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Retired Teachers Put Life Lessons to Good Use

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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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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Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

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Leigh's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am not of retirement age, but this article made me think of someone who is. My friend Barbara taught for over 30 years in public schools around the US and a military school in Belgium. Teaching was her passion, her joy, her life. When she decided to retire, it was a decision made with a heavy heart.

After less than 4 months away from the classroom, she was itching to get back. Barbara began volunteering at a local elementary school, helping run centers, assisting with art projects, tutoring a special needs child. She was available to assist with stapling, collating, and grading. Beginning teachers asked for her advice, veteran teachers asked for her opinions.

Barbara was at the school so often, she eventually applied to be a substitute teacher so she could "be back in the game".

I don't think teaching is just something you can leave. It's a career that becomes your life. When I finally reach the formal end of my teaching career, I hope that I am able to do what Barbara has done: stay connected to what I love most - helping children learn.

Peggy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I so agree that keeping a passion about life if the way to never grow old. Happiness is what happensto us when we try to make someone else happy.

Jen  Avenell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello, I am also not close to retirement. I have seen many great teachers retire. Then they always come back to be an aide or a sub. I think it is great when they are subs because they know the students. The students love it when they are their sub.

I know I get antsy when I am on break. I love my fall and spring break. At the end I am always ready to get back to structure.

In think it is great that retire teachers are finding differnet ways to help around the world. They are a book of knowledge. I hope someday I can help like that too.

Lacey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved the subject surrounding the love affair that people had with continuing to change the world despite age or circumstance. I am not of retirement age, yet find myself daydreaming of traveling, helping those who truly need it, and knowing that I made a difference somewhere with someone. I find that it is so hard to follow this dream based upon the bills that inevitably follow the life that I am trying to build; plus,the responsibility of raising three little ones to be compassionate and responsible people.

I also veer toward a slight tinge of jealousy when I read of these incredibly selfless acts that people are able to achieve. Just out of curiosity, do you believe that these people would have been able to achieve such great things and blindly follow a dream if they were younger? Is it the life experiences and the lifestyle that develops around an older generation that allows for this type of truly phenomenal achievement to take place? I am interested because I have been wanting to do more with my educational aspirations that bleed into other places and unfamiliar faces. This tugging flares up despite seeming utterly irresponsible.

For those that are free to follow onto the next chapter and become passionate again I applaud you!

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Lacey,
I've been lucky to interview many people who give their all to improving the world. They're often called social entrepreneurs. They come in all ages and draw on diverse backgrounds. Some are barely out of their teens when they get started. Others wait years for the right opportunity to come along.
Instead of putting your dreams on hold, maybe you can find a way to put your energies to good work locally? Every community needs people willing to roll up their sleeves and dig in on local challenges. As a parent, you'll be setting a powerful role model for your children by showing them what it looks like to pursue your passions--close to home or around the world.
Good luck!

PaulKFox's picture
Retired Music Teacher and Performing Arts Curriculum Leader

As a recently retired music teacher, I am enjoying the freedom to pursue my creativity roots and to offer service to others. I am writing blogs about "the retirement transition" because I know many of my fellow music educator retirees are facing problems adjusting to this "life-changing passage." One of my favorite articles is "What I Have Learned from My Dogs... In Retirement" (see PKF

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