The benefit of experience

This week I’ve been reading through my List in Pocket (the single most useful app I have installed) of all the blogs, articles, links and clips I’d seen during the last term but not had the time to consume and digest. In my trawl through I found this excellent paper from the states: 

In a nutshell, the answer is “yes.” Or, as Mark McCourt (the wonderful @EMathsUK on Twitter) put it: 

Yes, in the summary of the research Kini and Podolsky clarify the following: 

  • Teaching experience is positively associated with student achievement gains throughout a teacher’s career.
  • Teachers’ effectiveness increases at a greater rate when they teach in a supportive and collegial working environment.
  • More experienced teachers support greater student learning for their colleagues and the school as a whole, as well as for their own students.
  • On average, the most effective 20-year teachers are significantly more effective than the most effective first-year teachers 

Or, in summary: 

Our research does not indicate that the passage of time will make all teachers better or incompetent teachers effective. However, it does indicate that, for most teachers, experience increases effectiveness. (Kini and Podolsky, 2016)

This isn’t news, surely? Yet my tweet about this study attracted a number of replies discussing examples of schools undervaluing experienced staff and the “cult of youth” which sees some schools placing too much emphasis on new career entrants with “fresh ideas” and “energy.” I know that schools benefit massively from trainees, NQTs and RQTs, with all those fresh ideas and energy – that isn’t what this blog is about. What it’s about instead is the value that experienced staff bring to a school and why we should value them, listen to them, and above all retain them in the profession. 

I can remember being an NQT and looking in awe at those with ten, fifteen or twenty years experience. Their command of the room, their command of their material, and their command of their craft was inspiring. I’m no fool: I watched and learned, hungry for the secrets of success that, in my first faltering forays into the classroom, I sadly lacked. And, although I am now entering the 20th year of my teaching career myself, I’ve never stopped. 

I was only in my sixth year of teaching when I became a Head of Department. It was too soon. In time, I got better, but I can remember some cringeworthy naïve mistakes that I made in my first year or so. In particular, challenging an experienced member of staff about underperformance. I was well-supported by the Headteacher, carefully briefed, and it needed to be done, but I know I made an unremitting hash of that conversation. I simply didn’t have the experience to carry it off properly, to do it justice, to be fair to that colleague. It was embarrassing. Those conversations are never easy, but with a few more years under my belt I know I would have handled it better. I made a conscious decision to wait for my next promotion until I was experienced enough to be ready – I did eight years as Head of Faculty before applying for SLT positions. 

Throughout that time, I’ve been watching and learning from colleagues more experienced than me. I’ve watched them teach, and picked up as many of the tips and tricks that they’ve learned as I can. As an aspiring Headteacher, I visited and spoke to as many experienced Heads as I could to learn from them. I’ve read everything Tom Sherrington and John Tomsett have ever posted, and read books by John, Vic Goddard and others, for the same reason. But the fact is, you only really get better at doing this job – teaching, or Headteaching – by actually doing it. 

I’ve learned an awful lot in the first seven months of Headship, and had many of my ideas confirmed. One of the latter is the value of experienced staff to the school as a whole. Those teachers who have been at the school for years and seen Heads and Secretaries of State come and go (ideally fewer of the former than the latter), who are teaching the children of the children they taught earlier in their career, who have seen trends and fads rise and fall and carried on regardless. These are the ones you need – who make the school what it is. John Tomsett wrote about this in his interview with his longest serving teacher back in 2013. It is these staff who provide the skeleton of the school: the backbone, rib cage and skull that hold it all together and keep it safe. And I had this personally confirmed to me at the end of term when Chris George retired. 

Chris has taught at Churchill for 22 years, the majority of those as Head of Sixth Form. When I first started, I spent a fascinating hour with him getting under the skin of the school over that time. Before he retired, we spent another hour where he generously told me exactly what he thought I needed to hear after my first seven months. Both conversations were invaluable. And his leaving speech, delivered in the sunshine on the last day of term after the staff barbecue, was one for the ages. He talked about what experience had taught him over his career, and passed it on to all of us. Most importantly, his speech was based around the advice he was given as an NQT himself, by his experienced mentor. Advice that had stayed with him throughout his career. “Treat people like people” was one of those nuggets – and I’ve made that a motto for my own Headship. “Chris Hildrew, coming in here with his new-fangled ideas!” said Chris – a dig I definitely enjoyed! He also advised us to look after our mental health, to seek help if we needed it, and not to try and pretend that everything was okay if it isn’t. This is advice that needs to be heard in staff rooms up and down the country. He also advised teachers to always carry a piece of paper with them when walking around the site, because it made it look like you were doing something important and stopped people bothering you. 

He finished with the words of Norman Stanley Fletcher

 It is vital to our profession that we create those supportive and collegial environments, cherish the teachers who have the experience, and listen – really listen – to them. We have much to learn. Because we’ve recruited fantastic teachers to replace our leavers this year. But it’ll take 22 years before they’re as good as Chris George. And there are no short cuts.

9 thoughts on “The benefit of experience

  1. Interesting and powerful post Chris. I found this paper fascinating for the same reasons you did and deplore the waste and disregard of experience in so many schools. But I have to disagree that “you only really get better at doing this job – teaching, or Headteaching – by actually doing it”. There are certainly huge benefits and things you can only know or do well having been through them, or seen through them, once. But I find it defeatist to believe every teacher and head is doomed to make the same mistakes and that there’s no way to accelerate or improve this learning process. What you’ve done, in setting out to learn everything you can from other heads is an excellent example of seeking to avoid avoidable mistakes.

    This recent paper ( may also be lurking in your Pocket: it showed that experienced teachers tend to move away from the schools in which they are most needed. Accepting that teachers can only improve through painful experience condemns these students to worse educational prospects. Our focus must be on finding short cuts for the teachers and heads serving them.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Harry. I actually agree with you – I think I phrased my argument badly there. What I was getting at was that there are certain things – particularly in Headship, but also in teaching – that I am only better at now for having experienced them. I didn’t mean to imply that careful research, training and preparation couldn’t prepare us better for those roles. In actual fact, perhaps because I had been warned by my inexperience as a new Head of Department, I put extra effort into my training and preparation for senior leadership and especially Headship which has undoubtedly helped me be much more prepared for that step up that I would otherwise have been. However, I do still stand by the thrust of my argument: that no matter how good the training, research and preparation, there really is no substitute for actually doing the job for real to help you get better at it.
      I hadn’t seen that link – but it’s now in my Pocket and certainly gives me food for thought. I’m planning a post on recruitment and retention for later in the summer and I’ll try and incorporate some of those ideas. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks Chris. I certainly have seen my own tea Hong change in only 3 years…mostly by listening,watching and being part of a sharing/ teaching cohort in our school. I’m also glad that I joined teaching at the young age of 46 because my own life experience has helped me to be resilient in tough times and share the joys of the good times. Experience doesn’t have an alternative. does what it say’s on the tin! Wisdom and wise words…food for thought as always. I hope you get chance to have a breathing space this summer. 🍹

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  4. Really good post, Chris – and you’ve made me think, as ever. As I think you know, I’m a great fan of the Robert Quinn (2004) quotation: ‘We build the bridge as we walk on it’. My research into the transition to headship, in addition to my experience, confirmed for me this idea that, although we can prepare for new roles and responsibilities in a number of ways – whether it’s your first ML role, an SL role, or headship, and we certainly SHOULD prepare – nevertheless ultimately we can only continue our learning by doing the job. That’s true of teaching too. And I say ‘continue’, not ‘complete’. I don’t think the learning is ever completed. I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve learnt about headship since I stopped being a head in 2010!

    Re: your comment about a challenge you experienced as a HoD and your reflection that “I simply didn’t have the experience to carry it off properly, to do it justice, to be fair to that colleague”, I can definitely identify with that. I was a HoD at 31, not as young as you, but I led a department of seven women who were all considerably older than me and I cringe when I remember some of the mistakes I made. But I learnt from the mistakes, and I certainly learnt from these women, and I think that made me a better senior leader in due course. One of the great things about the world of Twitter and blogs is, I think, if we’re receptive, we can reflect and learn from the experiences of others in addition to our own. That way we can perhaps avoid being “doomed to make the same mistakes”, as Harry puts it. I think those whose career path is accelerated because of their ability and potential just need to watch this – emotional maturity is important and sometimes we have to take care not to rush in and think we’re ready when we need more time and experience first.

    Finally, I remember when I got my deputy headship, I joined another school with a stable, established staff and made the mistake of naturally gravitating towards those who were in their 20s and 30s. I was 37 and felt more comfortable with them, I think. And then an experienced colleague has the confidence to point this out to me and to warn me that I was in danger of failing fully to appreciate the strengths of (and to work to build the most positive relationships with) the more mature members of staff, including those who were on the verge of retirement. She was right. I learnt from this, and remembered it when I became a head in another school five years later, too.

    Sorry this comment is almost as long as your post! Being succinct is something I’m still working on! Have a great summer, and I hope you feel you’re able to strike the right balance of catching up/preparing and resting and spending some time not even thinking about education!

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