Jeb Bush is 62. Hillary Clinton is 67. Donald Trump is 69 and Bernie Sanders is 73. If these individuals were teaching in a public school, and not famous politicians, what would you bet that they’d still be working?
How many older teachers do you know who are still teaching? While there is much gnashing of teeth in the news about a teacher shortage, I don’t see any effort to bring elderly teachers back to the classroom. And by elderly I’d start at age forty (no, I don’t think 40 is old but they do!). Instead, they’d rather put someone in charge of a class who hasn’t earned credentials!
Older teachers face the “do not apply” signs wherever they go. For years, efforts have been underway to get rid of veteran teachers through faulty teaching evaluations, the elimination of tenure, school closures and outrageous early retirement plans. This phenomenon appears to be happening in many places.
In 2013, The Guardian’s anonymous “Secret Teacher” column titled “There’s an Insidious Prejudice Against Older Teachers” describes a veteran teacher’s unsettling fear that Teach First, which sounds eerily like England’s version of Teach for America, was being highlighted as the answer to education problems—older teachers were cast as culprits.
We often seem to be unfairly perceived as unmalleable or even as troublemakers, instead of as a rich asset. Over the last 18 months, a tsunami of change driven by fear seems to have invisibly swept over many schools and classrooms. Mistakes in some schools are not tolerated and have frightening repercussions. These days I am increasingly less able to put on my smiling mask and carry out my job confidently. And although I am far from overpaid, I am more expensive that a young, inexperienced teacher. With the onset of performance-related pay, I sense this is about to change dramatically.
Today’s education reformers don’t want teachers who cost more, or who speak their mind about untested curriculum changes, who bitch about Common Core State Standards, high-stakes testing or crummy student treatment. They sure don’t want an elementary teacher who demands recess! Or, a high school teacher who remembers free advanced classes that didn’t rely on AP as a convoluted way to make money for the College Board!
They don’t want teachers who will point to troubling outside corporate influence by those who are not teachers. In America, that would include people like Microsoft’s Bill Gates (59) or business entrepreneur Eli Broad (82).
Do you remember being taught by older teachers? I do. In first grade, my young teacher co-taught with a white-haired jolly old gal—a school grandmother type. She taught reading like a pro, and she had spunk! A story circulated that as she watched TV at home one night, she looked down to see a snake slithering across the floor. She waited until her TV program was over before she got up to catch it and throw it outside! Nothing would shake her…nothing! Children need that kind of rock to lean on. She read to us lovingly and showed funny movies on an old film projector that only she seemed to know how to fix. I will never forget her and always love her.
My kindergarten class was a half day, and while that teacher was not old then, she was older eleven years later when she called me on the phone–quite the surprise. She knew I was a majorette in the high school band and thinking about becoming a teacher. She had a little boy in her class with motor coordination problems. He wanted to be a drum major. She asked if I could come to the school a couple of afternoons during the week to march with the child around the cafeteria. I was honored she remembered me after all those years, and I developed much self-confidence working with that little boy. I will always…always love her too!
These teacher experiences create a bond between students that can last a lifetime. Teachers who choose teaching as a profession and who want to be there for students—always—are critical. Students deserve to experience good teachers of all ages. But older teachers have been targeted for years. Even if they hang in there, most are not respected as they deserve.
Their voices are ignored. Their valuable experience cast off. How often do they get to do original planning these days? How often do they have to put up with scripted, commercialized material foisted into their classrooms?
In some places, veteran teachers are leaving the profession. While that is sad, it is understandable. In other places older teachers are fighting for their right to teach and be appreciated. Here are some cases:
- Sheri G. Lederman, a highly regarded, 17 year veteran fourth grade educator, with a flawless record, is suing past education commissioner John King and the State of New York due to being rated “ineffective” because of her “value-added modeling” (VAM) ratings. Valerie Strauss of the Answer Sheet explains more detail about this here. It is a case highly watched by educators and parents across the country. VAM is being challenged in many places. One must question whether it is a tool to get rid of older teachers.
- Madeleyn Dimitracopolous, 72, who taught English at Flushing High School, also in New York, claimed to have been given unsatisfactory VAM ratings to force her into retirement. Judge Jack Weinstein, 92, threw out some of the claims but acknowledged a “crisis being played out in schools.” The case moves forward.
- In Denver, Cynthia Masters, 55, still loved teaching, especially in high-needs’ schools and in special education. One would think she would be a dream come true for a school district when you read about the so-called shortages in these areas. But in 2012, Masters was put on indefinite unpaid leave. Senate Bill 191, introduced by Michael Johnston, a Denver Democrat became a state law designed for “reduction in buildings” or RIB for short. Getting RIBed means that teachers like Cynthia could lose their jobs for a variety of reasons, including school closures. Here is a more detailed rundown of this method that includes evaluations as a part of the process too.
- In 2012, the NEA described several EEOC charges on behalf of teachers in Arizona, North Carolina, and Oklahoma. There have been many questionable early retirement plans pushed on older teachers, while providing “economic benefits to younger employees.” But remember. Many young teachers are from fast-track programs and see teaching as temporary. They will leave as soon as the job of their dreams comes along (often an education administration position).
Today’s teaching workforce is built upon the desire on the part of education reformers to have transitory teachers. Here today, gone tomorrow! That is the way to keep costs down and teachers aligned to curriculum changes and charter school control.
They will not build teachers who commit to students in a long-term career, who will strive to remain in teaching and do what is right and good to help students learn.
And when students get older they won’t have any teachers to go back to visit. The older teachers just won’t be there.