Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, and the bridges between the two…

Prudence is a rich, ugly, old maid courted by incapacity.”
William Blake, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’

Three framing anecdotes:

  • Hosting visiting Teach First trainees a few years back, I listened to them lap up the Year 8s explaining that teachers should “make things fun…  make it active…  not be too strict,” and felt that these trainees were falling into a trap I was beyond.
  • Writing a Department Development Plan for the first time, axioms of a former colleague, like “Never put anything in the DDP you weren’t going to do anyway,” made sense in a way they didn’t when I heard them.
  • Robert Sapolsky, on our changing tastes and attitudes: “On the average… if by age thirty-five, you haven’t listened to a particular kind of music and liked it…  there’s a 95% chance you never will.  That window of music novelty has closed by that age.”  The same is true of new food (sushi at thirty-nine) and piercings (tongue studs at thirty-three).  Later in life, even”creative” and “generative” minds resist new ideas; the more eminent and aged zoologists were when Darwin published, the less likely they were to embrace the revolution.  “This closing to novelty is something to resist.”

While the first two anecdotes may illustrate my views maturing or changing, the third worries me.  Turning thirty this year, in my seventh year in British schools, I’m far from experienced.  But I’m no longer a novice either: I’m both more critical and more likely to be asked for ‘wisdom’ by younger colleagues.  In schools, teachers with thirty-year gaps in experience may work alongside one another; at some cusp or other, I wonder: how can youth benefit from the lessons of experience?  How can veterans learn from new teachers?

To generalize is to be an idiot.”
William Blake, ‘Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses’

New teachers can bring schools energy, enthusiasm and fresh ideas.  I’ve seen friends and colleagues blind or heedless to reasons why things haven’t been done, can’t be done, or failed last time; less sensitive to the importance of sustaining themselves or the needs of dependants; willing to work every hour.  They may alienate colleagues, ignore sensible advice and burn out reinventing wheels, only to realise that the ‘old-fashioned’ practices of old lags are both simpler and more effective.  They may also achieve undreamt of success with ‘difficult’ groups or individuals.

Experienced teachers provide the true foundations of many schools.  They carry hard-earned nuggets of wisdom; after many years, they understand aspects of schools’ inner lives to which new teachers may be entirely oblivious.  Stiffer backs and a little more cynicism can inspire them to stand up for old traditions and values they’ve come to embrace.  Relationships formed over decades, with colleagues, students, parents and the community, provide apparently magical powers to smoothly negotiate complicated situations.  These years of experience may lead them to resist yet another new initiative, scorn ideas ‘Not Invented Here’ and come to see schools and students as not impervious to change.  They may also be the backbone of the school, providing continuity, expertise and solid dependability.

Opposition is true friendship”
William Blake, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’

A healthy school body is surely a mixed one.  I once asked a charter school principal how he could sustain this pressure of work (most teachers in every Sunday, for example), alongside family life.  “One of our teachers is having a child this year – and I guess that’s going to change things a lot,” he answered.  Such a school will struggle to hold onto experience; schools and chains willing to plan on teacher careers of four or five years will lack both experience and lasting community.  Equally, schools need the new ideas and energy of new faces.  One London academy head teacher once told me he thought a turnover of about 10% was ideal: he needed fresh blood and ideas each year.  I wonder if one might design a kind of optimal population pyramid for a school, distributing experience through the whole age range.

But although a school mixed in age is necessary, it is not sufficient to ensure young and old are learning from each other.  Early in my career, I was too often blind to the merits of some of the wisdom around me.  As one of the most experienced teachers now, how can I ensure I keep learning from new colleagues?

The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.”
William Blake, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’

1) Switch disciplines or fields.  Sapolsky notes the closing of our minds to new ideas is a function of age within a discipline, not chronological age.  A chemist who retrains as a biologist not only benefits from the expertise that implies, they are open to the cutting edge in their new field.  So perhaps teachers might be well advised to keep looking for unfamiliar roles, or switch between sectors within schools – primary and secondary, private and state, selective and not – or out of schools and back in.

2) Spend time with people of a different generation

This line, stolen from the wonderful book We are what we do, is probably the digested read version of this post.


John Tomsett’s interview with his most experienced colleague is perhaps a model for this: should this be a compulsory part of Initial Teacher Training, or induction on joining a school?

3) Challenge people of varied experience to work together.  Instead of buddying new teachers with those in their second or third year, why not link them with the oldest hand?  How about a similar approach when creating coaching triads or lesson study groups?

Who have you talked to today from a different generation?

How does your school nudge its young blood and its old lags to learn from one another?

Sapolsky’s research forms the final lecture of this twelve-part coursethis summarises his argument.

An inspiring book: Change the World for a Fiver: We are What We Do

We are What We Do’s Infographic on ‘The State of Inter-Generational relations today


4 responses to “Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, and the bridges between the two…

  1. Interesting & engaging post that forces me to reflect how I have slotted myself into the teaching community now that I’m entering my second year.
    I have had the great fortune to work in a department with an “old-hand” and a teacher one-year up the line from me. In a faculty with two deputy-heads and another at exactly the same stage as me. This real heady mix is at the heart of our success. That and an ability not to take ourselves too seriously, a willingness to embrace old & new ideas and crucially, setting aside time to learn from each other. Regardless of the mix of the department, that communal learning in small groups is a must, I would contend, for any department and faculty.

  2. Enjoyed this Harry. Before you mentioned John Tomsett I found myself thinking of his reference to ‘inter-generational learning’ and how important it is. If I’m honest, as a youngish deputy head, in particular, it took me a while fully to appreciate what our most experienced staff really had to offer. I tried not to make that mistake as a (youngish!) head.

  3. Really interesting. I have good chats with my parents (84 year old father, a pioneering science teacher in the 1960s, champion of excellence in comprehensives in the 1970s, author in the 1980s, and 75 year old mother, former English teacher and pastoral care genius). We often laugh (only to avoid crying) at how much of what is happening now compares with changes when they were starting out on teaching, with seldom a mention of education history, and even more rarely a well-informed or perceptive one.

    My mother was a victim of age discrimination late in her career, before it became illegal. “52 is too old to be a head”, many schools in her sector were saying. Now that we do have this legislation, it’s interesting that we have so few heads in, for example, their early 60s. Mr Galloway, head of my comprehensive in St Andrews in the 90s, was a towering sexagenarian who brought a deep and brooding wisdom to the school; I’ve seen brilliant heads almost half his age, increasingly so in the past few years, but none of them have had the air that your school was being presided over by Bertrand Russell …

  4. Harold – just a thought from me. I became a head at 42 but after 10 years in one school felt I was ready for a change – much as I loved it. I was the 8th head in my school (which had been founded in 1882) and the second head there in the early 20th century had done the job for 32 years…..

    I LOVED headship, but it is a much more demanding job now than it was even a few decades ago. Not sure it’s sustainable, for most people, into their 60s. I certainly didn’t feel it was for me.

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