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Reading and Writing and Dancing as Long as the Music Plays

An Experience with Age Discrimination

Recently Nancy Bailey has drawn attention to the issue of age discrimination against teachers as it relates to the almost national teacher shortage. Reading this blog, I was reminded of a situation I experienced in my own life and career.

To tell this story, I probably need to go back further than the event itself. Although I always wanted and planned to be a teacher, life intervened. Consequently, I didn’t get to start my teaching career until I was in my mid-fifties, when many people are looking to retire. Having received my state credentials, I found it very difficult to “break in.” I realize that having secondary history as my initial certification and not being able to coach put me in a difficult position to start with. At the time I didn’t think about my age being that much of a hindrance, but now I wonder.

Finally, a week before school started, I was hired by a school in deep East Texas–and hour and a half drive one way from my home–and I took it. I had to go back and get a Special Education endorsement, but I was fine with that. That started me on a ten-year career in Special Education and, for the most part, I loved it. The next year I was able to move to a school closer to my home–only a 35-minute drive–and stayed for eight years. However, this position required me to teach resource reading and English to Special Ed students in 6th through 8th grades. English was no problem since that had been my minor in college, but I discovered I knew NOTHING about teaching reading. After struggling for a year, I began to look around for some help and found it in a Master’s program at a nearby (euphemistically speaking) university. As I took courses in the program, I started trying out what I was learning in my classroom, and–lo and behold!–it worked! I began having some success with my reading students.

As part of my coursework, I learned about the Reading Recovery Program, which has a proven record of helping struggling first graders be successful in learning to read. By this time I had earned all-level certification in Special Education and English as a Second Language, and had met the requirements for Master Reading Teacher. I had come to love teaching reading and wanted to devote my efforts to younger students in an effort to prevent so many older students from winding up in resource or remedial classes–in other words, catch them early. I learned that the Reading Recovery Program at a large suburban district in North Texas was looking for applicants for their program. I decided to apply. The process of applying for this program was extensive and intensive. It involved several interviews and an elaborate application. Being accepted by the program, however, did not mean that you had a job; it just meant that you had been approved to apply for a job at an individual school. The schools called in the individuals they wanted to interview from the pool approved by the directors of the Reading Recovery Program.

Having passed the first hurdle–approval by the Reading Recovery directors–I was interviewed by a couple of schools. Neither called me back for a second interview. Toward the end of summer, I received a phone call from one of the directors. All the Reading Recovery positions for that year had been filled, she said, but they really wanted to get me into the system. Would I consider applying for a Special Education position for the current year, and then I would be in a good position to get a Reading Recovery position for the following year. I said sure! I can’t remember if I interviewed at two schools or just one, but at any rate, one principal called and asked for a second interview with her committee. She said it had come down to me and one other candidate. I met with the committee and thought I had done well. I heard nothing for several days, and when I called one morning to check on things, the principal said she would have an answer for me that afternoon. The afternoon came and went–no phone call. She finally called that night at 10:00 p.m. She informed me that the committee had chosen the other candidate. She could have dropped it at that and I would have accepted it and not given it much more thought. However, she seemed nervous and kept talking, as if she were making some sort of apology. Then she said the words that have stuck in my brain: “The committee just thought that the other candidate was younger and more energetic.” I was too shocked to say anything. I thanked her for the call and hung up.

I have no idea what kind of discussions took place in reaching the decision that the committee reached. I am sure that the principal was uncomfortable with communicating to me the reason for the decision, a reason that is completely illegal. I don’t think she intended to say what she said. But as I thought about my experience with this district, I remembered that at every school at which I interviewed, I didn’t remember seeing a teacher or administrator who was beyond middle age. Was age discrimination pervasive in this district? I can’t say, but I am quite sure I experienced it.

I now teach at the university level, helping pre-service teachers learn the ropes. My duty station, however, is at a branch campus, a hundred miles from the main campus, and in a deeply rural area. Many of my students are non-traditional, coming back to school in middle age. They often make the best students, having years of wisdom to bring to the task. They are often nervous and wondering if they have made the right decision. I tell them that if they are truly called to teach, they will not be happy doing anything else.

I do believe teaching is a calling, but one that takes learning to develop the skill and knowledge base required to be a successful teacher. That skill and knowledge rarely come naturally. What a shame if these future teachers, after making a wrenching mid-life change and putting in the time, effort, and money to reach that level of skill and knowledge cannot find the jobs they deserve because they are not perceived as “young and energetic.” Looking back I now think that this may have been playing a role in my struggle to find a job as I began my teaching career.

Nancy Bailey pointed to other issues in age discrimination such as efforts to force older teachers out because they are more “expensive.” I have personally talked to many teachers who have retired or are planning to retire earlier than they would have otherwise were it not for the level of stress that has risen for teachers over the last 15 years. Think about the loss of experience any kind of age discrimination means for our schools and our children. In no case can we afford it!

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