Experience is the child of thought

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
As a student teacher, the most enduring advice I ever received was neither invited nor paid for by my PGCE tuition fees. Having just weathered one of those "when you've been in this game as long as I have . . ." lectures, I was literally grabbed by the Methuselah of the staff room, who whispered: "Listen laddie, never confuse experience with longevity of service. The two beasts rarely share the same stable." He then rapidly disappeared back into the fume-filled sanctum that was the smoking corner, never again to be seen by this student teacher. Hopefully he is still passing on the same advice to new teachers.

The crucial distinction that Methuselah highlighted is obviously lost on policy-makers at Whitehall, who recently claimed that the new restrictions upon early retirement within the teaching profession would keep experienced teachers in the classroom. Assuming that the Government sincerely believes this, then the premise of their argument must be that longevity of service does equal experience. Such thinking is dangerous for both those we teach and for the profession.

High quality teaching and pastoral provision are not and never have been dependent upon longevity of service. They are, however, dependent upon experience. Experience is not simply measured by the cumulative total of student cohorts or lessons taught nor can it be measured on the basis of the range of student problems dealt with over the decades on the pastoral side. Experience is a function of the extent to which a teacher reflects on the lessons taught or problems managed and then acts upon that reflection in such a way as to improve his or her performance. Disraeli provided a wonderful definition of experience: "Experience is the child of thought, and thought is the child of action".

Good teachers reflect and act constantly. Obviously time is needed but it is common for new entrants to the profession to show this ability and thus to acquire the status of an experienced teacher rapidly. Experience is also related to exposure to new challenges and responsibilities. These "professional development opportunities" or, in staff-room parlance, "responsibility off-loading", are usually just waiting for some naive or desperate-to-impress teacher to take them on board, unpaid of course, "but good experience". However unfairly they may be allocated, they do still provide opportunities for young staff to acquire yet more early experience. They create yet another chance for cumulative action and reflection that is experience.

Many long-serving staff members possess all of the above vital qualities. Such teachers are vital within the profession, not because of the longevity of their service alone but because of the wealth of true experience that comes about as a consequence of their constant reflection and the application of lessons learnt from that reflection over a long time-span. It follows, of course, that not every long-serving member of staff could be ascribed the title of experienced.

Truly experienced teachers need to be encouraged to stay in the profession but not through the application of the recently announced measures. The reward for true experience must be the availability of opportunity: opportunity to progress up the promotion ladder, to secure true responsibility that is accompanied by appropriate remuneration.

There is little chance of this occurring after April 1997. Schools now face the prospect of an increasing body of disaffected staff members, biding their time until retirement and blocking the already congested promotion ladder. On the lower rungs of the same ladder we can expect an equally disaffected mass of younger, and frequently equally experienced, teachers with little opportunity of movement other than out of the profession.

If the Government is serious about retaining experienced teachers it needs to think more carefully about what constitutes an experienced teacher. It needs to recognise that longevity of service alone is no indicator of quality provision for pupils. If there is a real concern for enhancing educational provision, then experienced teachers of whatever age need to be provided with the opportunities to maximise on their potential. Many long-serving teachers have, in the past, only taken the option for early retirement safe in the knowledge that there are younger staff with much experience available to take on the mantle. Denying the option of early retirement to such teachers does neither profession nor children any service.

Neil Hunter, formerly a sixth-form college teacher, is about to start a primary teaching conversion course

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