Behind the Attacks on Seniority





              Readers of my blog are familiar with my current obsession with the unexamined assumptions in much of the anti-teacher, anti-public employee rhetoric these days.   The one that is irking me most lately is most obnoxiously expressed in the TV and radio spots that have young New York City teachers demanding layoffs be made on the basis of merit rather than seniority.  Each of these teachers wholeheartedly believes that in a “merit” system they would remain while the older dead wood would be cut.   

            Implicit in almost all of the anti-seniority rhetoric is a subtle ageism.  The viewer or listener is encouraged to respond reflexively that of course younger teachers are more energetic and therefore better.  The message plays off the stereotype of the old, “burnt-out” teacher who drones on as students at best escape into a dream world, at worst into chaos that the bumbling teacher either doesn’t realize or could care less about.  We’ve all seen this character in dozens of movies.  Much to my annoyance, the role is almost always for an English teacher.  

            Yet, when I examine my experience working in a public school system for thirty-five years, in almost every way, I was a better teacher when I left the classroom than when I began.  I believe that to be a true statement of almost all of the people I worked with over those years. Experience makes one a better classroom manager who uses time more effectively and controls student behavior better.  Then, one simply learns so much more about one’s subject and how to teach it, both of which more than compensate for failing energy.  But even here, experience allows one to compensate.  At the start of my career I felt obliged to stand as I taught, often having the sense that if I sat down I would suddenly be faced by an uncontrollable mob.  With experience and probably as a result of less energy, I sat much more, able as I was to get every eye on me just by clearing my throat in a particular way.   It’s a damned peculiar idea found only in discussions of teaching that so many believe that younger must be better.  Did you ever have a conversation with someone who said, “I’m going to have a very serious operation.  I was lucky to find a young surgeon who has done a few of them”?    

            If there is as I believe an ageist bias beneath all the talk of layoff on the basis of merit, are we not justified in our concern for how merit will be interpreted?  We know that we are shortly to be judged on the basis of our students’ scores on standardized tests which we also know don’t tell us very much about the worth of the teacher who taught them in the year of the exam.  How many supervisors in today’s schools wouldn’t prefer to have young, less costly, more compliant subordinates than more experienced, more union oriented teacher with well developed skills for fending off much of the administrative bull that impedes the work of teachers?  Is there not a good chance that in this youth crazy society the less senior teacher is judged superior to the older, less energetic one?  Deep down, even the less experienced teachers have seen enough of the education bureaucracy to know that favoritism abounds.  If we are really honest, we all know teachers who were dogs for one administrator and master teachers for another.   How then is it seen as reasonable to destroy the only system free of bias, the seniority system.      

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