Why Educator Experience Still Matters


By Kevin Hart

Decades before he became the 2005-2006 New York State Teacher of the Year and was heralded as one of the nation’s leading educators, Stephen Bongiovi almost became something far less glamorous – fired.

The retired English teacher from Long Island was reviewing his personnel files as part of the teacher of the year application process when he received a shock – after his first year of teaching, at least one administrator recommended that he not be retained.

“Someone must have stood up for me,” Bongiovi said, because he was invited back and was allowed to continue what became a stellar career.

But at a time when education “reformers” are criticizing seniority-based layoff policies that prioritize teacher experience, or are advocating for alternative certification programs that may provide only a couple months of teacher preparation, Bongiovi’s story is a powerful reminder that great teachers are not made overnight. Experience matters.

In a recent column on seniority-based layoffs, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel argued that teachers are not interchangeable inventory, and that schools that discount experience – or treat it as a liability — do so at their own peril.

That’s a lesson that needs to be heard in places like New York City, where 4,100 experienced teachers may be laid off while the city recruits 500 inexperienced teachers from the New York City Teaching Fellows and Teach for America programs.

“We absolutely need new teachers,” said Bongiovi. “We need their enthusiasm and their capabilities with technology. But that can not outweigh the accumulation of resources and strategies that only comes with years of experience.”

The vital role of teacher experience was a recent topic of discussion on NEA’s Speak Up For Education & Kids Facebook page. Educators from across the country weighed in on how experience helped them hone their crafts, and discussed what they see as an alarmingly hostile attitude some reformers are taking toward teacher experience.

“I have taught for 18 years and know that I am a better teacher this year than last, and the year before that,” wrote Sharon McLaughlin, a National Board Certified Teacher from Washington. “By my fourth year, I started feeling a bit more confident and built on that every year.”

Mary Cullen, an elementary school teacher from Santa Maria, Calif., said she doubted any teachers would rate their first few years as their finest.

“The idealized world you imagined wears away quickly,” she wrote. “No school prepares you for what teaching is really like.”

Several educators said their first few years of teaching were difficult, but through experience, mentoring and professional development, they learned valuable skills, such as what to do when a lesson isn’t working; how to better differentiate instruction based on students’ ability levels; and how to communicate more effectively with students and their parents.

“I learned more in the first four years of teaching, than in my four years at college,” wrote Casey Jo Maynard Finkbeiner, a life skills teacher from Michigan. “Now that I’ve been teaching for 16 years, I realize I get better every year at handling personal issues with the kids and not just presenting information.”

Several educators credited their development to veteran teachers who served as mentors and sounding boards. Bongiovi benefited from two experienced teachers in his department who spent time helping him improve. Veteran teachers also encouraged Bongiovi to participate in his local union’s teacher advisory council, where he developed confidence and a sense of empowerment.

Minnesota teacher Deb Osland Kozak spent her first three years sharing a classroom with a colleague who had been teaching for 40 years, and said the constant feedback proved invaluable.

Given the important role teacher experience plays in helping students succeed, why are some so-called reformers pushing to discount teacher experience during school layoffs? Cost seems to be a significant factor, as inexperienced teachers are paid less. But Bongiovi is also bothered by what he sees as a concerted attempt to label experienced teachers as somehow less engaged.

And he has reason to be upset – Bongiovi, after all, received the teacher of the year honor at the tail end of his career, when students were hanging on his every word as much as ever.

“The notion that as we get older we become stale, I object to that,” he said. “We all know what the stereotypes are, but there are many, many more teachers who are teaching because they love it. After all, why would you do this job if you didn’t love it?”

Reader Comments

  1. Having been laid off from my special education teaching job in 2007 I could not figure out why – no bad evaluations, connecting with kids, IEPs written correctly. Then a colleague said it has to be the money and that had to be it – they could hire two inexperienced teachers for my salary. Since they let me go the last day of my third year at that school, I had no union protection. I spent a year looking for a job in MA, then moved to AZ where there are absolutely no protections for our jobs and very low pay too. The one thing that is different – experience. As I work for these kids here, who are at a much lower academic level than the kids in MA, my experience gives me the ability to find different ways to deal with a disability or problem and I know that I was not nearly as successful at it when I started out as a new SPED teacher. If it had not been for the experienced teachers who helped me out I would not be as respected and as knowledgeable as I am today. I now find myself giving advice to new teachers who are coming in and learning the ropes. In Special Education you have to be good at both working with the kids and with writing the IEPs, the paperwork that is killing off many talented Special Education teachers. We have positions here that we have been unable to find teachers for, and when young people find out what the paperwork burden is on the SPED teachers they do not come back.
    If they were to let the experienced teachers go here, they and the SPED students would all be in a pickle because no one would truly know what they needed to do for these kids, both physically and in terms of paperwork. My hope is that they get rid of some of the onerous paperwork requirements so that SPED teachers, both experienced and inexperienced, don’t burn out and leave the kids with no one at school to help them learn and grow.

  2. Teaching effectively requires passion and dedication regardless of age. It is insulting to be labeled as “stale” simply because of years in the classroom. If this isn’t age discrimination, I don’t know what is.

  3. I had a boy with ADHD, and every year I would request the most experienced teachers. New teachers were a nightmare for us. When he had a teacher who had been teaching for 20 years or more…we had a good year. Experience does make a huge difference for students with special needs.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with Bongiovi! My 35 year career as a special education teacher in two states has and continues to push me to keep my practice up to date and research based to meet my students’ needs. My 35 year career in special education has provided the opportunity to work with special needs in grades kindergarten to 12th grade with developmental delays, learning disabilities , physical disabilities using augmentative communication devices , autism spectrum disorders, and severely emotionally disturbed middle/high school students. I started teaching in 1976-the first year IEP’s were written. I’ve had the privilege to partner with parents and regular education teachers in order to meet my students’ needs. That privilege demands my dedication to continue learn and enhance my practice. Each and every student presents their own unique needs and I’ve learned so much. To say that my age and experience makes me a less effective teacher is an insult and couldn’t be farther from the truth. As one former student who is now an adult said “you helped me turn I can’t into I can.” This continues to frame my mission and will do so until I leave the classroom. Thank you to Stephen and the other teachers quoted for speaking to this issue.

  5. Let’s face it, some teachers are stale when they are old. But many of the stale old teachers were, in fact, less-than-inspiring in their youth. Age doesn’t seem to be a factor, but experience IS important. New teachers REQUIRE experienced mentors in order to become proficient and in order NOT to quit after their first year. The first year is always overwhelming. New teachers need guidance and reassurance that it all gets easier as they become more and more skilled at the wide range of skills we call teaching. And a balance of beginning and experienced teachers is CRUCIAL to having a functioning school staff! The idea of “interchangeable inventory” is not appropriate for human beings teaching other human beings–not even for the “canned” curriculum we are so often asked to present.

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