The Seven Ages of Teaching


I return again to one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, As You Like It, to offer a very loose interpretation of the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech for teachers. First, recall the original speech:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. As, first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

So here, if you will excuse a bit of forcing, are the Seven Ages of Teaching:

The first age. Writhing and puking are good metaphors for what infant teachers appear to do. Their successes are often serendipitous, their mistakes unsightly, if not egregious. They have not yet developed a coherent style in the classroom or a full grasp of their subject-matter.

The second age. These schoolboy teachers are new to the profession but not so new as to find things as exciting as they once did. They may have just gotten tenure and can easily fall into the dullness of routine, “creeping unwillingly to school.”

The third age. A more mature teacher, but one still seeking juvenile satisfactions in the classroom. Teachers in this age may engage in Internet correspondences with students that go on too long, beers after class, and, at the worst, infatuations that result in broken marriages and sexual harassment suits.

The fourth age. This is the careerist teacher for whom teaching is a mere way station to getting ahead—which is to say, doing the conference circuit, making it onto the administrative track, and getting out of the classroom as much as possible.

The fifth age. This magistrate teacher will pontificate in the classroom, under the assumption that students will hang on every word. Such teachers tend to be male, where pomposity seems to be a more natural appendage to middle age, but women are now entering this age too, as they gain more power and prestige in the profession.

The sixth age. Teachers in this age no longer teach but hold onto their office space and make use of secretarial help for their correspondence with fellow sixth-age academics. Finally, of course, they succumb to full retirement—to work on their memoirs or their novel: The seventh age.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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