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The Emerging Age Bias

Pernille Ripp

Fifth grade teacher in Middleton, Wisconsin
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"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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Pernille Ripp

Fifth grade teacher in Middleton, Wisconsin

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Editor

Thank you, Pernille, for this post. I've been so deeply troubled by the ageism running rampant in our schools the last ten years most noticeably. A great disservice is being done to students by this labeling of older teachers and in some cases, even vilification. Veteran teachers have so much to offer!
Their salary is also much more than that of a new teacher's. Economics, I suspect, also fuels this discriminatory fire.

John Middleton's picture

I'm 46. I've been an educator since 1986. I update regularly and I'm always changing what I do. This mainstream media nonsense is no different than right-wing "think" tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute commissioning "studies" that say teachers are overpaid. Propaganda is propaganda, no matter how some try to dress it up.

Pattipeg Harjo's picture
Pattipeg Harjo
High school Spanish teacher, Norman, Oklahoma

I'm 62, and national board certified. I'm also always on the cutting edge--for instance I was the first teacher in our district (practically the whole USA, in fact) to develop and institute standards-based grading in my subject. I pay for my own (very expensive) professional training every year, and am far ahead of my colleagues in both American and European methods of teaching my subject. My students do exceptionally well on college placement exams. I'm miles ahead of my younger, less experienced colleagues. But I'm old, and have felt the unfortunate effects of age discrimination. The sad part of all this is that the students are suffering, being placed in classes with less-experienced and inexperienced teachers.

Bonnie Yelverton's picture
Bonnie Yelverton
5 years after credentialling still difficulties finding Science job in Southern California's San Bernardino area

About 3 years ago I kept hearing that there was a need for math and science teachers, so it would be a great idea to get a teaching credential instead of retiring. Which I did - to a tune of student loans of about $55,000. But even though I have previous teaching experience and am credentialed in math, bio,chem and physics, I am not called for interviews, and don't get jobs I've interviewed for. I know there is a lot of competition, but I have heard of principals who say they don't want any baby-boomer teachers. Now I'm going to try being a sub, but that isn't nearly as satisfying as figuring out a new way to facilitate student learning, which I really enjoyed while I was getting my credential.

Andrea Fotografia's picture

Just my anecdotal 2 cents: I have two children diagnosed with learning disabilities and ADHD. One has been diagnosed with Tourette's while the other has an autoimmune disorder. In elementary school? I found that the new teachers worked best with my kids and worked hardest to keep me informed and part of my childrens' educational team, while the "older" teachers tended to ascribe my sons' very-legitimate learning disabilities and developmental delays to "parenting issues," "laziness" or "choice."

Now that my children (both with IEPs, both college-tracked, both now-flourishing) are out of elementary school, the "old" teachers are my favorites. Some of my sons' classes have as many as 37 students in them (note: and my older son is placed in an inclusion that means 12 special education students mixed in with 25 gen. ed students under the eyes of one gen. ed. teacher and one special ed. teacher). With those numbers and that range of learning styles...well...I can't imagine how a new teacher would survive.

The "old" teachers that are effective are worth their weight in gold. But the "old" teachers that have given up learning themselves and are just putting in time until retirement can be absolutely toxic--and devastating to a family that is already struggling. I've dealt with both.

JoAnn Jacobs's picture

I am sixty-one years old and I am the Schools of the Future Project Lead for my school. I experiment with technology and find a way to work it into the curriculum. I love what I do and would be bored to death if I weren't continually tinkering with something. I am also active on Twitter and enjoy learning from/with my PLN. I am pushing the envelop with teachers far younger than me for the future of our students. I am vested in that future and intend to do all that I can until I am feel I can do no more.

Pernille Ripp's picture
Pernille Ripp
Fifth grade teacher in Middleton, Wisconsin

Hello everyone,
Thank you so much for sharing your stories and your thoughts on this subject. As a newer teacher, I felt compelled to write the piece because I see how it is directly affecting the district I work for. We are losing experience every year. I particularly loved the "mom" comment; I agree, there are phenomenal new teachers and older teachers, we simply cannot let something as age determine how we think a teacher will do.

Chris McLean's picture
Chris McLean
Instructional Coach in a southern middle school

Maybe what all educators need to do is to take back education. We've become a plaything of politicians and ill-informed talking heads. The public at large is quick to jump on the bandwagon of finding fault with teachers, education and our educational system. I'm a career teacher, and have fought against the beliefs that some of my school level administrators have held about veteran teachers. They seem so much like the attitudes of many of the interns I had, in that they disrespect knowledge and experience in light of the newest theories. I have always seen it as my job as an educator to EDUCATE, whether it be my students, their parents, colleagues, administrators or the public. I work to stay on top of what's happening in my profession, but experience has given me a filter that the new teachers and administrators don't have. If they stay, one day they'll be the veterans, too.

Eva OMara's picture

I am an aging administrator who is considered to be a high performer in a high performing school and a high performing district. In fact, I am the senior member among our three elementary school buildings and have served as the team leader (informally, of course) for some time.I have been the administrator who initiated PLC's, PBIS and the RtI processes in my school before anyone else in the district thought that any of them were worthwhile.Being a former visual arts and Humanities teacher, I do tend to think outside the box and I think my staff will tell you that we have all benefited by that creative thinking.
When it comes to professional development, my younger colleagues are always tapped because I am certain, it is felt that the district will get a greater bang for their buck by letting the newer administrators participate.I love my job. I am excellent at it and have served in administration for over 10 years, both at the high school level as well as the elementary level. I am not retiring and plan to work another 10 years, at the least.I guess it comes down to bottom lining in education. I am marginalized because I am more expensive and everyone knows that cheaper is better and experience equals old.

Susan's picture

Oh, Bonnie--the same thing is happening to me right now in Missouri! (Congratulations on getting a job since you last posted, by the way!)

I am a 55-year-old former newspaper reporter (if a journalist at heart ever IS "former), and I have years of teaching experience on the college level, most of it as an adjunct while I was raising my three children and caring for my mother. I have a bachelor's degree in journalism from one of the best journalism schools in the United States, a master's degree in English from a good state university, and plenty of college teaching experience. I'm a pretty nice person with a good sense of humor, I'm young at heart and really like teenagers, and I am not at all a stick in the mud. I'm even tech-savvy--I have four years of online teaching experience, for heaven's sake, but the university I've taught for has been undergoing a lot of budget cuts in recent years, so no full-time jobs there. Yet after three years in a teacher education program, including more than thirty credit hours, two practicums, and one student teaching experience, I have yet to be called for an interview--and I have applied for at least seven or eight teaching jobs since the spring. My GPA is great, my references are great, and I'm not even falling apart at the seams (yet). Heck, I'm doing a Couch to 5K here . . . .

All I wanted was the make a difference for students, and to make a difference in one school, finally, and I thought getting certified sounded like more fun than getting a Ph.D. that might not even lead to a job. Like you, I also was under the impression that I might actually be WELCOMED into the teaching profession at this advanced age. Now I'm thinking I just bought into a myth, that older teachers really AREN'T wanted in the public schools. I should have gotten a clue from the way a few younger teachers interacted with me during my student teaching experience, I guess. I feel like stopping middle-aged people headed into the education classes at local universities and saying, "Hold on! It's not like you think! Take off your rose-colored glasses and stop watching 'Stand and Deliver'!"

I hear you about subbing: I did some of that last year. I will probably sub this fall again if I don't find a teaching job--and if I don't find one pretty soon, I'll probably just let go of my do-gooder urge to help kids become better readers and writers and head back to print journalism, where no one cares about a few wrinkles. But what am I saying? The principals at the schools where I've applied don't even know what I look like, since applications are all submitted online. It's not as if applicants can get dressed up and go to schools to hand over resumes anymore.

At any rate, the job search so far is depressing. I thought I had a lot to offer secondary students. Evidently, I've been living in la-la land. Local school districts want a different kind of teacher, probably one who doesn't remember when John Lennon was shot or when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

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