It’s inevitable that, over the course of a career in teaching, perspectives change. If I could go back and have a word with my young teacher self, aged 22, I’d certainly be telling myself to show a bit more respect to the guys who had been working at it for a few decades. Listen to them – they know things you can’t possibly know! (Actually their approach to physics teaching through a form of flipped learning was amazing; I didn’t realise just how good it was until much later. Flipped out by flipping? You may have missed the point.)
Of course there is a difference between expertise and experience. You’re not good at teaching just because you’ve done it for a long time. However, without question, an effective, reflective teacher will certainly benefit from experience. When I scan my long list of the teachers I’ve known who I consider to be truly great teachers, they’re all above a certain age threshold; they all have a degree of maturity, gravitas and the wisdom that only experience can provide: knowing how things work in the long run.
There is no short-cut to experience – you have to stick at the job and invest the time; the years. What does experience give us?
- Knowing how a curriculum pans out over time – informing the pace and intensity needed at key points; long-term change takes time to take effect so you need to stick around to see things through.
- Knowing how exams or assessments work and how they relate to the curriculum – once you’ve taught an exam course a few times, it sharpens you up no end.
- Knowing how to manage students’ expectations, aspirations, doubts, – when you’ve seen several cohorts of students all the way through, you have a bank of in-depth case-study material that informs all kinds of interactions for everyone’s benefit.
- Knowing what matters – a better sense of which parts of the job really make a difference, allowing you to discard things, to prioritise effectively and to filter out the noise of the initiative frenzy that schools tend to whip up. (This brilliant post by Rosalind Walker is a gem – the voice of experience, featuring the wonderful pragmatism-infused ‘can it be crap?’).
As with any decent team in sport – you want a blend of youth and experience. There’s a joyful creative energy that new teachers bring to a school. It’s always fabulous to have a regular flow of new recruits, NQTs bursting with possibilities. But it’s important to recognise that a new teacher is developing; they’re not the full package – not yet. There’s just too much to learn. Meanwhile, the value to a school of a core of well-established, mature, wise and experienced teachers shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s immense.
Sadly, I think this is actually underestimated. Teacher retention isn’t given nearly enough emphasis; career-long professional development is woefully under-resourced relative to initial teacher training. You can’t develop this core of experienced teachers if they don’t stay. It’s one of the reasons I think schools should be much more explicitly teacher-centred. (Schools should be more teacher-centred.)
My wife and I – now with nearly 60 years experience between us – often find ourselves astonished by the chutzpah of some younger folk. That might well be a sign of age in itself! In our house we might refer to people who’ve taught for five minutes and already know all about it/want a medal/think they’ve done us all a favour. You want to say – in the nicest possible way – come back to me in 5 years when you’ve actually done the job before you tell me I’m doing it wrong, or lecture us from your thinktank or social enterprise or whatever.
One of the challenges in the profession – one we still don’t get right – is to provide well remunerated pathways for teachers to remain as full-time classroom teachers. There are significant financial incentives to move into leadership positions that require a reduction in teaching loads and while we obviously need leaders who are well-connected with teaching and classroom issues, the tendency for many of the most experienced teachers to do the least teaching is far from ideal.
One of the great things about teaching – something that perhaps needs to be promoted more widely – is the flexibility that it offers. There are schools everywhere. Some people find a school they love and stay for decades but my experience of a career in this profession is of being sustained by change. Across 30 years I worked in six schools, never in one for more than seven years – and that variety kept me going. (50 Up: One Career. Six Schools. 28 Years. A thousand mistakes. )
I find it’s healthy to consider life as a series of interesting experiences, not a ladder that you constantly have to climb. I wouldn’t necessarily still be a teacher if, after three years, I hadn’t gone back-packing – a year-long adventure. At 25 I was too young to imagine committing to a permanent future in schools; there was a world to see. But I came back to it. And again, aged 39, I had another wave of thinking that I couldn’t imagine 25 more years of service running up to retirement. So I went abroad. International schools provide all kinds of opportunities for travelling families. We had the best time – and then came back.
Now, as a full-time consultant and trainer, I still consider myself to belong to the profession. I’m a teacher; it’s my trade, my profession. You can’t take the teacher out of me. Not now. I work in schools and colleges nearly every day; I spend a lot of time with teachers, making a contribution. I harbour a mild resentment at the suggestion that, having left the classroom as a leader and now as a consultant, that I’m no longer a member of the profession – especially when that suggestion emanates from one of the five minutes crew on twitter. I was always Headteacher and took that seriously. I feel that I’ve served the system well and still do – and if, one day, I apply for my Founding Fellowship status with the Chartered College, I think I’ll have earned it (even though personally I won’t be sticking the letters after my name – alongside ‘NPQH’ – LOL!) That doesn’t mean that serving full-time teachers shouldn’t dominate the CCT – they definitely should – but teaching is still my profession as much as anyone’s. That’s how I see it.
Here’s the thing. If teaching is going to be the go-to profession that it could be, attracting and retaining an army of superb teachers everywhere, it has to work at every level. It’s got to be simple and attractive to apply for, launched with superb training but, then there have to be incentives to stay on, to come back and generally to sustain a long career so that we can maximise the experience-expertise-energy-enthusiasm blend. And that means giving value to divergent paths and treating experience with the respect it deserves; it means treating people well as their careers come to an end.
My 23-year-old cocky-git self wouldn’t have understood that; but now I’m more of an old fart, I get to say it.