Compulsory retirement for teachers at 65 belongs in dark ages

‘I see wonderfully talented teachers forced into retirement, many with valuable experience’

Recently, in middle age, I graduated with a master's degree in teaching Chinese language and culture at University College Dublin. Because of Covid-19 the number of guests attending were kept to two. For the graduates in the O'Reilly Hall it was a happy occasion. But looking at the age spread around me I began to fume yet again about the reactionary rule that teachers must retire at 65, an age at which many of them could be extending their education and polishing their teaching skills.

I try to practise what I preach, so in early middle age I set out to first master Irish and then Mandarin Chinese, which I believe is the most important global second language of the future for young Irish people. My study of the Mandarin language began five years ago. Having received a professional diploma in the teaching of Chinese language and culture, I was encouraged to continue with the master’s programme.

It was tough going at first. Mandarin Chinese is not an easy language to acquire as it requires persistence, determination and commitment. But rising to the stiff challenge made it worthwhile. Further study at the Beijing Language & Culture university in Beijing gave me some fluency and, more recently my online studies at the Renmin university in Beijing, extended my range.

China, whether we like it or not, is increasingly becoming an economic world leader. As trade between Ireland and China continues to grow, more and more Irish people with Mandarin will find jobs in Chinese firms. Some will move to China but most will work from home.

Accordingly, I believe that every school should have Mandarin as part of their curriculum. As part of my own course, I had the opportunity to teach it to first-year students. They really rose to the linguistic challenge and especially enjoyed the cultural aspect of the course.

But more and more I'm being asked an ageist question: "Will you be retiring this coming year?" My answer is no. Although I represented my country as Miss Ireland in Japan in the late 1970s, graced the pages of magazines and newspapers as a fashion model, and had an acting career for a while, I knew I couldn't be in the public eye forever. So I set out as a mature student to achieve my lifelong ambition to become a teacher.

True, I was a late comer to the training needed for the profession but being a latecomer has many advantages – you are personally confident, have fewer social distractions, a more determined focus, and above all a lot of willpower.

First I gained an honours BA degree in 2004 in Irish, English, history of art and Italian. Then I went on to complete the higher diploma in education as well as a diploma in teaching English as a foreign language. This gave me immediate access to teaching in a secondary school. I started work in August 2004 and have been happily teaching ever since.

But in recent years I’ve become increasingly aware of a reactionary rule that belongs to the dark ages – not to modern Ireland. The current compulsory retirement age for teachers is 65 years for those who came into the profession before 2004. I believe it should be revised for three reasons.

First, the word “compulsory” needs to be removed; it belongs to a time when people grew older more quickly. Second, most of us in our 60s are fitter, healthier and more youthful in outlook than our parents’ generation. Third, we have better access to continuing further education.

That is why every teacher should be given the choice to remain in the job if they wish to do so. Every year I see wonderfully talented teachers forced into retirement, many highly qualified with very valuable experience. I’ve talked with many of them who have expressed their great disappointed and indeed felt somewhat insulted.

In 2003, Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fáil government and his finance minister, Charlie McCreevy, introduced a rule that allowed teachers and those in the public service who entered the profession between April 2004 and the 31st December 2012 to have the choice to remain in their job, if they so wished.

Happily, I happen to be one of that minority who will be able to take this opportunity. But I feel that every teacher should have this choice. More than half our population in Ireland is middle aged and many are not allowed to work much beyond the age of 65. This is ageism by any name.

Older teachers with their wealth of knowledge, vast experience and continuing education are bound to motivate their students and act as the mentors many young people crave.

Seeing their teacher make a lifelong commitment to learning encourages young students to do the same. Taught by older role models they realise they must equip themselves in a variety of ways for an ever-changing world. For this they need the maturity, dedication and care of the best teachers. As a teacher who is always in pursuit of fresh knowledge and new challenges I simply have no time to retire.