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Extra Credit: Are Older Teachers Too Jaded to Be Effective?

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

This is very useful information that I knew nothing about.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mail

By Washington Post Editors  | February 19, 2009; 10:07 AM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  
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Young administrators may not realize the state of "jadedness" may not arise from experiences with students, but rather with other adults -- perhaps administrators who put adult interests before the students, perhaps administrators who fail to realize significant ways in which they compromise learning opportunities.

I've often found these older "jaded" teachers the strongest advocates of the young once they think you've got those priorities.

Posted by: sallybkilgore | February 19, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

I must agree with sallybkilgore - "jaded" teachers are often the result of endless jerking around by management.

I am reminded of my Aunt, a long-time second grade teacher. Reading methods came and went in her class. New administration would tout the latest methods and materials. However, deep in her desk was a set of phonics worksheets.

She didn't bring those out to subvert management, she brought them out because her experience told her that some students weren't going to learn to read without that approach.

She sent me a phonics book written by her friend. In the forward the author wrote that this method worked as well in second grade as it did in juvenile hall. I cringed at the thought of kids who wouldn't get a chance to learn to read properly until they got to juvenile hall where some jaded and rejected teacher was bringing out what she knew would work to give those who had been failed a chance.

Any organization will have older employees who'd probably prefer to have moved on to other things but for one reason or another haven't.

To generalize about all older/experienced employees reflects more on the generalizer than on the employee.

Posted by: RedBird27 | February 19, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

The problem with this article is that it refuses to examine Washington, DC's public schools as they are in reality and instead people paint a false picture of them in their minds.

I guarantee you that not every post 50 year old teacher is jaded in DCPS. However, I will also say quite conclusively that all but two of the teachers I identified as a DCPS parent who were completely out of control as teachers were older than 50.

I do not believe that this has anything to do with their age. I believe this has everything to do with the administrators and mayor in charge when they were hired. Their age is coincidental and I fully expect that if I was a parent in 1989 I'd worship the teachers who were hired in the 1960s and curse the new young teachers who Barry got political crony jobs.

But please, no one from Fairfax County should comment on something they're so ignorant about- if they've never had a colleague tell a parent that they had a bad hangover from getting "Wasted" the night before then they simply don't understand the reality of DCPS teachers hired in the 1980s and early 90s. They need to keep their ignorant opinions to themselves, honestly.

Posted by: bbcrock | February 19, 2009 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Let me put this another way: When these older teachers were 18 were they of a generation who was snorting cocaine at discos every Saturday Night? Were they smoking love boat at Experience Unlimited shows in 1984? Then translate those personality-warping experiences 20-30 years later to someone who's in their 50s.

Posted by: bbcrock | February 19, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse

We have experienced some excellent teaching by teachers with as much as 30 years or more experience, and lousy teaching by young, perky teachers who lack the experience and patience to know how to work with kids in a variety of often challenging situations. Many of the older teachers had their childbearing and self-oriented phases behind them and could devote far more of their energy to their students. Conversely, some of the young teachers were more interested in dating and mating than really putting their students' interests first. As for young, enthusiastic teachers being the cure for what ails us: the rigors and bureaucracy of the DCPS system has been known to tame even the most idealistic young teacher after a pretty short time. Whatever the rhetoric, great teachers are usually well known in the system and I seriously doubt any of these will get chucked out due to their age. Michelle Rhee and Company will find out pretty quickly who the dead wood is, and this very well might be old as well as young teachers.

Posted by: kerlin4321 | February 19, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

I wholeheartedly agree with Barbara Bancroft Stein. I have always said that 825 is now full of youth, energy and even a new dress code.(non-professional) What it lacks is wisdom and experience and that has a terrible trickle down effect. The young and inexperienced will soon have nowhere to go but to the young and inexperienced at central. Department heads straight out of college, what do they know? They haven't had an opportunity to learn the job but they are the bosses now! Then you wonder why the only progress at this point is a 1% graduation increase! WOW! After two years and that is the only concrete data available?

Posted by: candycane1 | February 19, 2009 6:23 PM | Report abuse

I worked for 12 years in Fairfax and 5 in Maryland. After being thoroughly disillusioned by the draconian system of hushing up those with ideas - ie. experienced teachers who often have more knowledge than their administrators - I left for a dc charter school. My professional experience completely defies Mr. Matthews' supposition. Not only did I leave "one of the best school systems in America" because I believe that inner city youth can learn, but I believed that they could learn in an institution where children were treated as individuals, where building real relationships was possible, and where teacher ingenuity was encouraged. This doesn't sound like the kind of schools Mr. Betts or Michelle Rhee are promoting. Rather, experience teachers are punished because they have the saavy to question "the next best thing" in teaching.

Then again 50% percent of new teachers leave within the first five years. Where is their enthusiasm and resilience?

I am very experienced with the Mr. Betts' of the world. They would never think of treating their students with the kind of patronizing, demeaning tone that they use with their most knowledgeable teachers. In fact, after 19 years, I am more understanding, realistic, and hopeful then I ever was in my first 5 years.

Young teachers are hardly better, but they were educated during the No Child Left Behind era where individuality and critical thinking were hardly encouraged. They feel quite comfortable working in the same kind of monolithic system that they experienced as students.. they don't know any first. While I have watched several generations of these young teachers dropping by the wayside, it is the older teachers who have provided the consistent guidance and dedication to really make a difference in the lives of children. Sure, some more experienced teachers may be disillusioned, but I can guarantee that they are not leaving at the same rate as the younger teachers. That's because like me, they are hoping for a time when teaching to the person and not to the tests, will return. A renaissance of learning if you will.. if that isn't optimistic, I don't know what is!

Posted by: lk11 | February 19, 2009 7:15 PM | Report abuse

“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”

Being young and idealistic is great. I remember it well. I recommend it – I took full advantage of it, and now that I’m older, I see that there were, at times, people eager to take advantage of my youthful enthusiasm, and that I thought I could do much more than any one person ever could. No matter, it was fun trying. I learned a lot.

But it doesn’t make sense to build a system around exploiting youthful idealism, and staking a generation of children on the erroneous belief that all it takes is good teaching to make any child learn “at a high level.” As people mature, they become less grandiose and realize that there are many factors involved in a child’s ability to learn. As much as they would like to be completely responsible and take complete credit, experience and maturity tell them it is not possible. Older adults already learned that.

It’s completely irresponsible for them to lead young teachers to think that expressing such a view can make it so. It’s even more irresponsible – criminal even, to lay that on young teachers or their students, i.e., if I can’t teach you, giving it all I’ve got, then I’m a failure (or you’re hopeless).

Posted by: efavorite | February 19, 2009 8:16 PM | Report abuse

As a DCPS educator, I feel that to generalize about older teachers vs. younger teachers is biased and just plain ignorant. I have been in the system for 15 years and I am certainly not jaded. I know teachers on both ends of the age spectrum that are not effective. Too much time is being wasted on this so called debate, that is nothing more than a tactic that causes devisiveness among staff in schools. The implication that older teachers are not as effective as younger teachers because they rely on many tried and tested strategies, that are deemed old fashioned, is insulting. To assume that younger teachers have more passion when it comes to teaching is ridiculous. In any other field( medicine, law etc.) most of us would tend to gravitate toward the professional with more experience. Would the average person want to have a first year doctor performing a major surgical procedure or a seasoned professional ? I think most people would choose the latter.
Seasoned teachers have stayed in the system because of their dedication and committment to the students of DCPS. Many of them may not be as tech savvy as their younger collegues, and this should not be used as an opportunity to criticize, but to encourage collaboration among colleagues who are working toward a common goal. Many teachers who are entering the Education profession are not called to do so, but see an opportunity to earn a living until something else comes through, or because they were laid off. For those of us who were called to be educators, it demeans our profession and implies that anyone with a positive attitude can teach. It takes more than a postive attitude to teach students in an urban school system, such as DCPS. It takes courage, fortitude, planning, preparation, hard work, committment, sacrifice, and empathy to truly educate students who are abused, mistreated, disenfranchised, cast aside, kicked to the curb, and virtually ignored. It is only by the grace of God that those of us who are truly called to do this go back each day, to be light to so many students who are languishing in darkness. Let's stop insulting our seasoned teachers and giving too many props to inexperienced teachers and pool our collective expertise to raise the achievement levels of our students and provide them with the quality education that they deserve.

Posted by: teacher1231 | February 19, 2009 11:33 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you "leave it to scholars to ascertain whether their conclusions [about teacher mindset] match the research" while a huge experiment goes on in DC with our kids. Right now in DC, teachers are being hired and fired on the basis of mindset - literally saying the right or wrong words during interviews, with no research to back it up. I thought Michelle Rhee prided herself on being data driven? When you say "I know of no studies on this" I'm assuming that you looked and found none. Is that right?

Are we betting our whole school system on successful principals' agreement about teachers' level of hopefulness based on their age?

Do you support that approach?

Posted by: efavorite | February 20, 2009 4:56 AM | Report abuse

Dr. Charles "Buck" Offutt (who recently suffered a stroke) has been teaching at DeMatha Catholic High School for over 50 years, longer than Michelle Rhee has been alive and 17 times longer than she taught.

Posted by: edlharris | February 20, 2009 9:54 AM | Report abuse

This whole debate over how effective or "jaded" a teacher may be at a certain stage of their teaching experience is easily settled in a healthy and rational society. Experience matters in any job or mission. It's a good thing.

But this debate was started by Rhee and Betts for a whole other reason. You see when Michelle Rhee's mouth moves, Bill Gates and the neoliberals (privatize everything including public schools) are speaking.

This underhanded bunch wants only to drive down labor costs in the public schools. They front for what Wal-Mart, for instance, has achieved by moving just about its total productive and manufacturing capacity to China. They want the lowest possible wage for workers and the greatest possible profit for them.

The idea that you can make public schools better by turning them over to a cult like Teach For America and its corp of young white missionaries is so ridiculous on its face that one has to ask how it can find its way into the public discourse. But then you realize that the Washington Post and its KIPP loving education columnist are under neoliberal control too.

Paul Moore
26 years experience
Miami Carol City High School

Posted by: natturner | February 20, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Paul Moore makes an excellent point. If we can't tell whether newer teachers are more effective than older ones, however, we DO know that they cost half as much (or perhaps 40% when benefit costs are counted). Thus, it makes more sense to hire newer teachers and, hopefully, assess them during the non-tenure period and remove (or let leave) the ones who perform least well.

BTW, I'd bet that any three of us could sit in on a couple of classes per teacher (5 at most) and be able to provide pretty accurate assessments of which to keep and which to "counsel out". Then we wouldn't need to generalize about how valuable experience/years in the classroom is or is not.

Posted by: mct210 | February 21, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Ms. Rhee...respected older teachers when she was "learning to teach"? She was not an education major and only taught for a couple of years, right?
They want younger teachers so they can pay them less and because they are inexperienced, they are more easily managed.

Posted by: collage1 | February 21, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

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