In Praise of Older, More Experienced Teachers

Back in the late 1980s, when I lived in a little town in rural Upstate New York called Spencer, I joined the local library board, eventually ending up through default becoming president of the board. We ran a dinky one-room library with a dedicated part-time librarian. The back of the library was piled with boxes of books that could not be shelved for lack of space. For years, the board had been trying to raise funds to expand the library, which was an adjunct to the local firehouse. After finally raising most of the cash needed through donations, we decided to approach the local Lions Club to ask for a check. Our vice president, Sharon Haefele, feisty co-owner of a little mom-and-pop cable TV operation in town, offered to make the pitch. She asked for $1000 of the proceeds of the next summer’s little annual Lions Club town picnic. The club president, a local businessman, replied, “What do we need a library for anyhow? I haven’t read a book in years!” Haefle’s response was memorable.

“I’m not surprised to hear you say that Tom,” she said, “but I am surprised to hear you say it in public.”

Let’s face it. Among the business and political elite, education, and anything connected to learning, like a library, is not valued. At best it is viewed as a way to train docile workers, and to regiment children into conformity.

In fact when it comes to education, the popular thing today in American politics is trashing experienced teachers.

Politicians like Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin (who never finished college), Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, and myriad members of the House and Senate who were at best B students in high school and in many cases worse, are saying the key to educational “reform” is ending tenure and seniority so that older teachers can be trashed in mid-career to be replaced by supposedly high-performing young replacements.

What they’re not saying is that this is really not about performance, or teaching kids, it’s about money. Older teachers are more expensive, because they’ve earned raises over the years. Younger teachers are paid introductory-level poverty wages, and that will help these politicians who are cutting taxes at the federal and state level survive the wrath of citizens who suddenly find that they have to finance their and their neighbors’ kids’ education with local property taxes.

Our town of Upper Dublin, for example, in southeastern Pennsylvania, just learned that the cuts in state aid to local schools will mean the district, with a population of 26,000, has to come up with another whopping $1 million a year to cover teacher salaries. All of that will require a hefty rise in the local property tax, which is already a staggering burden. (State and federal tax cuts for education are not really tax cuts. They are simply tax shifts, from the federal and state to the local level.) Any tax cut at the state level, if there even is one, will be less than this amount.

But I am not so interested here in the political three-card monte scheme of state and national politicians as I am in the argument that they are making to support it: that older teachers are “dead wood,” and that what is needed is “new blood” in our schools.

As I look back over my 12 years of public school education, I can see clearly that most of my best teachers were the older veterans. Certainly there were a few real gems who were relatively new to teaching, like Mary Yamin, my senior-year calculus teacher. But on balance the best by far were the older veterans.

Al Frankel, our history teacher, was middle-aged by the time I had him for American History. Gray-haired and slow moving as he was, he made that often dry-as-bones subject come alive. It must not have been easy either. Our history text was an abomination, glossing over slavery, glossing over the genocide against native Americans, barely mentioning trade unions, and written in a prose designed to induce sleep. But Mr. Frankel gave us the straight dope about all those, and other, subjects. He even invited in a local folksinger from the University of Connecticut who sang about many of these issues for us.

Bernie Marlin, our World History teacher, also in mid-career when I had him, taught us about the brutal reality of America’smany wars, about the moral complexities of such events, and gave us outside readings that helped us get past the shortcomings of the approved textbooks. I owe him a special debt of gratitude because during my senior year, when I had him for a Humanities class, he had us each do a major research project on a topic that interested us. I was about to turn 18 and, as it was 1967, I was thinking about the draft and the Vietnam War. Mr. Marlin, whose views about the war I never learned because he kept them to himself, encouraged me to research the war. I was steered to everything from the New York Times to Paul Krassner’s The Realist. Learning about napalm, free-fire zones, and strategic hamlets, I became an opponent of the war midway through writing my paper, and when my birthday came in early April and I went to register with the Selective Service, I resolved on the spot that I would not participate in the war machine.

Hearing this, Mr. Marlin referred me to a fellow teacher in the adjacent junior high school, another older man by the name of Mr. Storrs, who had been a conscientious objector during the Korean War. He talked with me a lot to help me get my thoughts in order about my objection to the Vietnam War. In the end, I didn’t get CO status, because I told my draft board I was an athiest, and that it wasn’t violence per se that I opposed, but wars of conquest and imperialism. I told the boardmembers at my hearing that I would not fight in Vietnam, but that if my own country were attacked I would defend it. I added for good measure that if I were Vietnamese, I would hope I’d have the the courage to fight against America.

While they never told me what to think, I attribute that decision to become a war resister to what I learned from both teachers, Frankel and Marlin, about thinking for myself, and about how to do my own research.

My math teacher, Louise Brunell, was also an older woman, stern in class, but boy could she teach! She also drove a Corvette, and was quick to buy the first Stingray model when it came out. She told our class that anyone who got an A for the term could drive her new midnight-blue Ray (only up to third gear, though, with her riding shotgun). I made an A and got to drive it.

There were other teachers too. High on my list of the great ones was Sandy Taylor, a published poet and teacher of English. When school boards around the country were banning Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, he assigned it. He went on to assign us what was essentially a reading list of banned books. I can assure you there were very few kids in our class who didn’t do the reading homework each day. Sandy encouraged my poet brother Gary to pursue his writing at a time when other teachers were harassing him about his spelling and his congenital unwillingness to follow instructions. Sandy, who eventually left teaching and founded and edited a small publishing house, Curbstone Press, came to an event I did in my hometown for my book, The Case for Impeachment, though by that time, a life-long smoker, he was very sick with emphysema. He died shortly after that in 2007, but I was touched and impressed that after all those years, he bothered to drag himself out to hear an old student talk about a book.

And there was Mr. Malone, my eighth grade science teacher. Over the top of the blackboard in his class, he had tacked a black banner that read, in big white letters: “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” I don’t know if he believed that statement or not. He never told us. But I cannot tell you how many debates it stirred up among us students—debates that I have had as recently as a few years ago. His lively and always astounding science class so inspired me that when I first went off to college, it was with the goal of becoming an astronomer or astro-physicist, though my interests later shifted to Chinese language study.

And Mr. Nielson, my fourth grade teacher, who got us all passionately interested in science by using a chemistry unit to make plastique explosive (his demonstration was more dramatic than intended, when he made a little more of the stuff than he had planned, causing an ear-splitting blast when he placed it on an anvil and hit it with his hammer, producing a panic through the whole school).

At any rate, all this crap about older teachers being drones is simply bullshit.

Teaching is not some mechanical activity that someone right out of college can be just plugged into. It is a skill — one that is acquired through years of experience.

My daughter Ariel, a math teacher in a New York City high school, has pointed this out repeatedly. A terrific, extraordinarily dedicated teacher, she has been at it now for over five years, and she often talks about how much she has learned over the years about how to reach kids, how to manage and inspire a classroom of high-energy teenagers, and how to negotiate all the problems that arise almost every day.

There’s a reason why so many new teachers are short-timers, burning out after a year or two or three. It’s an incredibly hard job, and one that requires not just energy, but on-the- ground, hands-on experience.

The astonishing thing to me is that anyone with kids would buy this crap coming from the political class and the punditry that teachers are paid too much, and that administrators need a free hand to trash older teachers, who are presumed to be dead wood. Think about this for a minute. Would we want inexperienced mechanics working on our car brakes? Would we want new doctors fresh off their internships operating on our hearts, uteruses, prostates or brains? And do we complain if our car mechanic or our physician makes more than us? Of course not, and yet here we are talking about the 12 years that we hand our children over to a school to learn the basic skills needed for life—how to think, how to do math, how to understand their world—and we are willing to let novices do the job because we begrudge experienced teachers the salaries they are earning?

No offense to young teachers. Many are inspired and inspirational and do a great job. But even the best of them need mentors and examples to follow. They’re not going to get that from school administrators, who often have goals (like attending interminable meetings and filling out mind-numbing forms) that are antithetical to the actual task at hand of teaching children to think for themselves. New teachers need to learn on the job and to get help from more experienced colleagues.

If we take those colleagues and role models away from them, we don’t only hurt them, we hurt our kids.

And by the way, if we make it so that teachers can be dumped on the whim of administrators, even after 15 or 20 years of service, has anyone considered just what impact such an arbitrary Walmart-style environment will have on the kind of people who will make a commitment to become teachers in the first place?

Instead of trashing old teachers we should be celebrating them.

Instead of cutting education budgets we should be boosting them.