Professional Learning

Retired Teachers Put Life Lessons to Good Use

January 27, 2009

Michele McRae retired from a long and enjoyable career as a professor of English and French, only to find herself bored silly as a retiree. "I lasted about three weeks," she says. And so she got busy. In Fargo, North Dakota, McRae now runs a program called Giving + Learning that connects refugees from war-torn corners of the globe with 500 local volunteers who help the newcomers learn English and navigate the challenges of starting over in a new country.

I met McRae recently when she was honored as a 2008 recipient of the Purpose Prize, an award that recognizes people 60 and older who are addressing some of society's biggest challenges. Their inspiring stories illustrate the potential of what's been dubbed the encore career. During this later-in-life career stage, the focus seems to be all about making a difference.

Changing Lives

Indeed, what a difference these folks are making. Mark Goldsmith, a former cosmetics-industry executive, is now helping ex-cons from Rikers Island stay out of prison through his program Getting Out and Staying Out. As founder of the Corporation for Economic Opportunity, Joe James is bringing green jobs and clean energy to black farmers in the rural South. Catalino Tapia, who had only a sixth-grade education when he left Mexico for California, now provides college scholarships for the children of landscapers through the Bay Area Gardeners Foundation.

For each Purpose Prize winner, there are thousands more choosing not to ease quietly into traditional retirement activities such as golf or bingo. In fact, during the Purpose Prize festivities and accompanying Encore Careers Summit, more than one speaker invoked the word troublemaker to describe himself or herself (which invariably brought huzzahs of approval from the audience). And although, for financial reasons, some retirees plan to keep working, more and more are making career decisions that will enable them to leave a legacy of good work.

Retirement on the Horizon

Eight thousand baby boomers are turning 60 every day -- a fast-growing demographic. Increasingly, this population bulge will be made up of former teachers: More than half of current educators are poised to retire during the coming decade.

The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future is among the organizations looking for ways to turn this potential staffing crisis into an opportunity, perhaps by forging relationships between new teachers and experienced mentors. (Find more about this initiative in this post on the NCTAF site.) It's an idea to keep in mind the next time you are invited to a retirement party for a colleague: Imagine the benefits if we could capture all that experience and teaching talent.

Certainly, there's no lack of support to help this generation make a smooth transition to a rewarding second act. Encore, a program of Civic Ventures, which sponsors the Purpose Prize, is creating an online community to help boomers find, as the program describes it, "work that matters in the second half of life." The Experience Corps engages older adults as tutors and mentors to help struggling young readers in twenty-three cities. And a network of local nonprofit organizations and community colleges is ramping up to help boomers find their new focus through an effort called the Next Chapter.

If you're a teacher approaching retirement age, how are you planning to use your time and talents once you exit the profession? What will you do for your encore? Please share your thoughts.

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