Charles is a 2017 Teach First participant teaching English in West London. Earlier in his career he taught at independent and private schools, but has spent the last fifteen years in school management. While he isn’t completely new to teaching, he is Teach First’s oldest participant at age 60.
As the health, hearing and sight of your youth fade away in your 60s, is there a place in teaching, and indeed on a demanding scheme like Teach First, for older would-be teachers? Is it even possible to keep up with a 20-something new to the workplace who probably doesn’t have to go to bed by 10, can hold out for a whole double-lesson, and has heard of ‘Love Island’?
Well there is. Standing in a classroom in the midst of a successful lesson is one of the best feelings you can have. The satisfaction of helping a pupil across an academic hurdle is extraordinary. Mastering even a part of the complex craft of teaching is immensely rewarding. Watch any teacher come into the staff room after a lesson that went really well: it’s a wonderful thing to do at any age.
But it is also hugely demanding of time, energy, patience, knowledge, courage, and, let’s face it, finances. It’s not something to slip into if other things aren’t going well; and it’s no fun when it’s not going right. So why am I even here?
Three things stand out: the desire to wrestle with an elusive and complex craft; facing the challenge of moving into a wholly new world; and a wish, in my own personal way, to offer something against the inequality that is one of the shocking horrors of our modern world.
Whatever our age we still have a desire within us to take on a challenge
So what does a much older teacher have to offer? The first and most obvious thing to say is that you never teach alone: it is always as part of a community of pupils, teachers, parents, carers, support staff, and locals. So the older teacher is part of a jigsaw, and can offer some things and not others, like everyone else.
Much of that is wholly predictable: I have had the opportunity and good luck to read widely; I have seen the world change and cycle, and ideas and fashions come and go. Each age group does just see the world differently, and while I have very much to learn from pupils and younger colleagues, my age and experiences inevitably also mean that I have other viewpoints to add to the mix.
An older teacher can also, with care and luck, offer pupils stability. One of the best pieces of wisdom I have heard on Teach First so far is that just being there is one of a teacher’s most valuable qualities. An older teacher is more likely to be relatively fixed in place, by family ties and residence; and can help provide a crucial fixed point in pupils’ lives.
Finally, an older teacher can keep things in perspective. I’m no longer trying to prove anything except that I can do this new, exciting and difficult job well; I’m not after promotion; and if I haven’t learned humility yet it’s not for lack of pupils, colleagues and life trying to point me in the right direction.
There is lots to think about. Schools are physically draining, full of noise and movement and standing on your feet for hours until you can control classes well enough to teach sitting on the edge of desks.
Days are long. Contributing beyond the classroom is vital to success as a teacher, and the pressure to do so is ever-present. There is homework to mark and lessons to plan, art exhibitions and plays and recitals and parents’ evenings to attend. The pay is low at the start, especially if you have been on a management salary.
You really can’t see or hear as well as you could, and it does make classroom management harder. I used to join in pupils’ conversations from the other side of the room to give them a shock; now I can struggle to hear a quiet pupil asking a question at the front.
And what I’ve found is that everyone needs to think hard about teacher-training for older candidates, including Teach First. Training needs to be sharply-targeted. For instance older candidates are less used than recent graduates to the immediate processes of learning, but are wholly used to professional life and to understanding their brief fully. Their time is not open-ended. Ideas worth revisiting include shorter Summer Institute, more frequent and less lengthy training days, more differentiation between practical and pedagogic classes, and clearer identifications of needs. Schools should also be considering part-time placements: many superb older candidates could offer three or four days a week, but will have commitments with parents or grandchildren or other projects that prevent them teaching full-time.
Having said all this, there is an enormous resource of highly-educated and -trained older people out there, waiting to be shown that they can do this amazing thing. In our own ways, older teachers are as valuable as the young.
Ultimately whatever our age we still have a desire within us to take on a challenge and I can think of few better than teaching. For my own age group - it’s not just a case of better an old un’ than none; I’d say that the best schools and training programmes should be jumping at the chance of taking on the full age range, white hairs and headstands and all.