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Virginia Journal of Education

By Susan N. Graham

A lot of people say the best thing about teaching is June, July and August. Well, real teachers know better—our summers are short and often full of summer school or graduate courses, or staff development and school improvement work. Still, it’s great to have time to sit on the porch with the morning paper or eat lunch in a restaurant. But maybe the best thing about summer is that teachers have closure on each school year. There’s time to reflect on our successes and challenges. Every year is a unique opportunity to start over. For me, January 1 has never been New Year’s Day. For as long as I can remember, the first day of my year—the day I put my mistakes behind me, make my resolutions, and turn over a clean page is the first day of school.

The first day of school is not just a clean page; it’s a whole new lesson plan book with no mark-outs, erasures or arrows moving this to there and that to here. My classroom floors are shiny. The top of my desk isn’t cluttered with make-up work, papers to be graded, and reports to be completed. The bulletin board is up and the whiteboard is clean. The pencils are sharpened and the printer has ink. I’ve caught up with colleagues and I’ve met the kids and parents. I’ve done some professional reading, attended a conference, and have planned some new projects and strategies. I’ve eased back into a morning routine, had my hair cut, and bought some back-to-school shoes that I just know will keep my feet from killing me. There’s that building sense of anticipation that is part sadness that vacation is over, part anxiety about unknown challenges of a new group of students, and part excitement over the possibilities of beginning again. The first day of school is the touchstone of my year.
But this year I skipped the first day of school. On Tuesday, September 6, while students and teachers returned to classroom, I was still on vacation. And on Wednesday, I missed the second day. By Friday it finally sunk in—after two buildings, three principals, five superintendents, and more than 5,000 students, I won’t be returning to my Family and Consumer Science classroom at Gayle Middle School in Stafford County. Back in June my school presented me with a beautiful new rocking chair, and wished me well. Last month I received my first Virginia Retirement System check. I’m retired. And I’m wondering: What will become of me?
The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) saw this coming before I did. Back in 2008, the commission released Learning Teams: Creating What’s Next, which warned that:

Over 50 percent of the nation’s teachers and principals are Baby Boomers. During the next four years we could lose a third of our most accomplished educators to retirement. The wave of departures will peak during the 2010-11 school year, when over 100,000 veteran teachers could leave. In less than a decade more than half of today's teachers – 1.7 million – could be gone.
Well, I’m a Baby Boomer. With 28 years of teaching I do have depth of experience. And as an NBCT and a former Virginia Regional Teacher of the Year, I believe I can claim to be an accomplished professional educator. But I didn’t think they were talking about me. I hadn’t planned to go until 2015. So why now?
I loved being in my classroom with kids. I loved supporting new teachers as mentor coordinator for my building and on the mentoring steering committee for my district. I loved working with colleagues in staff development and school improvement. I loved being a keeper of institutional knowledge for my school and my school system. But not all the rewarding experiences of my professional life were in my classroom. I was investing long  hours in blogging for Teacher magazine, participating in virtual professional learning communities, reviewing teacher preparation as an NEA representative on the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, and serving as my building rep and on the Instruction and Professional Development Committee for VEA. These non-instructional responsibilities beyond my classroom and my school community have been rewarding personal and professional growth experiences and have brought me into contact with amazing educators all over the country. Being involved in the bigger picture of education expanded my understanding and honed my skills for my own classroom.
My school system has always accommodated my outside roles. My children are grown and my husband (also a teacher) has been supportive. By giving up some weekends and staying up late at night, I managed to find time for all those outside activities. But I couldn’t skimp on my classroom performance, because there’s no place in teacher leadership for a teacher who doesn’t give her best to her students every day. I was dancing as fast as I could, but it was getting hard to keep up. Only another teacher can understand the physical and emotional demands of the classroom; and at 61, while the spirit was willing, the body was often protesting by the end of the day. I owed it to my students to be the best teacher I was capable of being every day. But those other roles were gratifying and fulfilling and they fed me intellectually and professionally.

It was time to make some hard choices. My first responsibility was to my students—that was a given. I could back away from leadership roles at school; but it seemed impossible to simply say, “Sorry, I can’t help. It’s not my problem anymore.” I could give up some of the outside activities; but it was exhilarating to have the opportunity to be part of teacher development and education policy and to have an impact on a broader scale. In Life Cycle of the Career Educator, editors Betty E. Steffy, Michael P. Wolfe, Suzanne H. Pasch, and Billie J. Enz identify a continuum of professional development, beginning with Novice and moving through Apprentice, Professional, Expert, Distinguished and Emeritus. I could track my own professional growth through the perspectives, concerns and professional needs associated with each phase, and I recognized that my dilemma was not unique when I read the list of concerns of the Distinguished Teacher:

• Finding the time to reflect and opportunities to learn;
• Fulfilling a need to share professional talents;
• Providing increased professional challenges.

That was me. The opportunities were there, but I couldn’t squeeze out any more time. I volunteered too often and had a hard time saying “no” when asked be part of committee or help out on a project at my school; not because I felt obligated, but because it was rewarding and I felt compelled to participate. In the last few years professional challenges that I never dreamed of have come along. They stretched my mind and allowed me to have a voice that I never imagined; but they tended to demand substantial time commitments and often required being away from school. I knew I could no longer keep up the pace, but neither was I ready to be sidelined.
In a perfect world, there would be multiple career paths for teachers. Hybrid roles might allow us to spread our time between the classroom and responsibilities such as instructional coaching, curriculum development, researching or community outreach. A Baby Boomer teacher and a Millennial with small children might both bring their expertise and experience to a single classroom by job-sharing. Some teachers who find that the constraints of the regular school day no longer fit their lifestyle might be highly effective in an asynchronous on-line teaching position. But the traditional school organizational structure has not yet developed the flexibility to make these sort of alternatives common just yet. As a result, we see large numbers of teachers exiting the profession during what just may be their most productive years.

Many teachers look forward to the magic combination of 30 years of experience and 55 years of age. They’re ready to devote more time to family, try their hand at a small business, and enjoy their hobbies and leisure. They did a good job, but they’re finished and they’ve earned that deferred compensation that comes in the form of a defined benefit pension. But that wasn’t me and I regularly heard other teachers approaching the retirement window say that they were ready to make a change, but not ready to walk away from a lifetime of teaching and learning. Creating What’s Next confirmed what I’d experienced:

In a recent survey, NCTAF found that 70 percent of teachers nearing retirement would be interested in staying if they were able to work in new education roles in “phased or flexible retirement.” Three-quarters of the teachers surveyed reacted favorably to the idea of cross-generational learning teams. The NCTAF survey discovered that two-thirds of the teachers surveyed view “retirement as a time to begin a new chapter in life that is more flexible” as opposed to “rest from work” or “time to begin new challenges.”
So, what becomes of a teacher leader who no longer leads from the classroom? If I really was a Distinguished Teacher, how could I become an Emeritus Teacher? Would there be opportunities to do meaningful work? What was my shelf life as a teacher leader once I left the classroom? To find out, I hunted down some retired VEA members who were Distinguished Teachers and now are Emeritus Teachers. 

Raynell Reid now serves as the Outreach Coordinator and Site Director for the Richmond Teacher Residency program at Virginia Commonwealth University. She says, “For years, I have had concerns regarding teacher attrition and its effects on everyone associated with the school system.  In my role with the Richmond Teacher Residency, I have direct input into helping to recruit highly qualified individuals to help address Richmond Public Schools’ staffing needs.”

Rick Baumgartner is officially a retiree, but he’s back in the classroom part-time as a reading specialist. A former Fairfax Education Association president, he continues to be involved as regional organizer of NEA’s Teacher Union Reform Network, which works to increase teacher voice, improve district/association collaboration, improve conditions of teaching and learning, and ultimately improve student learning. Oh, and he still has time to play in a rock-and-roll garage band.

Anita Price has retired from the classroom and now affects education at the policy level as a Roanoke City Council member. But when I asked her about her involvement, she didn’t talk about her work on the council; she went straight to student learning, saying, “I feel empowered now, as I’m able to touch more lives as a volunteer, mentor and scholarship volunteer/organizer. On Read Across America day, I read to several classrooms in five schools!”

Mandy Carr, a former choral music teacher in Fredericksburg, is often back in the classroom substituting and proctoring AP, SAT and SOL tests, and coaching students for vocal competitions. Her work with a sister city program provides an opportunity for cultural exchange between high school students in Fredericksburg and Frejus, France. As she serves on a local fine arts festival board and directs a community pops chorus, she continues to build an awareness and appreciation for performing arts in the community and as a result, support for endangered fine arts programs in area schools. 

There were common themes that ran through my conversations with Raynell, Rick, Anita and Mandy. They shared a passion for making a difference, an intellectual curiosity about the world around them, a positive attitude, and a sense of possibilities yet to come. They were already contributing to education beyond their classroom when they retired and some simply expanded those roles in retirement. Some Emeritus Teachers created their venue of involvement and defined their own job descriptions. When asked what, if anything, constrained their ability to find a new way to be part of the education community, these teachers all spoke of opportunities and options rather than limitations and constraints. Retirement, they told me, gave them freedom to choose their own roles and control their own work.

Not all teachers approach the end of their career with the same level of experience and independence as these educators. And, while a limited number of retirees are going to be drawn to highly visible or challenging opportunities in policy, research or higher education, many more teachers are likely to be interested in something beyond substituting or volunteering in the copy room. Whether it’s because they’re not invited or because they’re not challenged, retired teachers represent a largely untapped resource. Creating What’s Next expresses concern:

It is a faulty and costly assumption to allow accomplished veterans, who have been the beneficiaries of a substantial, long‐term professional development investment, to walk away from their careers just because they are in their fifties. We must develop selection criteria and processes that enable veteran teachers to contribute to schools according to their expertise and level of commitment.
So….what will become of me?
Am I ready for the rocking chair? Well, yes, there’s a grandchild that needs rocking and books that need reading and projects that have been waiting on the back burner of life. But I’m not done with education just yet; and if I’m lucky I’ve got as many years left as I have invested so far. My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Burnette, will be 101 next month. Whenever I go home to Texas, I go see Mrs. Burnette and to this day, she will engage me in a serious discussion on word derivation, world history, classroom management and education policy. In 1966, Mrs. McMullen trusted our sophomore Language Arts class to read To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that was controversial as both literature and social commentary and possibly seditious in our small Southern community. On the 50th anniversary of its publication, 20 of us gathered on Skype and, with Mrs. Mc at the podium, we revisited Atticus, Scout and Boo. These two women inspired me to be a teacher. They are still my role models. They are truly Emeritus Teachers, which are defined in The Life Cycle of the Career Educator as “those who have formally retired, but due to their expertise and devotion, continue to be active and involved contributors to the profession.”

This year school started without me. I’m retired; but I’m not done yet. I’m excited about the last phase of my professional life because I’ve finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be an Emeritus Teacher, too.

Graham is a member of VEA-Retired.



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