Why Lady Teachers are Best When Young

Our teachers taught us many things. In the process, they taught me something about school-teachers and school-teaching: lady teachers are best when they are young, gentlemen are best when they are old.

A few years ago, in the feedback forum of the Old Boys’ Association website, students from the 1970s and 1980s posted comments recalling their teachers, at times naming a few. What struck me was that some of the lady teachers who earned the praise, would have to beg for such expressions from later students. Simply put, they did not enjoy a healthy reputation by the 1990s.

Lady teachers who were good and popular when I was in junior school had turned bad and unpopular by the time I was in high school. Their counterparts in senior school too were good and popular, but invariably lost sheen by the time I left Loyola, or within a few years.

What do I mean by a “good” teacher? A good teacher is one who treats students like her own, tries to innovate in class, or encourages students to realise their potential in extra-curricular activities. A bad and unpopular teacher is conservative in the classroom, spends little time with students, hurts students through harsh methods of punishment, and appears to hate students than love them.

If we plot a teacher’s age on the x-axis and a teacher’s “good”ness on the y-axis, the career graph of a lady school-teacher would be a downward-sloping curve from left to right.

What could be the explanation for this? Is it that people grow tired over the years and prefer to go over the motions? Is it that the salary is not attractive for constant innovation?

My pet reason is as outlandish as the observation: the lady teacher’s son grew old.

Let me explain. A lady teacher enjoys solid reputation when she teaches students who are older than her own child. She is at her best when her students are roughly the same age as her child. As her child outgrows her students (remember, a teacher remains in Std IV while her son or daughter moves up), the teacher gradually turns indifferent, impatient, and generally less-liked. The lady teacher grows with her own child. So, typically a retiring lady teacher is likely to be less popular than in the past because her son or daughter would have entered college by then. That seems to have been the case of teacher X in senior school, who was popular in the 1970s and early 1980s, but less so by the 1990s. Teacher Y in junior school was popular when I was her student, but less so ten years later, because her child was by then studying in the senior school.

(The internet’s permanence endows it with an ability to be damaging and nasty. I also recognise that my article is based on anecdotal evidence, not a scientific survey. So, in all fairness, I desist from naming teachers.)

I do not see such an unhappy coincidence in the case of male teachers, though. Indeed, the opposite seems to hold true in their case. A male teacher is at his best when he approaches retirement (or teaches after retirement).

If we plot a teacher’s age on the x-axis and a teacher’s “good”ness on the y-axis, the career graph of a male school-teacher would be a wavy curve that initially rises, then falls, and finally rises.

Let me guess what’s happening. As a new broom, he is adventurous and popular. After a few years, as he is reined in by “realistic” colleagues and withdraws, his career curve starts falling. In this phase, he is a bad teacher: shunning innovation, strict, inward-looking, and apparently hurting students in words and deeds. Somewhere along the way (I haven’t found an inflection point like the lady teacher’s son’s age) the male teacher matures, turns accommodating, becomes open to students’ ideas, is less spiteful, and is most knowledgeable in the subject as well as pedagogy.

I repeat, I do not know why this happens. Probably, he has reflected on his career and is trying to avoid the mistakes of the past. Like the lady teachers, the male teacher’s children too may have grown older than his students, but that does not seem to have adversely affected the male teacher’s performance in school.

The male teacher seems to be career-driven while the female teacher is family-driven.

There are two reasons why I share my outlandish observation and theory publicly.

  1. If what I have sketched is true, then it has an implication for hiring teachers, and training them at appropriate stages in their careers. An “experienced” lady teacher, not the “pretty, young thing”, might be the one who badly requires a refresher course in education. Similarly, the middle-aged male teacher needs help and should be encouraged to reflect actively. A combined refresher session — male and female teachers of all ages sitting together — may not be the best course for Loyola to adopt.
  2. I seek validation or repudiation. Is my observation true? What has been your experience at Loyola or any other school? Is my explanation correct? What could be happening here? (Please do not identify teachers by names, especially if you are portraying them as “bad” teachers.)

Post your comments

15 Comments

  • Hi Ashok,
    Very debatable topic as usual :-)…I dont quite agree with what you seem to say. The only qualities which determine a teachers ability to win trust with the students are knowledge of the subject, passion for teaching and being politely firm in getting what he/she wants from the students in terms of desired results.

    Many exceptions can be stated to counter your point of view. As you said its nt good to mention names but i guess many of the Junior School teachers still enjoy a good rapport with the students despite serving the school for such a long time. This is just my point of view and i know that I may be wrong too since my opinion also is not coming from the result of any scientific study…Interesting topic though …

  • Interesting! I am not sure if I’ve observed what you suggest in this blog entry about teacher-age relational behavior. But you seem to have missed out one very important factor which students use to form an opinion of a teacher. Feedback from their seniors.

    For example, when I was in Class 1, everyone was excitedly looking forward to Class 2 because our seniors and their seniors had all told us how cool the Class 2 teacher was. In junior school, I remember blindly accepting public opinion and accordingly liking/disliking a teacher based on that.

    But as I grew older, often enough, I was puzzled by how a particular teacher was so popular when to all purposes he/she seemed to be seriously lacking in many good qualities expected in a Loyola teacher.

    One other argument that might work against your aging theory and the teacher-having-a-young-son idea would be that a teacher in her late 40s and 50s would have a high chance of having a few grandkids. Hmm, so maybe that’s it. Having her own grandkids, she may not feel affectionate towards other kids of that age and might be just going through the motions.

    Oh by the way, I just stumbled upon your blog. I read quite a few entries and it’s all a little nostalgic in a nice way.

    I am from the 95 ISC batch. Studied in Loyola from 82-95.

  • I disagree.
    Of all the teachers who taught me, some whom i really didn tlike were real young.
    Ashok, i really think its just your view. Its subjective

    Ironic. I came here to check for tips. I’m supposed to write a piece about a teacher tonight for the skool magaz.

  • I would tend to disagree with you but I have no data to support my stand…never bothered to find out opinions of teachers held by different batches. I consider myself very lucky to be taught by some of the experienced women teachers at the fag end of their careers in Loyola and who began their careers in loyola in the 70’s or probably 60’s too. They may not have been innovative in their teaching methods but they had by then perfected their own style, method and an incredible efficiency in the way they taught us…most of them even had their own trademarked sense of humour and sarcasm.

    I know what I said above wouldn’t concur with your description of a “good teacher”, I would qualify your definition for a “good teacher” as one for a “great teacher”(they are so few and far between and we will all personally know who all qualify for that tag of greatness in our life) but atleast I agree with you on the “bad teacher” definition. These old-timers rarely disappointed me and I actually found these teachers to be much better at their craft than the relatively younger ones in the mid-stages of their career. Was never ever taught by a rank newcomer while at Loyola, but from what I have heard from current loyolites, they don’t match up to the veterans.

    But come to think of it, many of these women worked at Loyola for 20 and 30 years…we have seen many come in and barely survive a year. When they retired one by one, I would ask myself several questions – Why didn’t Loyola retain their services longer – Who could replace them – Who will teach me these same subjects next year – Was there a retirement age – Did these women retire on their own or were forced out- Did they go in search of higher-pay?!?!

    Ashok, you have this ability to get us off our emotional core and think logically for a change and come up with some analysis, for each and every one of your posts.

  • I (passed out in 2001) would not arrive at a similar conclusion, Ashok. Just as we were leaving college, Loyola seemed blessed with one amazing teacher in DP. People still sing praises about her, but to use your yardstick, her son is finishing up his engg. degree. On the other hand, teachers like Anil Kumar (Malayalam, NCC) and Biju (Maths, sadly he did not stick around for too long) were quite young and seemed like eager teachers who earned almost unanimous trust. Geeta Madam taught us physics in Std VI and was quite popular when her son was in the twelfth. Mrs Kusum Chandragupta too was popular when she taught us Mathematics. She was not very young.

  • Sorry, Ashok. Your post-end dictum slipped my mind. Anyway, I ve not identified any “bad” teachers here.

  • Jiby,

    Your note about how some teachers do not survive a year brought back an interesting memory from when we are in the 8th standard.

    We had a new Physics teacher and she was, to put it mildly, totally incompetent. A few of the more active parents in the PTA complained about her.

    For some very peculiar reason, the Principal (Fr Philip Thayyil) called me to his room, and asked me about her. I was not the class leader and I wasn’t at the top of the class academically. So it still baffles me why I was picked.

    I told him I needed a day to do this. I went home and wrote up 2 pages on her teaching. I mentioned a few good points and matched each of them with two other negatives. I handed it to Fr Philip the next day.

    In a week she was fired. Obviously I have no idea how much my feedback played a role. But that was the only time in my entire life where I could have been indirectly responsible for someone losing his or her job. Odd feeling that!

    But the core point here is that Fr Philip was prepared to get feedback on a teacher from an 8th standard student. I wonder how many other schools would have done this 🙂

  • Ashok,

    This is a post that could invite (has already invited) controversy. And that can be attributed to the subjectivity involved. If you ask me to evaluate your observation strictly with the Loyola teachers (of 1980s and early ’90s) in mind, I do see the validity of your observation. I can cite several instances where lady teachers (considered exceptional not so long ago) turned out to be quite painful as they grew older and male teachers getting better with age.

    There could be reason why you and I concur. Both of us have been in Loyola during the same ‘era’ (so to say) and would have had almost the same set of teachers at least until std VIII. So you and I are looking at the same sample. When I look back at my Loyola days, I don’t remember more than a handful of young male teachers; so here again I may be looking at the exception and considering him to be the rule. Most of the male teachers during my time in Loyola were already in the autumn of their teaching careers.

    Even though you have limited your observation to school-teaching and school teachers, I have tried to look at my college/university teachers through the same lens. And not surprisingly, for a larger sample size (my post-Loyola experiences) your observations do not hold true. I have had a host of young male teachers during my post-graduation who have been very good going by your definition of “goodness”. Perhaps they would get better as time passes and as they age, which would definitely support one aspect of your observation. However, in the limited time frame of a year or two that I have interacted with them, I have felt that they were gradually losing their idealism (which partly determines how “good” teachers they are). I have not had many lady teachers worth remembering (for good or bad) post-Loyola.

    Thought provoking, however controversial this topic may be!

  • Must confess that the near-complete disagreement surprises me.

    Thanks Sandeep for pointing out that the sample of teachers may not be the same. That probably explains why Sandeep, Nish and I share roughly the same assessment of teacher performance — now, when we look back. And yes Jiby, even when all of us are talking of the same teachers, the difference in perception is due to my benchmark being high. I would urge all of you who nodded just now to raise the standards you set for yourselves and others 🙂

    Jiby asked why none begged the retiring teachers to stay on. Maybe my theory explains the weeding out of the Mafia. Aju’s response puts me in a fix — I can’t respond publicly even though I disagree with him on specifics. I think some of his examples (a) have not taught in Loyola for even 5 years for us to make a judgement, (b) have a long career ahead of them. Thus, for example, the gentlemen he mentions will fall and rise, unless they read this blogpost and remain ‘cool’ throughout. 🙂 Sandeep, my experience with post-Loyola teachers have been the same, but only in India. At LSE, the older ones were much better than the younger ones. Nish, where will you wash away all this guilt of being an accomplice? 🙂 Why didn’t the parents give their views in writing, I wonder. Is Loyola more sinister than even I believe? Ha ha.

    I expected cryptically encoded references to teachers to convey specifics — without Google ruining their retired/working lives. But none of you went that route! Cowards! 🙂 You guys can post anonymously if you want, but please use imaginative usernames so that others can respond. Remember, all this is for us to get a truer picture of who the commenter is referring to and to do it without taking any of us too seriously. Each commenter can use his own cryptic code for a teacher, irrespective of the code others are using for the same teacher. No names, no nicknames popular in school, and no obvious initials please.

    Let me kick off.

    I think Eminence and the Society of Jesuits suffered from declining tolerance levels, and the Rector’s conservatism chokes newer teachers — all this in junior school. Gavaskar was well-liked in senior school till she became too senior for the school. Most lady teachers in Loyola were nice to us, but were they good teachers? The Sauce was probably a role model, but she too is covered by my theory, in my assessment. On the gents’ side, name three good Sirs and all of them are likely to have retired or approaching retirement. Even Jackie Chan, I would argue, had a rise, fall and rise career.

    End of encoding. Ok, now, Karthik — out with your counter-examples please. And Hari, what makes you say that my theory is “debatable”?

    And here’s where I trigger an avalanche. I say (without encoding) that in performance, the Jesuit priests were like lady teachers — the years they were young, were the best years of their lives. As they grew old, they politicked more and turned conservative. Fr C P Varkey is the only case I know of a ‘villain’ turning hero. Lesson? Jesuits should be Principals when they are young.

  • Ah well, if thee permits so, i should take a more open stance.

    We had this lady teacher, who taught(or as we say tried to teach) here for around 5 years. She believed that to make a student study he had to fail for an exam or so. She taught us from 9th to 11th. And we have had times when the class ‘achieved’ 100% failure for maths. That is to say every single guy, including the 11 at NIT’s and 2 at IIT’s failed for the core subject.

    Needless to say she was not liked, if not hated, by most of the school, even some of the staff and the parents. They said she spoiled our interest in studies. Maybe they were right. For there were times when we would appear for exams having not even flicked through the pages, for we were not tensed- for we knew.. that the whole class would fail. So why bother? As i said most teachers thought she was a bit cracked too. One even told us “anyhow you will fail the subject. Why try? ” That was her ‘popularity’

    We have boycotted her classes even. Came without doing the hw. Had occassions when the whole class was send out and we gladly went out. Had occassions when we simply refused to open the book during class.

    Finally after 3 years, near the end of 11th she came to our class n said “Because of you boy’s im leaving”
    And left she did. And i think then for the first time Loyola rejoiced at a teacher leaving.

    About them having children our age etc.
    She din’t have any.
    She just adored anyone whom she reckoned was dedicated to math.

  • Asok I disagree.Madam Murray was not up to the mark when she taught us in std5. But later on when she was my son’s teacher I found her to be more mature in dealings related to my son’s studies and other activities in school.Experience counts.

  • It would be news to many readers that Murray Madam once taught Std V. At Loyola, Mrs Merl Murray was (is?) synonymous with Std II.

    Rajiv, thanks for sharing that inter-generation experience. I would assume her to be part of the junior school mafia now 🙂 In the case of lady teachers, I’ve felt that “experience” makes them more rigid and conservative, and less energetic and dynamic.

    There might an exception or two among lady teachers. Just as with male teachers — all of us can recall those who were bad till their day of retirement, right?

  • Ashok Chetta…

    I don’t agree with you in some points. I have seen a teacher who has earned the respect she deserved, and I too respect her, very much. She used to teach me in junior classes, and even when she was not taking class, you could really say she was the teacher!! She had two brilliant sons and one of them has been my dad’s student…she has taught me and my brother, and I’ve noticed no change in her teaching, her popularity, respect towards her, or anything of that sort. Maybe, because, she stands out… but I’m saying it…I’ve been seeing her for 13 years, and no change observed in this time!! But I’ve seen other teachers loose all that…mainly due to change in attitude, I hope…

    About the male teachers, ya, you are right, though I’ve nothing to comment!! 😉

  • Nitin, thank you for sharing your experience. I agree (as I replied to Rajiv) that there might be exceptions.