A great many teachers in their twenties are energetic idealists willing to put in extra hours and dedicate themselves to extracurricular activities. They are not long out of college so are aware of the latest theories in education, are digitally literate and eager to make their stamp on the profession. Prevailing wisdom is that young teachers need time to master the intricacies of classroom management and so are unlikely candidates for administrative positions in a school until later in their careers. But today, a teacher in his late twenties has proved more resilient and tested than any generation that has gone before. By the time he has taught for five years, 50% of his cohort will have quit teaching entirely. On top of that, teacher training and induction programmes for newly-qualified teachers (NQT) are less about being an innovator and more about learning to accept the status quo in a school.
When an NQT enters a school, if he is lucky, he is assigned a member of staff who will supervise his teaching and help him acclimatise to the daily demands of the classroom. Where there is a positive, engaged and risk-taking mentor teacher the NQT has a chance to hold on to his idealism and take risks in the classroom. However, too often mentor teachers are themselves jaded or insecure and pass on that malaise to their NQT. These are usually the ones who have no planning documents to show as evidence that they actually teach and say daft things like “Don’t smile until Christmas” or “That’s the way we do it here” as a means of justifying their having done the bare minimum. Where the latter type of mentor teacher outnumbers the former, even the most energetic NQT is sure to grow disillusioned and choose either to leave the profession or conform.
Therefore, any teacher who has survived in the profession into his late twenties with his idealism in place and still with innovative ideas most certainly deserves a fair crack at an administrative position. Too often these teachers are rejected out of hand as being too young and their youthful energy dismissed as too intense or unpredictable. For example, I recently observed a young teacher in a school in Ulm, Germany, who had designed and led one of the best technology integration programmes I have ever seen in a school. His students were highly engaged, motivated, did well in assessments and his numerous projects raised the profile of the school in the region. However, his efforts also bred some insecurity among other, less motivated, members of staff. Unfortunately, instead of putting him in an administrative position where he could mentor his colleagues, which he was interested in doing, his principal did not promote him because of age and thus the insecurity of those same colleagues was encouraged to develop into jealousy. He eventually had to leave the school to pursue his career. This teacher was discriminated against chiefly because of his age.
However, even where there is the appearance of placing trust in young teachers by administration it is often exploitative. In another elementary school I observed a twenty-five year old teacher who was heavily involved in managing the school’s self-study for an external accreditation. He managed the process over two years and when the time came the school passed the accreditation comfortably. In this time the teacher was called the chairman of the self-study committee and as soon as the school passed he simply returned to being a classroom teacher. After his exposure to a management position and success in it, he was not satisfied to return to the daily routine of the classroom and when next an administrative position arose, he applied – only to be rejected with a lack of “experience” being cited as the reason. What happened is that the young teacher was given a ceremonial title for the completion of an essential task but administration made it clear that they would not place any real trust in him by giving him a management position. This is common practice. I like to think of it as a form of professional vampirism; the older administrators sucking the energy and ideas from the young to their own benefit. “Leadership” roles in this sense are simply a means of harvesting everything a younger member of staff brings to a school and, like a trophy wife, once youth fades, they are tossed aside for a newer and younger teacher. Forget “leadership” roles. If we truly trust the young, give them administrative roles.
In this case, the teacher who was given the administrative position above the younger teacher had no significant history of project management, he did not have outstanding administrative skills and he had not made significant contributions outside of the classroom during his time as a teacher. Had the appointment been made on the contribution of the teachers to the wider school demonstrating evidence of administrative skill, the younger teacher would have been given the position. This was not a meritocracy however; the truth is that the longer-serving teacher got the position because he was “the next in line”. Before long, the young teacher had also left the school in search of opportunities elsewhere. The problem, of course, is that too often in schools “experience” is defined as the number of years someone spends in the classroom rather than what they have achieved in that time that relates to the specifics of the position. And yet, a good classroom teacher does not automatically equal a good administrator. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, it is not the years in the classroom that count but the visible outcomes of those years. Most likely those who are “next in line” are there because they are better known to the principal and are seen as a “safe pair of hands”. They will have a reputation for stability and, more importantly, they know “how we do things here”. That is largely the reason that so many schools are little different today to how they were a century ago. By institutionalising a gerontocracy, there is no chance for new ideas and pedagogies to become mainstream practice in a school.
Were administrators courageous enough to put outstanding individuals in their late twenties and even early thirties into administrative positions they would make a powerful statement of intent. It would signal a commitment to energetic, innovative and progressive thinking. Rather than looking for a “safe pair of hands”, a good administrator would position himself in a supporting role for young administrators that have ambition and vision. He need only make sure to be there as a pastoral influence for when young idealists inevitably run into difficulties in making change happen. This way, administrators can produce leaders who are capable of revolutionising and sustaining a positive and dynamic school culture. At worst, these young leaders will also, over time, simply become a “safe pair of hands”. The truth is, unless we place real trust in young teachers by providing them with administrative positions in schools, we will remain beholden to the creed “that’s the way we have always done it here” and it is for good reason that there is no Irish proverb for that.
 “And in the end it is not the years in your life that count, it's the life in your years.”