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Geezer Teachers

It went by so fast on my Twitter feed this morning that I can't even remember whose tweet it was--but the gist was this: "Career teachers" are becoming a thing of the past. Ouch.

Is that true? Certainly seems so, if the modal number of years' teaching experience in public schools is one-point-something.

In 1987-'88, the most common level of experience among the nation's 3 million K-12 public school teachers was 14 years in the classroom. By 2007-'08, students were most likely to encounter a teacher with just one or two years of experience.

So what happened? How did we get so many new teachers and what happened to the old ones? And when did spending a couple of decades or more in the classroom become an anachronism--even objectionable?

Consider:

• Retired teachers in some states are now prohibited by law from taking positions as consultants and even substitute teachers. When I noted in a virtual conversation that experienced veterans could potentially share hard-won expertise as mentors or teacher evaluators, a teacher shot back an irritated comment about having to worry about "burned-out ex-teachers" going after a job that should belong to her.

• In another online conversation about setting a climate of respect and order in a school building, I suggested that such a tone was built over time in my school. Having a relatively stable staff with shared values (as opposed to the teacher churn common in many locations) makes it easier to establish and sustain a school's culture. There are multiple kind-but-firm authority figures hanging out in the hallways, a sense of "this is the way we do things." Building-wide traditions around organization and consideration. These things were taken for granted by students who had been in the district for several years, but the first thing new students said was "this school's like a prison"--until they learned to fit in.

Said Robert Pondiscio:

"I think [this is] one of the most under-discussed elements of ed reform. When I was a kid, I was in the same building from K-6, and I doubt there were half a dozen staff changes in that time. In the eyes of a little kid, those teachers were giants. You knew their names and their reputations for years before you showed up on their grades. It lent a tone of stability and respect that in retrospect was probably essential."

This isn't mere nostalgia for the way school used to be--situated in defined neighborhoods, a staging ground for community values on education. It's about the value of experience. While I know that some teachers limp into retirement, there are also folks whose teaching work is constantly fine-tuned, teachers who are loving their third decade as much as their first years in the classroom. Isn't the ideal school staff a mix of unflappable veterans and energetic, starry-eyed newbies?

There is some genuine value in having teachers on staff who know that what goes around, comes around. Geezer teachers don't get excited about rhetoric before they understand what the actual impact will be on the work they do in the classroom or students they teach. I'm not referring to the pendulum swing of pedagogical theory--the "this too shall pass" syndrome--but the tendency of long-time practitioners not to panic when new directives descend, or buy into the threats or flatteries of policy-makers.

At the very least, veteran teachers wouldn't behave like the smug, select and self-congratulatory newbie teachers in this video, who resemble overgrown 8th graders still believing that they rule from cool kids' table.

While geezer teachers give a staff some ballast, they can become moribund without the energy of new teachers. In my last year of teaching, I was part of a remarkable K-4 staff, half of whom were first- and second-year teachers. It's a big responsibility as a brand-new first grade teacher to introduce children to literacy.

Once, in the lounge, the veteran reading specialist listened as Ms. First-Year enthused about how advanced her nascent readers were. After she left, the reading teacher said: You know, I've looked at the data. Her kids are doing OK, but they're not really ahead of the other first graders. I'd never say that to her, however. She'll figure out the data, eventually. But right now, every kid in her class is super-excited because they all think they're great readers. And that's worth a lot.

This geezer teacher agrees.

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