What is experience?
Definitions of experience, even within the context of teaching, are many and various.
However, definitions tend to differ in detail, with the fundamental concepts of
observation and participation common to most. That in itself suggests that the
accumulation of experience depends not only on time spent but also on variety of experiential contexts. Hence, ten years’ experience in the same or similar context is, in reality, one year’s experience but repeated ten times.
Experience is often subjectively measured in length or, sometimes, in depth, suggesting that experience is somehow two-dimensional, but it may be more realistic to view it as three-dimensional, those dimensions being:
Hence, experience has not only length and depth, but volume.
The problem with time
Experience implies the acquisition over time of knowledge and skills, leading to
increased competence and improved results. However, many would argue that
increased teacher effectiveness is by no means continual. In a 2009 TED Talk, Bill Gates argued that “once somebody has taught for three years, their teaching quality does not change thereafter” while a 2004 study on the impact of individual teachers on student achievement by Jonah Rockoff claimed that teacher effectiveness or productivity plateaus after three to ten years.
Clearly, these are generalisations based entirely on length of service, but it is likely that there is a “period of stagnation and decay” on the performance curve for any individual teacher based on the economic notion of diminishing returns:
Whether teachers improve over time is a debate with major implications. It prompts the questioning of pay scales, responsibility based on seniority and job security for ‘veteran’ teachers, all based on whether value is added over time and particularly relevant where there is a plentiful supply of newly trained entrants into the profession.
Why time matters
This rather pessimistic but widely accepted view of the evolution of a teacher’s career may, however, be seen as one of several myths about teaching. More recent analyses have found that teachers continue to improve, albeit at a slower rate, well into their careers. This may always have been the case, and it has been suggested that ‘life experience’ gradually influences teachers in moving away from honing their methodology towards naturally acquired techniques such as asking probing questions, generating discussion, using personalised examples and anedotes and dealing with confusion.
The diminishing returns model assumes that teachers invest less time and effort in development as time goes on, but also that there is no ‘intervention’ in terms of focused and continuous professional development (CPD), either instigated by the institution or self-actuated. Currently while CPD programs seldom reach teachers on a large scale, CPD and the professional development cycle are the subjects of much attention, particularly in the private sector.
With or without formalised CPD, volume of experience may be gained over time through observation or participation in events. Thus practical knowledge, skills and practice are gained, whether consciously or unconsciously, and can only be beneficial, not only to the individual but also to the institution. Writing in favour recruiting the over-50s, Anjli Raval maintains that ‘’a multigenerational workforce is more creative and can be better for everyone, with older people often having invaluable institutional knowledge and passing on life experiences to younger colleagues.’’ Implications for recruitment For the teacher, the benefits of a substantial volume of experience are relatively clear.
For the novice, initial experience may provide insight into the workings of the classroom or begin to define a career path, while for the practising teacher variety of experience can enhance a resume or facilitate a change of career direction including a move into non-teaching positions such as administration. In addition, and possibly over time, experience may foster a unique teaching style, a wide range of teaching skills, increased self-confidence and a thorough understanding of the teaching profession.
Thus, motivation for the acquisition of breadth and depth of experience may be
financial, circumstantial or the result of sheer boredom, all of which can happen at any time, a recent example being the ability to teach online using a limited array of tools, the unexpected product of necessity and urgency.
For the employer, matters are less straightforward. There remains a tendency to recruit for a specific job at a specific time, thus fulfilling an immediate demand rather than considering the broader and longer term perspective of what a teacher can bring to the institution.
There is, however, evidence that more liberal attitudes to recruitment are becoming more common. On the subject of management policy, Steve Jobs (2011) maintains “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to to , We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”, indicating the relative importance of depth and breadth of experience while suggesting a bottom-up approach to the flow of information and ideas. The United Nations Language Teacher Selection Guidelines (2014) while emphasising language proficiency, qualifications and years of experience also pays attention to complementary skills such as computer literacy, cultural awareness and
team teaching. There seems to be a general and welcome move way from seniority, as measured in time, towards other characteristics such as enthusiasm, commitment and sensitivity to student needs when appointing teachers, though these, along with soft skills, may only be revealed through references or interview. A variety of experience, made possible as a result of internationalisation, increased mobility and professional development opportunities is gradually assuming greater importance in employers’ selection criteria and thus to teachers’ marketability and career options. Experience speaks volumes.
Bill Gates: “How Do You Make a Teacher Great?” Part 1 From the Annual TED Conference 18
Jun 2009 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnfzZEREfQs
Jonah E. Rockoff The Impact of Individual Teachers on Student Achievement: Evidence from
Panel Data American Economic Review vol. 94, no. 2, May 2004
Anjli Raval Financial Times November 6 2022 https://www.ft.com/content/8042b200-2cdb-
Steve Jobs (2011) Steve Jobs: His Own Words and Wisdom. Cupertino Silicon Valley Press
Language Teacher Selection Guidelines, United Nations Language and Communications
Maley,A (Ed) (2019) Developing Expertise Through Experience. British Council.
Woodward, T, Graves, K and Freeman, D (2018) Teacher Development over Time. London:
Steve Darn and Ian White have been colleagues for 27 years, but between them have
amassed a total of nearly 100 years of teaching experience in a wide variety of
contexts. Ian, an expert in Slavonic languages, continues to teach at university level
while Steve remains involved in CELTA courses and consultancy work with local
Steve Darn, freelance trainer, Izmir, Turkey firstname.lastname@example.org
Ian White, Izmir University of Economics email@example.com