No school for old men and women…In celebration of staffroom silverbacks…

Why the culture and mindset we experience towards ageing in our 20s, 30s, and 40s affects our life expectancy, health, careers, and quality of life.

So consider this…how ageist is teaching as a profession? How ageist is the school you are in? And to what extent are you, yourself, maybe just a little but ageist.

This is not just a flippant question.

I remember starting out as a young teacher in my mid-twenties being in an incredibly hierarchical environment. On my first day of my first job – being mistaken for a sixth former in the common room (oh my! Those were the days!). Being quizzed in an inspectorial way by parents at parents’ eve as a very shiny new teacher leading their children through GCSE and A Level. Did I know my stuff? Could I be trusted?

On a more sinister level, being told I shouldn’t speak out in staff meeting discussion because of my inexperience. Also being bullied – having my expertise undermined by an insecure Head of Department because they happened to disagree with my interpretation of a Wilfred Owen poem and in spite of critics being in agreement with my view.

I remember being appointed the youngest Deputy Head in the Girls School Association at a mere 30. Though that is possibly more of a veteran age now, with the youngest Head appointed in the UK at 25 in 2021. At the school I joined, there were teachers who had been in the profession longer than I had been alive. I started to dress more formally in order to project more gravitas and to armour up in the face of startlingly open sexist and ageist comments by fee-paying fathers.

The expectations of teachers to chase promotion and have meteoric career trajectories have so many underlying core beliefs. For instance that youth equals dynamism. That early promotion equals talent. There are so many ‘rules’ and definitions of ‘success’ that people choose to live by – head of department by X, Assistant Head by Y.

However, like meteors, what goes up, can just as easily come down. We chase the glamour of youthful ambition, not career sustainability. How many young people follow the vocation, the call to the classroom, only to drop out in drives. How many of those starting out in their career are cheap cannon-fodder for cut-price extra responsibility – too much, too soon, burning out – at the cost of mastery, the reward of mastery, skill-building and consolidation.

Watch out, if you’re an ECT coming towards the end of your probation…why not take on a major school production, or the task of coordinating the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme…you know you want to (at minimal time allowance or incremental cost to the staffing budget)…what indeed would you do with all those endless free evenings and weekends otherwise?

Sadly with the pressure to establish yourself and be seen as a ‘good egg’ together with rampant rental costs or interest rates, every little extra propels you into the yes, yes, yes of burnout…

Like Tiresias, I have enjoyed working in happy schools, and endured working in unhappy ones. And no matter what stage I was at in my career, I sought to use whatever influence I had to make them better places to be.

Once I realised that Headship was not for me, and dropped out of school leadership in order to retrain as a psychotherapist, I returned joyfully, blissfully, to the joy of teaching English part time once again. And it was a joyous homecoming, but took different eras of leadership for my wider skill and experience as an educator to be acknowledged. It was interesting, how many people started to seek my advice in whispered tones about the taboo of stepping back in my career instead of stepping up…

If the nervous system of a school was a car, it would be the car outside that is constantly revving. Frenetic change, adaptation, novelty chasing. Using this new technique du jour, new for old pedagogical tricks that are back on the scene after 20 years hibernation, teaching by app, harvesting new and different performance data, digitising, virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence…

We’re all driving to Byzantium or whatever destination some young whipper-snapper (or secretary of state no less) is presenting as the next educational version of Shangri La…in this world, as W B Yeats write, ‘That is no country for old men’ – or women.

And yes – now we’ve flipped into the other form of ageism. The ‘seen it all, and we’ve tried it once and it didn’t work’ mindset of the battle-scarred, long-serving luddite. The ones who have 30 years of pension contributions in the bag, less off a mortgage, and fewer shits to give…who don’t mind letting the latest initiative wash over them, or give the meeting a cynical piece of their experienced minds?

Where is the sweet spot – the pot at the end of the rainbow– in between too young, and too old, where we ever get to be and feel as teachers as ‘enough’? Too much of a shock-absorber for the workload, or too armoured up in deflection of all but the most essential and necessary…

Where is the chance to really take stock and come back to being in connection with your purpose as a teacher? Your vocation, the ability to appreciate the small differences you make to young people’s lives amid the relentlessness. Where is the ability to stop and take a ‘fearless and searching inventory’ of your work-addiction, empathy addiction, and inability to say no or be at proper, proper choice…TO also see your strengths, as well as your struggles. To actually calm down enough to feel your feelings and learn what needs those feelings are speaking to as they pass.

This is certainly a privilege I am able to facilitate and bear witness to as a coach working with those who feel at some kind of crossroad. Instead we lurch from term through term at break-neck speed, and recovery to recovery in the breaks from school – which can’t even truly be seen as holidays for some – especially those in leadership positions where you’re only as good as your last twitter or LinkedIn grandstand…Or those who have a safeguarding role and find themselves acting like the fourth emergency service.

The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, young, dynamic and rising, or old, cynical or coasting matter profoundly. And they are influenced by our core beliefs, and the cultural standpoint we are surrounded by at work, at home, in the media, online. As Marissa Peer, the creator of Rapid Transformational Therapy writes – we need to tell ourselves a better lie…rather than the ones we learned as our defaults and do not serve us well. (Tell Yourself a Better Lie – by Marissa Peer).

And in schools we need to look out for the subtle stories of ageism – the future frontier perhaps of prejudice…and the ageism we also internalize whether we’re Boomers, Gen X, Y and Z.

What might this look like? It can be obvious and clichéd, it can be subtle…

Gen Z / Gen Y:

  • ‘My line manager doesn’t like me / thinks my work isn’t good enough and it is affecting my mental health…’
  • ‘I’m working so hard…how come they get to do the crossword in the staffroom at lunch?’
  • ‘My workload is overwhelming, I can’t look after myself now, I’ll put it off to the weekend / holidays…’
  • ‘There’s no way I can see myself working like this when I’m a parent…or when I’m 40, 50, 60…

Boomers / Gen X:

  • ‘We didn’t have mental health.’
  • ‘I just don’t have the energy for this any more…’
  • ‘This pace is not for me any more.’
  • ‘I’m the only one who gets the job done properly.’
  • ‘If I could leave, I would.’

WE have a dysfunctional attitude in general towards age and ageing. No sooner do we hit our 50s and the algorithms are pushing ads our way that lay it bare…fashion with elasticated waists. Shoes for feet with bunions. Yoga or Pilates fat burning, body sculpting app subscriptions. Nutrition supplements to shift your menopause belly if you’re a woman…and I’m guessing you get similar if you’re a man.

In your 20s your hair isn’t glossy enough or your thighs thin enough or calves shapely enough. Your teeth aren’t white enough and your eyes aren’t bright enough. You’re not hench or ripped enough. You filter and edit your photo reel ignorant of the fact that you’ll probably never have it (physically) so good. Your car isn’t good enough, green enough, your interior design needs a makeover. Your career isn’t fast enough, and your food not instagrammable enough.

We can see through this all at the same time as being in its spell. And we need to be sure that in the community of the schools and microcosms of society that we are in that in that place OF ALL places, youth and age need to celebrate each other and co-exist in better harmony.

We ALL benefit from the ability to see ourselves, people like us around in leadership positions, being values, celebrated. A diverse staffroom makes for a calmer, better place where belonging is more accessible. And this isn’t only in terms of gender, race or sexuality, it is also needed in terms of age.

If working with kids is seen as exhausting and unsustainable, and the workload only tolerable for some, and not in the long term, then the frenetic activity surrounding staff turnover  – recruitment, induction, immersion, movement upwards and/ or outwards will not enable sustainability.

This relentlessness is very much linked to cultural limiting beliefs, and the familiarity of outmoded  – even Victorian- ideas about productivity. I remember in my 30s and well established in my role as Deputy Head, thinking… ‘I definitely won’t be able to work at this pace in my 60s. Nor would I want to…’…and yet the me I am now would challenge that…Why would that be the case? And if that’s the case, how well is that going to serve me, the school, the community of staff, the education system? It’s neither true, kind, or helpful to think or be this way.

It breaks my heart to hear from a much admired, beloved, and respected school leader that ‘everyone I know who is my age in teaching (in this case 51)…is seriously looking at leaving the profession…’

But I get it. In these times especially with post-pandemic depletion, kids under strain with lagging social and emotional skills, and an acceleration of change…There are easier ways to earn a crust. However – we can’t all drive around in Foxtons minis can we?

Neither will it help the children to see, and feel, and experience the essential truth – that life doesn’t have to be relentless and unsustainable, that it can be healthy to know yourself, be kinder to yourself, feel well, be enough, that you can be both whole and imperfect as a human being – and choose the lane that is right for you.

So in this piece about sustainability, longevity, and diversity in the teaching profession, here’s the science part – and there is a LOT of good news…

I had the good fortune to listen to Fleet Maul’s interview with Steven Kotler in the ‘Rewiring Your Brain’ world summit. And as a 50 something, it really made me sit up. He speaks often on the science of maximising human potential, writes and researches about the benefits of Flow states, and has latterly turned his lens toward Peak Performance Ageing. He is the Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective. You can find out more via his website:

He’s another inspirational speaker and TED talker, there are lots of free to access clips of his speeches. But what struck me was the way his ideas resonated with how I – and lots of other people I know both personally and professionally as a coach – process their ageing journey as they tip towards the downhill slope 40+…

Key learning points.

  1. Traditional ideas about ageing are that it’s an inevitable, long, slow decline.
  2. The mindset and beliefs we have and foster about ageing affect the quality of our lives in age – and out longevity.
  3. Research by Becca Levy PhD of Yale University and Ellen Langer of Harvard and author of Counterclockwise, shows that a positive mindset to ageing can contribute to a possible 8 year’s extra life, and quality of life.
  4. The same research reveals that a negative mindset to ageing OR being exposed to ageism and stereotypes about ageing has a somewhat deadly effect. The research shows that when people are exposed to that in their 20s, 30s, 40s, by the time they are in our 60s they will exhibit a 30% greater memory decline than those without that mindset or exposure to that mindset. SO it matters to ALL of us that teaching and school life is a viable prospect for us as we age.
  5. Neuroplasticity is life long. Everything we skill we have us hone-able and can advance later in life – far more than we thought.
  6. As we move into our late 40s and 50s, there are beneficial changes in the way the brain processes information – the two halves of out brain which work in opposition in earlier life (shorthand – left brain logic vs right brain emotionality) starts synchronising in our 50s and 60s, peaking in our 80s.
  7. The brain recruits under-used parts of the brain in the 40s and repurposes them – so maximising capacity. Eg the parts of my brain that could have been developed as an elite sportsperson or musician now get redirected…These changes lead to a whole new level of thinking and ways of thinking that were off-limits in earlier life. Eg big picture thinking. WHO KNEW? WHY ARE WE NOT CAPITALISING ON THIS? How many senior teams are young suits? How many long serving HoDs or teachers are considered to be biding their time, coasting, rather than being at peak…Quite often that’s the assumption.
  8. Seeking out and being in a state of flow is particularly protective against ageing and staving off decline eg dementia or Alzheimer’s. Flow means experiencing optimal challenge for your ability, that absorbs you so that you lose a sense of time, and a sense of self-consciousness. My experience of teaching enabled me to access this in so many ways – both in performance in the classroom, and in researching and preparing lessons or writing schemes of work. Didn’t experience flow with marking essays so much though!
  9. Kotler said that the thinking skills that get a boost between 50-80 are the following – and it’s a GOOD list…Big picture thinking…Relativistic thinking – more nuance and subtlety…Multi perspectival thinking…

These shifts unlock new skill sets – empathy, divergent thinking, and creativity – which are the hardest aspects to teach…but also of the most economic value in the future world of AI.

Elders used to be revered and old age associated with wisdom (although you can look back to Chaucer and Shakespeare’s Lear and Falstaff to see foolishiness and senility). But now – in the workplace and out of it, how do we really truly value age. How do we move into a space where the benefits of age – rather than the deficits of it are brought to the fore. There’s no doubt that intergenerational contact between grandparents and children can be hugely beneficial and calming – especially when kids are teenagers.  But quite often families now are dispersed, and grandparents distant or only for occasional visits.

Working recently with Sixth Form Tutors, and seeing the variety of perspectives that come with that important input at a major transitional time for the last tranche of school – hearing from brilliant and well-attuned young tutors, listening to established ones who were parents of younger children – and hearing from tutors who themselves had adult children who had left university. The diversity of perspectives on the role of the tutor and approaches to meeting the challenges facing sixth formers today was made much more dynamic by harnessing the reflections of those perspectives.   

Writers peak in their 50s, 60s, and Historians in their 70s. What about teachers?

What are our views on this? What do we see when we stop to look? When you look under the hood of your assumptions about this…what’s there? And is it true, kind, or helpful? Knowing what you now know about how our own attitudes to age and cultural prejudices help or hinder our own longevity – and quality of ageing…what might you like to see having a re-tune?

In these days where even English teachers are in short supply – never mind the fabled unicorn subjects like Physics…How many appointments do we see where older teachers get hired? What are we seeing in the demographics of staffrooms and the vibe amongst those heading towards retirement? Are they vibrant? Celebrated and celebratory?

WE need to start reframing old age in these terms – we can perform at our best for longer in life – and with interest rates being what they are, we’re likely to need to be not least for paying off the mortgage – but also for making a vibrant contribution to society.

Where do you feel purpose, enjoyable challenge, mastery in your work?

Where do you experience flow?

Apart from ‘retirement’ workshops, what sort of training, learning, discourse is there about how you work sustainably, how you manage a long teaching career?

How do you facilitate support and discourse around coping and flourishing in your career around different developmental milestones – working part or full time and caring for young children or elderly parents…for instance. This can feel so solitary…

AS well as training in pedagogical and technical skills, where’s your school’s eye fixed on the real and pressing challenges of staff retention – which like the health service – is in crisis?

How do you get support in your career in the inner work…how you can work in a high, high pressure job over the decades that we’re going to need to work for and feel the benefit of mastery, enjoyment, thriving, purpose? How we can appreciate and work to our strengths and maximise our capability, rather than max out our capacity…?

Our jobs as educators is bringing up the next generation. What do we want to experience ourselves – and what do we want to model for them. Personally, I think we should all be aiming as high as possible for as long as possible. I want to rock till I drop – AND spread the joy of that. In a world where the younger generation are living with such economic uncertainty, and real environmental threat, it is possibly more important than ever for them to see the trajectory of growth and positivity around ageing as being more hopeful, valuable, more full of zest…

How does this resonate with you? Get in touch! I’d love to hear what you think!

If you feel at a cross-roads, stuck, or contemplating how you can put the fizz back in the bottle of your life working at school, consider a consultation or some 1:1 coaching. Get in touch. It can be a powerful 1:1 conversation or a short series. Increasing numbers of schools now provide access to coaching and in general you can get 3 online sessions for roughly the price of an individual fee for a training day.

Maybe you are a staff-room agitator, younger or elder states-person, a union rep, or in a leadership position and you think some sort of exploration and training around enjoyment, wellbeing, sustainability in teaching would be uplifting, interesting, and beneficial. If so, please get in touch and we can look at bookings for bespoke twilights or INSETs in the terms ahead.

With love and gratitude,


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