It’s a month of anniversaries for me. Thirty years ago this March, I was kicked out of prep school, launching an adolescent rebellion that would continue on and off for years. 25 years ago this month, my career as a sex educator began when I started training with Berkeley’s Peer Sexuality Outreach. And twenty years ago, with the beginning of the spring quarter at UCLA, I began my teaching career as a Graduate Student Instructor in the Classics department.
GSIs (or TAs, as they were still known then) often lectured in discussion sections. I remember being so nervous before my first lecture (I was not quite 24) that I threw up in the Bunche Hall men’s room before meeting my students. Most were only two or three years my junior. I was excited and terrified, but knew after the first week of teaching that this was the life I wanted.
Two decades later, I’m still teaching. And though I don’t get as nervous as I did in 1991, I still get butterflies from time to time. More to the point, however, I’m an infinitely better teacher than I was back then. And that brings me to my point.
In the current political climate, it’s become fashionable to attack public employees — teachers in particular. Conservatives who have never been enamored of public education hope to take advantage of a weak economy to strip teachers of their pensions, bargaining rights, tenure, and other job protections. These attacks are odious and indefensible, motivated less by concern with fiscal rectitude or the well-being of young people and more by a desire to destroy the progressive public service unions.
One bit of this emerging conservative conventional wisdom drives me nuts: the idea that teachers are at their best when they are new. Complaining about seniority rules that follow the tradition of “last hired, first fired”, education “reformers” often describe older instructors as “dead wood” and the newest and most vulnerable teachers as the ones who do the most valuable work. Even some ostensibly progressive voices agree, arguing that too many senior faculty have “given up”, while the young (and less well-paid) are the ones who are still engaged.
In what other profession do we express such open contempt for experience? Do people board airplanes, saying “Gosh, I really hope our captain and first officer are new at this — enthusiastic young pilots are the kind I trust most!” Do people go to hospitals, asking “Could you please have a resident operate on my child? I’m worried that an older and more experienced surgeon won’t do the job right.” Of course not. In every other profession, experience is valued. In every other profession, seniority is seen not just as a perk for sticking around but as a resource for the entire community.
I am still an enthusiastic professor. I’ve taught 15,000 students (at the least) since I faced that first class twenty years ago this month. Last fall, my in-class teaching evaluations were higher than they’d ever been before. Even as I’ve given the same lectures over and over again — about Cicero and clitorises, about Gilgamesh and intersectionality, about the Pauline epistles and Betty Friedan — I’ve found ways to change and refine what I say. I know I’d shudder if I heard one of my early lectures now, simply because I’ve gotten so much better at the job of delivering a good talk.
Of course, there’s more to teaching than lecturing. I am more compassionate, more patient, and much quicker to recognize when a student is struggling. (I’m also much more ethical — my infamous and inexcusable sexual relationships with students all happened early on in my career.) I can discern the difference between the lack of motivation and the presence of a genuine learning disability in a way I simply couldn’t years ago. Experience has given me these tools. And if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that no amount of youthful energy can compensate for the benefit of accumulated wisdom.
I make more money now. My first year as a TA, I was paid $1050 a month. My first year as a full-time prof at Pasadena City College, I made $27,000. I have a base salary of approximately three times that now. (Finishing my doctorate in 1999 boosted my compensation nicely.) Am I worth the salary and the benefits? I don’t know, but I do know I’m worth more than I was when I started. And judging by my colleagues whose work I know well, the same is true for them as well. As with every true calling, as with every profession, experience matters for those of us who sweat and strut in the classrooms.
It’s time we push back against the attempt to de-legitimize our profession, and to dismiss the very real benefits of seniority.