Professional Learning

The Emerging Age Bias

Suddenly, “experienced” equals “old”

November 3, 2011

"You know I was worried at first, because she was so old, but it turned out she was really good..." A friend and I are discussing her child's teacher. Her words resonate with me because I have heard them a lot lately; she was so old...old... and I wonder since when did being a veteran teacher become a negative quality in America?

Rewind to my first year of teaching and how I wished to be a veteran, how I yearned for years of knowledge and experience that could really wow parents and engage the students at such a high level that they would love coming to school every day. Instead, I bumbled my way through, figuring out my style, using the students as test subjects to all my untried ideas and staring wistfully into veteran teachers' classrooms. I envied their orderly, calm lessons, their seemingly endless project ideas and angles to reach every child. I could not wait to be a veteran.

The Case for Veteran Teachers

Now it appears a new trend has emerged; veteran teachers are no longer "experienced" -- they are simply "old," with every negative connotation of that word. The media and politicians portray these older teachers as stubborn and stuck in their ways. They are labeled static and washed out. The way to resuscitate America's "failing" education is now to get rid of the veterans and pave way for the new teachers, those with boundless energy, passion and fresh ideas. It's truly a case of out with the old and in with the new.

But those working in education can see just how flawed this method of thinking is. Those of us who breathe education recognize what these veteran teachers really bring to us all -- knowledge, expertise, methods that work, and a deep-seated passion for a job that has done little to reward them. We realize that by creating a bias against experience, we are all losers in the world of education. Now before I forget: yes, there are experienced teachers that do fulfill the stereotype, much like there are new teachers that do. However, the majority of experienced teachers do not.

Thanks in part to the rhetoric of the "reformers," the anti-veteran bias seems to be taking root in society, too. Now when teachers are searching for work, the more years they have, the less likely it seems that they will get an interview. Some districts say tight budgets are to blame, which as a teacher in Wisconsin I can appreciate, and yet, you would think that a district would spend the bulk of its money on getting experienced teachers in front of our students. Instead, we see a stigma that says the more years of teaching you have, the less open to new ideas you must be. Parents eagerly tell us how they want that new young teacher because he or she will have something new to offer. Students hope for the young teacher because they are sure he or she will be more fun.

Our Most Valuable Asset

So what can we do? Youth is the ultimate desirability in America, and it is warping the educational world as well. Youth now seems to be the one trait that everyone agrees will save our schools. Get rid of tenure, and with it the more experienced teachers, which frees school districts to hire as many brand new teachers as they want. Brand new teachers that also happen to cost less. Brand new teachers that come off as confident and brimming with new initiatives. Brand new teachers that lack the foundation that only years of teaching can provide them with.

I think back now to what I put my students through my first year -- and I shudder at the thought. There were the make-no-sense rules just to ensure control, tests upon tests because I thought that was the only way I could assess, and just a small stockpile of ideas to pull from. I had the confidence but lacked experience, and the only thing I knew that would make me a better teacher (besides more years) was turning to my mentors, veteran teachers that shared their knowledge and inventiveness. In those master teachers I saw everything that had drawn me to teaching: passion, dedication, innovation and an unstopping sense of urgency to reach all students.

That is what we'll be removing from our educational system -- experience; because in the view of society, old = bad. So when we dismiss and run out our master teachers, we drain our schools of one of their most valuable assets -- knowledge. When we place teachers with experience at the bottom of our respect pole, we set students up to be every new teacher's test subject over and over, throughout their years of schooling. Yes, new teachers bring new ideas to the table, but so do veteran teachers. How anyone can claim otherwise baffles me.

Thankfully, there are others in our profession who agree with me. Veteran teachers are joining social media such as Twitter to reach out to new teachers. They are blogging about their experience, thus creating a database of knowledge accessible to anyone in need. They are creating networks within their schools, ensuring that new teachers have someone to turn to. They are not being run out of education quietly, and we should all be grateful for that. We are only as strong as the weakest link in our schools, and our mentor teachers are doing everything they can to empower the people they work with. That power transfers to our students.

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