In Education Wisdom and Youth: you need both

It seems to me that a war is being waged against the wiser, less youthful of us in the work-force. There seems abroad a belief that young enthusiastic workers are what organisations and especially schools need. Now I’m not cynical enough to think this is just about money and being able to make young people work harder, or because they’re easier to bend to the organisation’s ethos. But I do wonder why there is a belief that youth is better than wisdom and that, especially in Education, young people should be fast tracked and any old teacher is automatically a drain on the system and needs to go.

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I confess, I stand firmly on the side of wisdom: youth having deserted me some time ago. But once I was a young teacher: keen, energetic and quite good at my job. I was promoted to Head of Department relatively young. The fact that I have remained at that level is incidental – I actually like it. And I firmly believe that any organisation worth its salt, and especially a good school, must have a mix of youth and experience.

When I was starting out I asked my favourite English teacher, whilst on my first round of school placements, why she would want a newly qualified, fresh out of university teacher in her department. I was struggling to see the benefits of inexperience; the memory of rubbish student teachers keen in my memory. She said it was because they brought new ideas and insights about teaching and it was always good to get new ideas and be inspired by others.

In my first school we were all pretty much newbies – teachers, heads of department in their first appointments; even the principal was in the second year of his first time as head-teacher. The only one in the school with any measurable experience was the deputy who had been at the school for 25 years. He was wise and kind and did a lot for this young teacher who made a beginner mistake. I had pushed two year 10 girls into a corner (not literally) and even knew I was doing it while doing it but had no idea how to stop myself and rescue the situation with everyone’s dignity and authority in place. So the girls were duly sent outside, the deputy picked them up, had a soft word and returned them to my care. Later he knew exactly how I’d managed to trip myself up. There was no reprimand, no scolding; no being made to feel a fool. All he said was, ‘You’ll never do that again, will you?’ And he was completely right.

For many years I was one of the youngest in my department, surrounded by women who were hungry readers and old school grammarians. It was wonderful to check with them about grading accurately, correct expression and have meaty discussions about books over lunch. I knew where my skills lay in running the department so never felt intimidated by their experience or resentful of them having some of the best classes in the school – in fact I gave them to them!

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I remain the queen of English (just), presiding over my team like Elizabeth 1 – fierce but loyal, brutal but kind, encouraging but cautious; willing to say yes, but only once I’m convinced of the merits of the proposal. It’s true, young people bring an energy and vigour to an organisation that we elder statesmen no longer possess. We have – if we’re lucky – gravitas, a steady hand, a broad and detailed understanding of the subject we teach, the system we work within and most importantly the nature of the teenage beast.

My young people bring their up-to-date knowledge of modern culture, they plan fastidiously, they mark late into the night, they make beautiful power-points and resources, they invent exciting ways to engage the students. But none are ready for the fast-tracking advocated in some quarters. Their practise is strong but still developing. They need to teach A levels, work in different schools, experience a greater range of students and organisational structures.

Some of my crew will go onto be amazing leaders one day. But to promote them now would be cruel. They would be faced with situations they could not manage, people who would not co-operate; asked to be accountable for much more than their own students. At the moment they need to develop their craft, hone their skills as a teacher, work on that for a few years. Many years ago where I worked in Australia you could not be considered for promotion before you had completed a 6 month assessment and you could not do that before you had been teaching for five years. Interestingly, as I noted in a previous blog, this amount of time corresponds with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to become an expert.

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Ability needs to be rewarded. Advancement should not be just about seniority. The merit principle should prevail. A department or school that is too full of inexperienced teachers – as my first school was – is a dangerous place to work. A department or school too full of experienced teachers waiting to retire is a recipe for stagnation. You need both – energetic bright young minds mixing in with calm and experienced warriors. We rub along together and rub off on each other. My team love me and I love them – but importantly we learn from each other, improve our practise and do the best we can for our students. (images courtesy Google Images)

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One Response to “In Education Wisdom and Youth: you need both”

  1. Joan W. Skinner Says:

    The NUT believes that all early years settings should contain a rich range of staff who work as a team, including qualified teachers. , This range of expertise is vital if all the social, emotional and learning needs of very young children are to be met. Early years education is too important to be delivered on the cheap. One type of professional cannot substitute for the other.

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