At the chalkface: Old and in the way

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

Poor, young drones were drafted in to drill pupils through exams. They were cheap, efficient, obedient, professional, sharp-suited, apolitical and had no union.

There is a serious exodus of “older” teachers. 27? 30? Well, sometimes, but mostly 50-plus. They’ve either burned out, gone nuts or been gently or not so gently pushed. I was that soldier. I left at 60. So did many of my chums. I wanted to continue, but I was mugged by modernity. It still hurts.

I am a sixties relic. For many years teaching was the best – tough, thrilling, funny, never dull. You were always on teaching “practice”. You couldn’t go through the motions. The motions changed every moment of every day. Still, we controlled the syllabus and were trusted in the classroom. I was teaching the prince of subjects to fantastic pupils at their own speed. That would be about 1,500 hours – five years or even seven.

Learning was slow, gentle, erratic and incremental – with plenty of light-bulb moments of blazing insight. It was underpinned by terrifically complex theories of linguistics, semiotics, philosophy, politics and suss. The classroom was always a contested space and the texts were owned by no-one. Hence the thrills. Hence real learning. Sometimes we were the “enemy within”. We were in the middle of a maelstrom. We made howling mistakes. Still, amazing lessons frequently occurred.

This takes a long time to learn and cannot be taught.

Then the rot gradually set in. Was it 1988 with the National Curriculum? Or with New Labour? Or Ofsted? Probably the lot. The classroom and syllabus were taken back from us. Under the guise of accountability, an ubiquitous surveillance occurred. We endured CPD workshops with 20-something clowns speaking moon language to keep us modish.

Poor, young drones were drafted in to drill pupils through exams. They were cheap, efficient, obedient, professional, sharp-suited, apolitical and had no union. Meanwhile, we were inspected to bits and deemed old and in the way and culled. Some of the present exodus must be these young drones worked into the ground. Most are probably “older” like my generation.

It’s surely not good to have just young teachers. The children need all ages, all types. Lovely “older” teachers, otherworldly intellectuals, barmy boffins blowing things up with Bunsen burners, brilliant spellbinding philosophers, hilarious comedians, staffroom poets, media savvy types hip to post-modernism or city teachers who knew their pupils’ inner city lives – older teachers, like we had.

Well, they seem to be a luxury these days. Obsolete. The present corporate culture doesn’t get it. They’d better be careful. No-one’s going to want to teach anymore. The exodus continues. Now the young ones need to worry – the AI robot teachers will soon be here...

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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