Are Older Teachers Too Jaded to Be Effective?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

I read the tribute to Michael and Virginia Spevak, a murdered couple, in the Dec. 1 Metro section, in which your column on the new principal at Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson ["New D.C. Principal, Hand-Picked Team Make Early Gains"] also appeared.

I was struck by a very troubling thought: If Mrs. Spevak retired from teaching in 2001, it would mean she was 60 years old at the time. Yet, according to the hiring criteria of Shaw Principal Brian Betts and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, this gifted, beloved teacher would have been labeled as "jaded" and too old to be of any use to students and the instructional process.

During my 30 years of teaching and serving as an assistant principal in Fairfax County, I found the best schools were those where the staffs were made up of a wide variety of ages, styles, personalities and backgrounds. You cannot possibly be so simple to believe that by excising veterans and hiring instructors all in their 20s, with fewer than five years' experience, you will automatically have a successful school with high scores, well-behaved kids and happy parents. Believe me, if it were that easy, it would have happened long ago.

Do you really believe that experienced teachers don't support, motivate and expect great results from their students? Does one have to be 25 and new to be excellent? Should there be a limit to the years one can teach? Is one jaded at 30, or 40?

Perhaps firings should be mandatory at a certain age, in which case, when does Mr. Betts, 41, think his jading will happen? He's really getting up there! I have known many 50- and 60-year-olds who exhibited energy and expertise far surpassing some of their decades-younger colleagues.

Age is not an ironclad predictor of performance in the classroom. The fact that two of the D.C. school system's leaders adhere to such an idea is troubling at best, terrifying at worst. What a lack of professional discernment.

I recently visited the Museum of the American Indian. One of the many noble customs that differentiated the tribes from the white settlers was the Native Americans' undying respect and devotion for the elderly in their midst and the ancestors who went before them. Not one activity or celebration or battle was begun without honoring the ancestors and thanking them for their struggles and wisdom.

There is an entity called a master teacher, and I have been fortunate to work with and for many of them. However, one does not attain this expertise and wisdom in one year or five. I will never forget those who shared with me, and I only hope that as I gained more time of service, I was able to return the favor to the many young teachers coming into the ranks.

I frankly could not imagine a building devoid of those fabulous seasoned instructors who seem to know exactly what to do and when and how to do it, who take pride in developing knowledge and expertise and sharing it. Those who are probably a lot like Ginny Spevak.

If this arrogant, know-all approach continues, I fear that the lofty goals set by the D.C. schools might fall on hard times. I wish Mr. Betts and his students nothing but the best, but if I should consider returning to the field, I will certainly be sure to skip his school. At 58, with 30 years' experience, I am sure to be far too "jaded" for his liking.

Barbara Bancroft Stein


Betts, the new principal at Shaw Middle School, did say he wanted a school full of ambitious, young teachers "before they were jaded." I did not interpret his remark the way you did, but your reading is a fair one.

In my interviews with him and Rhee, they made it clear that they do not dismiss older teachers as a group. Both have told me about older teachers who helped them when they were learning to teach. But they do share the view that in hiring teachers, younger and less experienced applicants more often than older teachers express the view that low-income children are capable of learning at a high level, if taught well.

I leave it to scholars to ascertain whether their conclusions match the research (I know of no studies on this), but the most successful inner-city principals I know agree with Betts and Rhee. Long experience in urban schools, for good reasons, tends to make teachers less hopeful that change is possible. Betts and Rhee say they want to raise expectations and energize teaching so that new teachers will have more of a chance to succeed.

Dear Extra Credit:

Gerald Mann suggests in your Dec. 4 column ["Betting Against a Big Drop in Graduation Rates"] that teachers should save paper by using an overhead projector for students, instead of making and distributing paper copies of tests.

Some students, those with deficiencies in far-point copying (not a vision problem, a neurological problem) will be better served by having a paper copy and, at the same time, the overhead projection. This also provides the student with a surface to make notes, work out problems, try out spellings, etc.

Even better, if the teacher reads through the material aloud before the beginning of the test, the students with reading difficulties have a better chance of showing what they know. (One in five students has a diagnosable reading disorder.) Saving paper is a good thing. Saving a student from failing is a better thing.

Claire Nissenbaum

Atlantic Seaboard Dyslexia Education Center


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