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Ageism in ELT

May 27, 2009

Hello again,

Discussions of ageism in ELT crop up fairly regularly and cause me to think about the topic in a way that goes beyond the simple complaint that employers often discriminate against older teachers.

The first question I ask is whether ageism is more...

... entrenched in ELT than other professions. If we take areas such law or medicine, the older practitioner is often revered for wisdom and experience. Indeed any profession that has a sense of hierarchy may well have older people in senior positions. Yet if an older person applied for a junior post in such fields, would they be welcomed? My suspicion is that discrimination against older people is likely to occur in any field if people are viewed as being on a progressive career path and somebody tries to enter at what is seen as an inappropriate point. I have been in a situation in which I interviewed candidates for a teaching post and one of the candidates was a senior professional who had been made redundant from his last position. The general feeling among the interviewers was that he would be dissatisfied with the more lowly post being offered. To the candidate this may have seemed like ageism but for the employer it was more that he was seen as meriting a higher level of responsibility.

The second question I want to raise is the whether the youthful nature of most learners is a factor. Do employers feel that younger teachers would have greater empathy with their students? I have noted that in one centre I teach in, where the learners are often senior business people in middle age, most of the tutors are in their forties and fifties.

The next point concerns cultural differences and national employment patterns and laws. In western countries we have almost a cult of youth. Age is equated with an inescapable diminution of looks, physical prowess and mental agility. Yet in other cultures older people are respected for their accumulation of knowledge, experience and wisdom. Within these different attitudes there may be sex biases too. Older women may be viewed more negatively than older men in some societies. When it comes to employment patterns and laws, there is a vast variation across the globe. Age discrimination is against the law in the UK, for example, but some countries have statutory retirement ages, sometimes as young as 55.

My final point concerns the image of older people promulgated by ELT textbooks.
Several commentators have noted that the world of the ELT coursebook is populated by young, dynamic people. The image of older people is often projected through negatives, with a focus on what older people can no longer do. While the textbook may be seen as peripheral to the argument of age discrimination in employment, it serves to reinforce the sense that older people are somehow not a part of the ELT world.

Do any of these reflections lead me to make any helpful suggestion to older teachers looking for work? I think firstly that it is probably necessary to take a pragmatic approach. Ageism may be wrong but it is a fact of life. The older teacher may need to do extra research to find out where employers are likely to be less youth-obsessed. If experience rather than earnings are the object, then volunteer work could be a good option. Business English is another field in which the teacher’s previous experience might be seen as valuable.

To explore the topic further, see the 2002 IATEFL article by Bill Templer .

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  1. mel Says:

    WHAT? You are a mind reader now? You, and your colleagues, should be ashamed of yourselves for rejecting an older person because you think he would be unhappy in a lower level position! To reject him because he "was seen as meriting a higher level of responsibility." is just your foolish justification for age discrimination!

  1. Dave B Says:

    Dear Brenda

    I'd like to raise the issue of differences in ageism across the globe. I have worked in a number of countries, mainly teaching business English. Across Europe, Madrid, Cologne, Turin and Milan and Poland, I worked with many an older person who were liked by students and valued by the company as much as anyone else I worked with based on the merit of their teaching ability. I have to add that these were usually male who had formerly had another career.

    When I came to Asia, i found that ageism is just part of a spectrum of ill-informed bigotry on the part of schools, parents and students when choosing a teacher. In certain parts of Asia, age, race, obesity, even physical attractiveness are a bar to employment. Ludicrous as it may seem, many colleagues can cite examples where each of these irrelevant factors have either barred someone from employment or subject them to a hostile time at work and eventually being fired for some excuse because they didnt look the part.

    Nevertheless, the young attractive blue-eyed blond Swedes and Danes with suspect grammar and unclear accents who are exmployed because they look the part are not immune to complaints about their teaching. Probably because they are not trained and are not native speakers.

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