Ageing in the classroom

As a feminised profession, many of our members experience the double edge sword of sexism and ageism. QTU activist and prep teacher Julie Streeter recently shared her own experiences with the AEU Federal Women’s Conference and was met by a chorus of support; women echoing her experience, nodding in recognition of what is a known, but often unspoken and unfortunate truth. This article is based on her presentation.

Ageism in the classroom and school environment – what does it mean? Having recently celebrated a significant birthday, Julie reported experiencing many negative comments, such as “When are you going to retire?”, “I guess you haven’t won Gold Lotto yet”, “How do you do it – haven’t you had enough by now?” and disturbingly, “Don’t you think you have had your chance and now it is the time to give a younger teacher a permanent position?”

Why do the over 60s continue to work? Well, with proven ability to teach and make a difference in students’ lives and to be an effective team player in their school environment, senior teachers know they still have loads to offer.

Many women have had broken service, through parenthood and forced resignation – while others entered the teaching profession later in life or are sole income earners for their families and find themselves with the financial need to continue working.However, for many, the reasons aren’t that simple.

Julie feels passionately that, having experienced insecure work, her permanent position is to be strongly valued. Having earnt this security and status, she feels that any pressure to “make way” for others is unfair and unjust – the decision to move onto the next stage is hers, and hers alone.

The treatment of older teachers in schools is varied. Some view their older colleagues as a source of experience and knowledge and happily use them as sounding boards or ideas banks. Others, however, view them as outdated (even though they teach the same curriculum as they do), living in the past and “past it”, failing to see that, like all teachers and humans generally, older teachers have strengths and weaknesses.

Some older teachers find that administrators view them as the next target for exit from their school. Teachers can feel that they are deliberately given undesirable classes, workloads and challenging students, all with the intent of “pushing” them out. Coupled with the reality that temporary teachers, often insecure in their tenuous employment, are hesitant to raise their professional voices in response to unreasonable or unfavourable requests, the “unreasonableness” of the older worker is often highlighted in a disparaging way.

Experienced teachers, who have lived through many incarnations and “reviews”, may become a little cynical. Eyes may roll and deep sighing may take place when:

  • they are told “research has found...” (they have heard this phrase many times)
  • they are told that all children have the capability to learn, regardless of their social or academic backgrounds of their families … (we know this is true, but give us true Gonski funding so we have a chance of bridging that gap, without digging into our own hip pockets and making ourselves sick in the process).

In conclusion, working brings with it the opportunity for social connectivity, the opportunity to make a difference in students’ lives and the opportunity to use and share the skills developed and the chance to develop new ones. Many senior teachers continue to work out of necessity, due to lack of superannuation and financial resources. Older workers need to be invested in - not victimised and stigmatised. They need to be treated with dignity as valuable members of their school community as the end of their working life approaches.

What experienced and older teachers tell us

  • Treat us like other members of staff - we have our strengths and weaknesses like everybody else.
  • We would not have entered the teaching profession if we did not believe in, and demonstrate, the concept of lifelong learning – we are the living epitome of this.
  • Let us learn from you and you can learn from us.
  • Don’t keep asking us when we are retiring – respect our privacy as a professional colleague. Be happy for us while we work and when we have decided to retire.

This article first appeared in the Queensland Teachers Journal November 2016

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