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Not over the hill at 70 - The benefits the older teacher can bring to the language class

23rd September 2019

By Peter Stone

Are teachers over the hill once they pass the dreaded three score and ten mark?  Should they pack up and head for the academic equivalent of elephants' graveyard to muse on past endeavours and lament the evaporation of those energies and passions that he or she once possessed when attempting to indelibly install the complexities of phrasal verbs and third conditionals, not to mention the unspeakable paradoxes and contradictions of Anglo-Saxon pronunciation, into students' cerebral zones? By no means, says this writer who recently reached 79. He, for one, is still going strong and there's little indication - as yet - of any decline in his enthusiasm or motivation.

What, then, are the advantages and incentives of pressing on at this advanced age? What can one offer in the art of teaching the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Ken Follett that's different from, or better than, the way one imparted such knowledge in one's burgeoning twenties, ebullient thirties, mature forties and subsequent decades?   

For a start, the experience of life gained at this age provides a teacher with a deeper well of knowledge to fall back on and a fuller understanding of students' characters, needs and real capabilities. He or she will also have acquired more patience, gained a better ability to judge the right pace with which to deliver the lesson, be more equipped to cope with the different personalities and attitudes one encounters in every class, and have a clearer insight into overall needs and expectations.

Needless to say, an in-depth knowledge of one's subject, gleaned from decades of toil and interaction, is a prime advantage, And while dynamism and energy are no longer what they were, they could well be replaced by an aura of "gravitas" and quiet authority that will - or at least ought to - gain the teacher more kudos in the form of respect and attention.

But before we go any further let's take a realistic look at a couple of less encouraging factors:

First, very young beginners rarely respond effectively to a teacher who at best serves as a grandparent image. Their attention span is low and boredom is the enemy, so the instructor, not unlike an animateur in a circus, needs to entertain as much as impart knowledge.  It's therefore usually younger and more energetic instructors who are able to achieve the level of hyper-action and imagination that this kind of highly specialized teaching requires.

Secondly, when confronted by more mature youngsters (teenagers in particular) the elderly teacher may have problems with the above mentioned contentious issue of gravitas versus dynamism. Suppose you have one or two students who don't respect your senior citizen status and want you to enliven the class by delivering your lesson more quickly, projecting more voluably and so on. Here there's a dual need to gain their respect and yet let them know who's boss.  A delicate balancing act. Getting angry or losing one's temper will obviously not help at all. Nor will doing nothing and ignoring them.

So how, in the latter situation, can the venerable - if not always venerated - teacher establish his or her authority effectively in such circumstances and get the rest of the class on his side? Well, he or she can draw the contentious students out by asking them to justify their attitude and point of view. Then, if the antagonism continues, politely but firmly put them in their place by pointing out that the rest of the class are anxious to get on with the lesson without unnecessary and gratuitous interruptions by the likes of him. The result of this quiet forcefulness would most probably be that the other students will back you up.

Assuming that such drawbacks will be minimal, we can now look at some more positive aspects of teaching in one's seventies. That fund of experience gained from years of imparting knowledge should enable the instructor to adjust fairly seamlessly to most situations and requirements. For example, the slower student who holds up the class needs to be treated just like the others. The mistake of slowing things down yourself and trying to ensure that student has grasped every nuance of the points you're making is now a policy of the past when you were anxious to please everyone and ensure that no-one got left behind. You can extend a helping hand to a certain degree but the flow of the class in general must, as you now realize, remain unhindered.

What ultimately matters of course is results, and as an experienced elder teacher you're ideally equipped to see that the students pass their exams. Having taught a wide variety of such learners over the years in preparation for key exams such as IELTS and BULATS, you'll have the expertise and familiarity with your subject to be able to acquaint your students with the labyrinth of complexities they need to master to be able to achieve these qualifications as well as actually getting them through the tests and proving that their time with you has been put to good use.

On a further practical level, having also lived in the "real world" during your long life and done, at some time or other, a spell of work other than teaching (possibly even occupying some sort of managerial position), you're likely to be better equipped to impart business learning classes, either in company, at a school or privately. Lessons dealing with presentations, interviews, writing CVs, and suchlike could well be based on personal experience as well as following the accepted format and norms for such topics.

Giving private lessons - of both Business or General English - is another possible course of action, either at the student's place or your own. After your decades of teaching you could well have built up a solid list of past contacts, and instructing them now on a one-to-one basis  or in small groups would be a practical and flexible way of continuing your studies together, either on a formal or an informal basis. The latter could simply take the form of spontaneous, unplanned conversation exchanges where you cover everything from current events in the news to opinions on various personal points of views and beliefs.

The increasing possibilities in, and demand for, online teaching is another distinct possibility for seventy-something teachers to follow up. Its advantages are that no travelling is needed and you can operate effectively and economically from your own home or base. If it is done purely on a written basis, correcting essays or specific exercises, the age issue no longer even matters as you are essentially an "invisible" teacher. You could even remain anonymous if you chose. If you're using Skype for face to face conversational exchanges then your age would be evident, of course, but your experience and interchange with the student should outweigh any possible objections and drawbacks here.

If you have saved up a small nest egg, and are additionally bolstered by a pension, you could consider opening up a small school or academy of your own, where others do the teaching and you administrate and supervise the whole thing. Careful planning is needed for this, though. Many have fallen by the wayside economically by rushing to open up such an enterprise without thinking through the real practicalities and possibilities beforehand, so it's wise to totally research the area, premises, likely availability of students, local competition, etc, well in advance before you take that definite step. Do your homework like any good student and it could turn out well.

Alternatively, you could look into the possibilities of lecturing and thus presenting formally to a receptive audience all the knowledge you have gleaned over the years. Universities, schools, cultural institutes are good places to check out and, if your offer to lecture in one of them is accepted, you could devise a course where you deal with different themes and methodologies in a series of carefully planned talks. You stand more chance of being given the opportunity to do this if you have a recognized qualification such as a TEFL or TESOL Diploma backed up by a university degree, but if you haven't got all - or even any - of these yet still know your stuff and, as a reasonably competent public speaker, know how to present your material lucidly and interestingly, there's no reason you shouldn't be successful here,

Writing and publishing articles (like this one, for example) in educational journals and periodicals as well as for academic institutes and organizations is another feasible option for spreading your scholarly know how to the student world at large.

An ambitious extension of this epistolary outlet would be to write a book on teaching in general or from a specific angle, according to type of students, levels, tactics and methodological approaches, True the academic market is flooded with admirable tomes that cover everything from in depth grammar studies including  the inevitable phrasal verbs and colloquialisms to analyses of such diverse subjects as The Natural Approach, The Silent Way, et al. But if you feel your long-acquired in depth knowledge is good enough, and you're a reasonably dab hand at putting words together, either of these avenues (articles or book) is certainly worth a try, as is every positive step in life.

Or, on a final offbeat "teaching with a difference" note, you could write about your possible recent experiences as, say, a veteran retiree in an unusual location (such as occupying a Voluntary Services position in an isolated Ethiopian village where the written word is unknown and you need to exert some form of "crowd control" before actually calming your students down enough to engage in any valid vocal participation in your lessons). That should mark you down as an individualist as well as a proven long-term teacher and serve as a further feather in your venerable cap.

Peter Stone

Peter Stone has been teaching English, both in England and Spain, for decades. He has a TEFL Cert and TESOL Diploma and has also written ten travel books. Currently he resides in a hill town in Alicante province 30 kms from the sea.

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