Aging Educators: Still Valuable?

Aging Educators: Still Valuable?

Karen Gross 16/08/2019 6

I just read a column by David Leonhardt in which he cited Frank Bruni about the complexities of aging. It is a column (with Bruni's piece quoted at length within) well worth reading whether you are 25 or 55 or 75. Leonhardt is on vacation from writing his "opinions" so I quote from his email below to orient readers.

Quote: Today, you’ll find an excerpt from a recent edition of Frank Bruni’s newsletter. Frank has had one of the great modern Times careers: White House correspondent, political profiler, restaurant critic, Magazine writer, Rome bureau chief and, since 2011, Op-Ed columnist. After Frank’s thoughts, you’ll find — as always — links to the full Opinion report of The Times. Here’s Frank: “It’s not just Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders and the Democratic presidential primary — I swear it isn’t — but lately I can’t get the subject of age out of my mind: how much it matters, how much it doesn’t, all the good things that come with it, all the bad. It resists tidy definition. It’s immune to blanket truisms. You don’t get better as you age. Then again, you don’t get worse. Or maybe you don’t but someone else does, or the judgment can be made only in categories, by dividing the different aspects of you: your body, your mind, your mood, your munificence. I’m 54 now, and aging is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s also the greatest blessing that I’ve ever been given: I’m not just still around, but I also savor the wisdom of greater perspective and the freedom of letting many of the demands I once made of myself fall by the wayside. The hell of aging is limits. But that’s the heaven of it, too. Sometimes to have the parameters of your life shrink is to be unburdened of too many decisions and of indecision itself … I have written that Biden seems more oriented to yesterday than tomorrow. I have also written ‘In Defense of the Gerontocracy,’ noting that [Nancy] Pelosi has had moments of command and keen judgment that are the fruits of her many years. Age as an issue is one big fat oxymoronic mess, and maybe I’ve contradicted myself. Or maybe I haven’t, because you can’t come to any one conclusion about age. You can’t take any one position: not in employment practices, not in political picks, not in your own expectations about when you’ll hit your stride, when you’re in your prime and which phases of life will be a slog or a cakewalk. You have to size up the particular person or circumstances. You have to be awake to individuality and alert to subtlety.”

I have been reflecting on aging of late. There are many reasons. Here are some.

I just got back from 8 days of wilderness camping with my partner and the mosquitoes seemed to think I was their breakfast, lunch, dinner and evening snack, the result of which was a immunological response upon my return that sent me (and I am still going) to a dermatologist and a mosquito specialist (there are such people at least in DC and he was stellar) and makes my body resemble a black and blue Michelin Tire (Wo)Man. I suppose my body response could be attributed to age (or not).

As I reflect on politics, something addressed by Bruni, I wonder whether age is a benefit for a presidential candidate or whether it is high time to hand over the reins of power to someone way younger -- who better perhaps understands the world in which we are now living and is better able to address the problems of today and tomorrow. I remain unsure as to whether youth is a benefit in a presidential candidate or does my position on a candidate have nothing to do with age and everything to do with values, which are ageless and timeless? Age and the Supreme Court is another topic that frequently floats through my head.

When I was at the Department of Education many moons ago, those of us who had gray hair (and I earned every piece of it) worried about the "youth brigade" working in government. Where was the "in the trenches" experience? Where was the experience of having tried and failed or succeeded? Where was the time spent with students, parents, administrators, faculty, staff? There is something that does come with age and granted, it is not always something good, but experience is valuable if we can process it and understand it and use it ably. As I look at government today, I have the same questions.

My mother is an educational diagnostician. She is 91. She worked directly with children and schools well into her 80's and still is consulted on difficult cases where others cannot seem to find a workable pathway forward for a particular child. As she aged, she noticed that children did not seem to mind that she was older; they did not suffer from "ageism," something that seems to plague those in their 30's and 40's and beyond. The children saw what she brought to them: warmth, understanding, decades upon decades of experience. She brought hope and belief in self. She cared. Is that something that comes with age or gets benefited by age? Or perhaps it is just who she is.

I write children and adult books. I read to children in schools across the globe. I speak to teachers and administrators about student success and trauma recovery. I speak about how to move away from a default perspective where we blame children and to a positive model where we focus on student success not student deficits. I have been wondering, even as I dress up as a giraffe or sit on the floor, whether my age makes a difference (one way or another) to children, teachers, parents. I wonder whether it impacts the stories I tell, the ways I manage a classroom or a meeting or an event. I wonder whether my writing -- for children and adults -- is enriched by my life experiences, both those that are positive and negative. Does riding all those waves of life do something that can seep out (flow out?) and help others?

Very recently, I was working on a new book that called for me to reflect back on a book that dominated my late teenage years, Our Bodies, Ourselves. I ordered copies of every major edition to consider the changes in the book over time -- kind of looking at the book as it aged. And now, the publishers and organization behind the book have ceased its publication altogether (although it has been online for the last 10 years). It seems money, changing time and internal disagreement made the book's future impossible. It had "aged" out. Sure, some things age out --- carbon paper, typewriter ribbons. But, there are both material and non-material things that do not age out -- respect for one's body and the body of another, caring, empathy, kindness. I wonder in a discard society and one as age focused as ours where millions is spent getting rid of wrinkles and gray hair, are we losing something?

Now comes the Bruni/Leonhardt part.

In education, I think we are losing something if we don't accept the wisdom of those of us who are aging (self-serving statement to be sure!). For sure and for real. With older educators who carry their experience like a well-worn backpack filled with knowledge and not as a heavy burden, we can add something to the understanding of children and their development. We have developed ourselves. If we have children, we have seen them develop. We have watched others develop. We have seen a generation grow up. We have the benefits of failure and the burdens of success. We have experience -- and there is no shortcut to that. That experience -- whether in education or government -- is not replaced by youth or consultants who are high priced. It comes from within. And we have a deep toolbox, filled with tools that are worn and time tested (and some new tools too). Tools that can be shared if we can see them and hand them over with grace.

As teachers are assigned to classes and parents learn of them, how many parents want that young bouncy new teacher rather than the "seasoned" somewhat older teacher? Don't those older teachers often get a bad rap? The "older" teacher seems antiquated to some. Not so. Our son's best teacher was an older woman who taught second grade -- one of the finest teachers ever. Lillian Kleiman had seen everything and she knew each child. Her advice was always clear and thoughtful and personal to the child and his (in our case) needs. She kept our son in a high reading group even though he had trouble reading; she sensed it was just a matter of time before he was ready to launch. She let him use a computer decades ago when his penmanship was illegible. By the way: we stayed in touch and visited her; my son shared his collegiate and graduate successes with her and as a professor now, I hope he remembers how much her effort to understand him enabled his future success. For real. She still inspires me.

Several of the prime things I now appreciate painfully that come with aging: one has seen loss and suffered from its pains; one has seen disappointment on a grand scale; one has lost lots -- material things and psychic things. Things haven't worked out -- friendships, relationships, institutions. One's body has changed and in society's view, not for the better. But one's mind has changed -- and not for the worse. Plasticity remains as we age and we can continue to grow and learn. Our brain is remarkable; plasticity is not limited to youth.

Here's what Frank Bruni reminded us with respect to age and it gives me enormous hope and strength: "You have to be awake to individuality and alert to subtlety.”

Wow. Another wow. Let me repeat what he said because it serves as a reminder to all of us aging both what we can do and how we can think -- using the benefits of our years: "You have to be awake to individuality and alert to subtlety.” An aging brain can do that really well in fact.

In a classroom, these words have real power and potential: listen to each student; understand who each student is and from whence he/she came/comes; watch each student and their engagement; eliminate sharp divides like good and bad and right and wrong; see nuance in children and in learning; handle each child as a unique person; develop initiatives that recognize our many layers of diversity and don't make assumptions; recognize that change does not have to be in neon lights (although sometimes that helps). For me, subtlety is about being multi-perspectival, seeing issues in all their dimensions and with all their complexity. What power rests in that? Enormous power. It lets you speak truth.

My new watchwords as I work with children and those who have experienced trauma and as I write and speak and listen: individuality and subtlety. And, check me on it as I will check myself. When I read and write, am I nuanced enough? Am I distinguishing among individuals rather than homogenizing? Am I contextualizing? Am I using my gray hair well? Can I see each person in context for who they are? Can I solve problems that recognize that solutions can be subtle and expressed with subtlety?

Aging -- seen in this light -- has power to make meaningful change in the lives of individuals with whom we deal and even systemic change. Not a bad outcome and quite the ongoing challenge.

Share this article

Leave your comments

Post comment as a guest

terms and condition.
  • Gordon Smith

    It doesn't matter if you are old as long as you deliver

  • Paul Coppack

    Age is just a number !

  • Dave Allan

    It seems like you are having a lot of fun

  • Ross Cooper

    Thoughtful piece

  • Michael Suls

    In this era of a new old age, we will have a longer time to recreate our own identities.

  • ANetliner

    Outstanding piece.

    My take: Older people might not know the newest piece of software or the latest technical information, and they (we) might be a little slower. But older people have a wealth of situational experience and judgment that younger people cannot match. That is important in business and in the classroom. In addition, many older people (not all) have acquired the empathy, patience, perspective and humility that come with life experience. My younger self was less patient and more arrogant. Worse, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. The best solution: staff schools and other organizations with a range of ages, races/ethnicities and genders and gain the benefit of diverse perspectives.

Share this article

Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.


Latest Articles

View all
  • Science
  • Technology
  • Companies
  • Environment
  • Global Economy
  • Finance
  • Politics
  • Society