Experience Is a Teacher–Let Us Learn

In a recent post, I portray experience as an unequivocally good thing, representing adeptness, strength and style. And why wouldn’t it be?  Meanwhile, in many of today’s narratives about education, a premium seems to be placed on younger teachers with “fresh ideas.”  This is a bit of a cliché that is often used to gently conjure up an opposing stereotype: the experienced, older, out-of-touch and burnt out teacher (Beulleranyone?). While there have always been teachers who live up to each of these stereotypes, I think the binary opposition they represent is fading these days.

Recently, I wrote about the value of experience, in a world where we seem to have access to so much so quickly—the difference between feeling like you could do something if you tried, and actually being experienced at it.  In this post, I portray experience as an unequivocally good thing, representing adeptness, strength and style. And why wouldn’t it be?

Meanwhile, in many of today’s narratives about education, a premium seems to be placed on younger teachers with “fresh ideas.”  This is a bit of a cliché that is often used to gently conjure up an opposing stereotype: the experienced, older, out-of-touch and burnt out teacher (Beulleranyone?). While there have always been teachers who live up to each of these stereotypes, I think the binary opposition they represent is fading these days.  Urban schools are flooded with new teachers, who often (and understandably) experience burnout as they take on too much too quickly, and find they are not necessarily as in touch with students’ needs as they expect to be (depending on the amount of prior experience they have with the age group or specific population of students).  More experienced teachers often hold down the forts at their schools and are often the ones students turn to for support.  (I’m now drawing a counter-stereotype, which also has exceptions.)

Beyond these teacher archetypes, I’d like to ask the question, is experience necessarily a good thing?  Can it be a bad thing?  And, can you be experienced and “fresh” at the same time?

Experience as a concept is probably neither good nor bad, but it has the potential to be a teacher. Experience should be a teacher.  As long as we reflect on and learn from our experiences, experience is a good thing. With practice and critical thinking we learn to be better and better at what we seek to do—teaching, for example.

Teachers who continually learn from each experience will be prompted to try new things in response to new questions that come with each group of students and changing times.  This is how we remain fresh.

Critical thinking, then, is the key to learning from our experiences, so that becoming experienced is a good thing.  I find the website criticalthinking.org and these stages of critical thinking described there to be a fascinating and helpful framework for understanding critical thinking, both personally, and as a teacher and learner.

Schools need to create space for teachers to reflect critically on their classroom practices and make decisions in response.  Otherwise, we are setting teachers on a path that won’t lead to mastery.  Teachers also need to claim this process as our right.  Jose Vilson just wrote this great post, describing a conflict he experienced between his own critical thinking in response to his students’ needs and the decisions about best practices that had been made by others and had become tradition at his school.  He “put his foot down” and claimed his right to learn from experience and try something fresh.

[image credit: Boetter]

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  • JonHanbury

    new tricks for old dogs


    i appreciate your take on experience.  as one with many years under my belt, i have been in a situation in which a supervisor suggested that i retire!  “don’t you think it’s time to step aside for the younger generation?”  after the initial shock of the suggestion — and deflecting the instant tears — i stood my ground and i continue to affect change in my two elementary schools.  

    i have a colleague who shared a study on the different phases of a teacher’s career; i was offended by the concept that someone would stereotype our professional in such a linear manner.  as she described the various characteristics of each stage, i found myself thinking of the teachers in my building who exhibited the traits; in my study, age or experience were not a factor.

    i believe that mindset plays more into one’s practice than does age or experience.  i have worked with novice educators who are more fixed in their thoughts than my veteran teachers and as a result, there is little growth on the young teacher’s part.  the notion of “life long learner” is key — but it must be practiced, not just preached.  with that said, i am embarking this year in a course entitled “the reflective teacher” in which we are using marzano’s 41 key indicators of the effective teacher and reflecting upon our practice.  it’s a daunting experience and one that will require that i become public in my teaching.  but i want to continue to grow in my practice so to me it’s necessary.

    thanks, ariel, for opening up the dialogue.  i look forward to hearing from others.

  • ArielSacks

    Fresh vs. Fixed thinking

    Jon, thank you for your perspective here. I think you hit on something when you described that (despite some stereotypes out there) you’ve met novice teachers who are more fixed in their thoughts on teaching than some veterans. In other words, growing as a teacher requires reflection and flexibility in one’s thinking. This skill or attribute is tied neither to experience nor inexperience.  At the same time, experience teaches us many things if we have the will and ability to pay attention to the lessons and take risks in response. I think that when one is reflective and has some courage to take risks, then experience becomes a great asset.

    I think the picture gets more complicated when some structures in our system seem to discourage flexible thinking–in some ways more than before with the emphasis on testing outcomes.  Who is most vulnerable to becoming rigid thinkers?


  • ReneeMoore

    Beyond Stereotypes

    Thank you for this discussion Ariel.  I also appreciate Jon’s observations. I’ve been in that same position (a supervisor urging me to retire); although, I knew the real reason behind the request was not a yearning for “fresh young thinking” but a very real desire to get this rabble-rousing, outspoken defender of students and teachers out of her way.

    It is important for all of us, though, to learn to look past stereotypes in all areas of our lives and society. Among teachers, it is important to look at each other the way we should look at our students: learning each other as individuals and looking for strengths first. Where can we learn from and support each other.  I like what Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach says about teachers needing to be learners first. Taking that stance tends to make us less judgmental and defensive towards each other or our students. 

  • Paul T. Corrigan

    Experience Is Neutral

    I’ve been thinking lately about the role of expereince in improving as a teacher. I think that there’s nothing that can substitute for experience. I began teaching already knowing a good bit about teaching and learning from having studied it. But it took a while and a bit of experience to be able to put into practice what I knew. My inexperience certainly worked “against” me.

    On the other hand, I’ve known teachers who have emmense amounts of experience but were not good teachers, knew little or nothing about teaching and learning. My guess is that they were teaching the same way that they had been teaching for decades.

    Unless we critically reflect on our experience and do so in the context of other people’s expereince (whether through conversation or reading), we can get stuck in all of the problems of anecdotal evidence (confirmation bias, etc.). 

    So I’m feeling that experience is neutral. It can help and it can not help. But it’s not really neutral, since some things cannot be accomplished without it.

    It seems telling to me that in Ken Bain’s study of “the best college teachers,” none of the teachers he identified as among the best had less than five years of experience. Most of them had ten, fifteen, twenty or more.

    I am thinking now that the two biggest and most common dangers surrounding “experience” are to think that it suffices and to think that it doesn’t matter. We cannot grow more effective as teachers without experience. We do not automatically become effective teachers because of expereince.

    Anyway, I appreciate this post and the other comments.

    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

  • Pat

    Experienced Veteran

    This topic is touchy to those of us who have been in the profession a long time.

    I am heading into my 37th year of teaching. Throughout those years, I have obtained two masters degrees, one of which was in Administration. Just this last year, our assistant principal position came open. I was told by my Principal, that he doubted I stood a chance, having been in the building too long! It took me back, and after thinking it through, I decided I would not apply. Consequently, the pool of candidates fizzled, and we are now with a second year teacher-assistant principal. I was on the interview committee, and saw the politics coming down. I will support him, of course, but I am curious how our faculty will receive him.

    As far as experience, I have always been open to new ideas and concepts, loving what I do, and loving the kids. I certainly agree that you can become stagnant, and out of touch, but only if you let yourself become that way. I see new and younger teachers who are great, and I see some who are entitled and only “do what they have to do…”. I really haven’t seen too many seasoned teachers, who are affective, not adapt and try new ideas. In addition, this new administrator will be about my 16th administrator I have seen come and go in our building!! Yes, you are reading that correctly.

    Good teachers are always learning and reflecting.

  • Sally

    Get to the roots…

    While I think this is an interesting and incredibly relevant discussion for all of us to have as we wonder how the powers that be will remake our education system in their own image, I think the root problem with teachers and progress has little to do with experience level. In the end, we are training and educating teachers to look at, discern, teach, and express themselves in a certain way. The degree programs for education have changed very litte – as have the professors teaching them by the way. What’s happening is that they – professors, universities, certification programs, classes – are not mirroring our modern society with all that this encompasses. Bringing technology into the classroom isn’t enough. Trying to meld a variety of teaching modalities and old worn out schools of thought to create something derivative that’s labeled as “new”, isn’t enough.

    What we need is to understand how our mind’s and lives have been progressively rewired to communicate and learn in new ways. Our world-centric culture, it’s no longer about your tribe or your state or your country – needs to be reflected in the college classroom and any certifications and follow up meetings and conferences that existing teachers attend. There are some teachers in schools that just won’t get it, and honestly, won’t want to get it. That does NOT make them redundant. They have strengths and passions just like anyone else. But in a factory model educational system, how in the world would you even begin to assess and then USE someone’s existing strengths and passions?

    I came upon a school (private no less) in Princeton New Jersey where the director had told me they’d discovered that if they had their elementary students go to certain specialty teachers for specific subjects the kids learned better and the teachers taught better. What an interesting idea? To look at the human being – both teacher and student – as a person, rather than an object that must perform a certain task or be programmed in a certain way? Novel, indeed.


  • Ann V Deaton

    Certainty versus Openness


    I really enjoyed your blog and it even inspired me to write a blog of my own this morning. Sometimes dialogues quickly deteriorate into debates, with the goal being to “win” with the best argument and data. I appreciate how this dialogue seems to be creating an expanded understanding of the challenges as a variety of readers weigh in with their own perspectives. Beautiful!