claiming to remember every single teacher who had taught him.

At the same event, Esteban Bullrich, minister of education for Buenos Aires, told of how he wanted to show a little love for teachers and rebuild the profession's relationship with politics. So he gave his mobile number to 50,000 of them. He now spends 60-90 minutes a day responding to calls and texts, knocking education secretary Nicky Morgan's one-hour #callnicky chat into a cocked gaucho hat.

Back in England, a very "grateful" David Cameron is piling on the compliments. "It is thanks to Britain's teachers that encouraging - and in some cases extraordinary - progress has been made," the prime minister writes.

Luckily, with all the soft soap comes some hard cash: $1 million for Global Teacher Prize winner Nancie Atwell from New England and millions of pounds for England's teachers from the PM to get the College of Teaching off the ground.

Accepting her award, which she called a "miracle", Atwell quoted English Poet Laureate John Masefield, a great advocate of higher education: "The days that make us happy, make us wise." And for any profession, the more happy days accrued, the wiser one surely becomes - and thus more useful to society.

Unfortunately that doesn't appear true in teaching. "We don't trust age any more; we don't revere wisdom. We believe that progress comes from young blood, not experience," writes Rae Gilbert, who like many teachers over 50 can't get a job, despite her considerable experience.

Instead of being seen as an asset, too many older teachers are considered too expensive, too set in their ways, too assertive and too out of touch. It's a terrible waste of talent and experience.

"Wisdom is a rare commodity in our schools," says John Tomsett, headteacher of Huntington School in York, who is happy to take on older staff. He still counts his first appointment - a 59-year-old special educational needs teacher - as one of the best he's made.

Sadly, society portrays the over-50s as past their intellectual best. However, as The Atlantic magazine reports, although memory skills do decline, a recent study published in Psychological Science provides reassurance. Yes, many cognitive skills peak in the late teens and early twenties, but four don't come to prominence until the fifties: vocabulary, general knowledge, comprehension and maths. All are a boon in the classroom - to which the 63-year-old million-dollar teacher would no doubt attest.

It is perhaps not only older people whose memories can let them down. Our politicians, in chasing the teacher vote, conveniently forget they have spent most of their time in office denigrating the profession. They should remember that a teacher is for life, not just the election.



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