Older and wiser;Career development

5th June 1998 at 01:00
An experienced teacher took Kate Myers under her wing 30 years ago. She wishes more 'wise old birds' were being encouraged to do the same today.

In the late 1960s, when I started teaching in an inner-city comprehensive, the head of the housecraft department took me under her wing. Jean Hudson was in a different department to me, and had no official connection. But her classroom was close to mine. She could see and sometimes hear what was happening. Without the benefit of an experienced teacher's ear and sympathy, I probably would not have survived my first term.

Older teachers such as Jean often perform a range of functions in schools. As well as being informal counsellors, coaches and mentors, they provide role models for pupils and young teachers. A school lacking this accumulated wisdom and knowledge misses out on an important dimension of human experience.

This experience can have practical as well as more esoteric uses. Who remembers what happened and what worked the last time a father's day was organised 10 years ago? Who really knew the area before it looked like it does now and understands the prevailing sensitivities and nuances?

Who remembers the tensions 15 years ago, when the infants and junior school merged - and the implications for now? Who do local families really trust, the "incomers" or the teachers who taught their parents and, sometimes, grandparents?

Most importantly, does all this matter? How important is our collective history? Many firms that "downsized" in recent years and got rid of an entire layer of their older workers regret the move. They have realised too late some of the valuable functions carried out by this group.

Of course some older workers are cynical, some burnt-out and some may even be well beyond their sell-by date. In all organisations (and many families) older people are sometimes used as a focus of reaction or rebellion, rather than an aspirational model, but even here they provide a useful role.

If we are to benefit from our experienced teachers we need to work out ways to keep them enthused and energised. Some will be content to remain in the classroom, but others will decide they are ready for promotion late in their career. This may be because children have grown up and fled the nest, or because they feel ready for a new challenge.

Whatever the reason, Keith Milchem (see page 22) is right to argue that staff development opportunities should carry on throughout teachers' careers.

These opportunities can include the usual range of off-site or distance-learning management courses, but it is important to remember that the more time that has passed since a teacher was trained, the more necessary it is to update his or her subject knowledge. Career development can also occur on-site (or with other schools), through mentoring, coaching, work shadowing and, most importantly, encouraging.

Through initial training, many schools are involved in partnerships with their local higher education providers. These connections can be exploited to provide development opportunities for older teachers, such as short-term attachments to university education departments. This would give them time to reflect and catch up on recent education research, and enable them to contribute to taught courses.

Whatever is devised should be two-way. Experienced teachers have much to offer, and as well as requiring development opportunities, are potential developers of younger colleagues.

"Bright young things" may have endless energy and enthusiasm but they are much more effective when mediated and supported by "wise old birds". We should nurture and value our "WOBs".

* Professor Kate Myers is director of the professional development unit at Keele University

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