“What is it like teaching students who are 30-40 years younger than you?”
“How long can you last in TEFL without your age becoming a drawback for the students?”
These are interesting questions, which most teachers, if they remain in the profession, are bound to consider sooner or later.
TEFL is often seen as essentially a “young person’s game” and the stereotypical TEFLer is a bright eyed and bushy tailed recent graduate, keen on sampling the joys of a new culture while making a bit of cash before going back home and getting a “proper job”. And it’s probably true that many students are attracted by and enjoy the prospect of being taught by a young native speaker.
So does this mean that the older teacher will inevitably be seen in a negative light? I don’t actually think so, for several reasons.
When being older could be an advantage
First, many cultures revere age, and an older teacher may find it easier to command the respect of a group of highly-educated professional adults, say, than a younger person. In addition, an older, more experienced teacher will often be more skilled in essential classroom techniques and be better able to answer tricky questions.
As far as being able to relate to teenagers is concerned, I’m not sure that age is automatically a drawback. The teenage years are so peculiar in many ways that once we are “out the other side” it can be hard to recall what they were like even a few years later. In this sense, whether a teacher is 25 or 55 makes little difference to their ability to empathise with adolescent angst. In addition, an older teacher may well have had experience of being a parent and have gained insight into the teenage mind from that perspective.
When to let the younger teachers take the stage
Having said all that, it’s true that there are certain types of teaching – Very Young Learners comes to mind – that an older teacher may well decide are best left to younger colleagues, but overall I don’t think a teacher need worry overmuch about getting on a bit. The key thing is to try to remain open to new ideas and avoid getting stale, and that is true for all of us.
Tim Julian got on a bus bound for Italy in 1982, armed only with a scribbled address, a preparatory teaching certificate and 100 pounds to tide him over. He has worked in Hungary and Spain as well as Italy, and for many years he was the Director of Studies at International House La Spezia where he still works part-time as a teacher.
Photo AW: San Francisco, 2017