You can, and should, teach an old dog new tricks

11th December 2009 at 00:00

Since my earliest years of teaching 30 years ago I have wondered about those 50-somethings in the staffroom who seemed to have inhabited the same chair and uttered those same old world-weary, rather cynical, occasionally wise, words forever.

I clearly remember in my first term of teaching vowing that I would certainly never become one of "them" - I would always be dynamic, enthusiastic and totally committed in my approach to my job.

I was intolerant of those grumpy old men and would of course leave the profession rather than, heaven forbid, become like them. When such an older colleague one day advised me to stay at home if I felt under the weather because "nobody gives you any prizes for coming in when you're ill" I was flabbergasted by his lack of loyalty to pupils and colleagues.

Over the years I have observed them in every staffroom I have ever been in - the ranks of the disillusioned and the burnt out - counting down the days to (hopefully early) retirement.

Now my age qualifies me for that club and I suddenly feel some empathy - and anger - at their plight. I have huge experience to draw on in the classroom and am told that I still teach lessons of a high standard, though I feel the risk-taking that is so important in teaching and used to happen in my lessons is probably now absent.

I have seen scores of initiatives come and go, and so do not show the relish that I probably should for the latest "latest thing" (which normally seems to be the same "latest thing" of 20 years ago, but now by another name).

I feel that the goalposts that I set for behaviour in my classroom have not moved, while perhaps society's have - is it so old-fashioned to expect 30 teenagers to give me their attention when I speak?

I have become one of those problems that every school has - I am not really worth training in order to move forward because I am considered too old. The training emphasis is, rightly, on new teachers. This is followed by training for future departmental heads plus, for the more ambitious, training as future leaders.

What is left in the training budget after that lot? It is more difficult to think what can best be done with the classroom teacher who has spent the last 30 years "only" teaching and is now in need of a new challenge - no CV overflowing with the latest initiatives here, too few boxes ticked.

The response to the situation facing wrinklies like me varies. Many maintain their enthusiasm to their last teaching day, happy in the knowledge that they have done a good job, content that they never saw teaching as anything more than this. Others become increasingly fed up and bitter and can, in some cases, be seen in the corners of staffrooms vying with each other as to who can top the other's cynicism on all matters educational - from the value of AfL to the latest version of the school's staffing structure.

Some see the last 10 years of teaching as a time to gently take their foot off the gas and concentrate on other things (such as lowering that golf handicap or spending time with the grandchildren). For them, the less stress the better.

There are some who manage to maintain an "all singing, all dancing" approach to five lessons in a day, often followed by a meeting of some description after school, and cope well with the relentlessness of the modern classroom. Many cannot. But this does not mean that they no longer have anything to offer as teachers. It seems to me that in many cases what is required is a new challenge - these are teachers with a wealth of experience that is often not being well utilised. These are, more than anyone, the people who need to be turned on to new opportunities in education - opportunities that make use of those years of experience.

Surely there is a major role here in the passing on of advice and in mentoring? It is an opportunity to give back into teaching the results of some of those hard-learned lessons in order to benefit young teachers, trainees and others. The role of mentor and trainer is too often the responsibility of senior managers who have so many other "balls in the air" at any one time that they cannot give it the necessary attention to bring real influence to bear on the performance of a large number of staff.

Other experienced teachers might take on new responsibilities around examinations, timetabling and so forth.

Whatever the role, the opportunity needs to be there if the individual wants it - the benefit for schools in terms of teaching and learning and in efficiency, not to mention morale, could be huge. The alternative is just too sad.

You can, and should, teach an old dog new tricks.

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