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Not Ready for a Rocking Chair

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As Colleague and Mentor Program coordinator for my school, I love working with new teachers. The only problem is that I don’t get much business because we don’t have much turnover. When teachers leave our school, it’s usually because they are moving, pregnant or retiring. I barely make the top 10 senior-teacher list in terms of tenure with a mere 21 years. But at 58, I easily make the top five in terms of age.

I have this weird sensation that theNational Commission on Teaching and America’s Future has been reading my mind. While they may not know me, they have been looking closely at teachers like me. Learning Teams: Creating What’s Next looks at the problems and possibilities emerging from the reality that as much as one third of America’s teaching force is within four years of retirement.

Here's a finding worth mulling over:

At the end of their careers, accomplished veterans who still have much to contribute are being separated from their schools by obsolete retirement systems.

I’m one of those highly accomplished Baby Boomer teachers. I love working with my students. I love working with new teachers. I love working with colleagues in staff development. I love writing and researching. I love being a keeper of institutional knowledge for my school and my school system. I love developing my professional skills with experiences such as the Santa Cruz mentor training. My own children are grown, my personal life is in order, my professional network is strong, my knowledge is current, and my skills are refined by practice. I’m not ready to quit. I’m ready to do more.

I'm ready to take on new challenges, but I find that there are few options at this point in my career.Those of us who chose to stay in the classroom in our 30s are now expected to stay in our classrooms in our 50s. But by limiting how we are used, school systems fail to realize the full return on their investment in skilled classroom practitioners.

...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.

I have no intention of walking away, but I do wonder how long I can keep up my current pace. While my contemporaries are retiring or scaling back, I’m taking on more. Because there is no option for anything other than a full time teaching load or a full time administrative role, I regularly work 12-hour days. I’m not complaining; I do it by choice. But I don’t know how much longer I can work with teachers, address policy issues, and write without shortchanging the students in my classroom, and ethically they are my first responsibility.

In the meantime I dream of being a teacher coach. I fantasize about using those mentoring skills to support new teachers in their classroom as they find their teaching stride and teacher voice. I dream about working with practicing teachers as they move from competent to accomplished. I imagine being there on the sidelines as other teachers discover the excitement and satisfaction of professional leadership.

It is time to build the capacity of teachers to function like professionals whose preparation, practice, and career advancement are seamlessly aligned around a cohesive knowledge base that is focused on improved student learning. We must become explicit and intentional about our efforts to build a seamless continuum of professional growth that begins with teaching apprenticeships and extends to multiple roles for accomplished teachers.

Stakeholders are bound to have concerns about implementation of these Learning Teams, and they are legitimate. I have some myself. Higher ed will worry about being displaced from their role in teacher preparation. School administrators will worry about chain of command and authority over part-timers. Teacher organizations will worry about impact on seniority and pay scales. I worry about who will worry about whether the teacher who was effective in a classroom with children has the skills to facilitate adult learning, because pedagogy and androgogy are not interchangeable.

In the meantime, think of all those gifted veteran teachers have much to offer but have no framework in which to share their expertise. Think of all the fine young teachers who give up because they don’t have a support system to help them develop their skills. Think of all the potential career switchers who walk away because there is no alternative to a traditional teacher prep program. And, most of all, think of all those kids who need all those new, flipped, or veteran teachers to help them learn.

10 Comments

Beautifully stated Susan! It is my greatest hope that education can move away from the full-time teacher or full-time administrator polarities and recognize the endless possibilities that exist for hybrid and much-needed teacher leadership positions. In the meantime, thank you for all the work you do. You are a teacher coach - in the leadership you exhibit in your school, here at Teacher Magazine, and the myriad other roles you've taken on. Now, the educational world just needs to recognize and adequately compensate those activities.

One day, Susan, one day. I just hope those of us who dream of such common sense positions are around to provide the expertise and enthusiasm when those staring down a teacher shortage come to their senses and create a workable solution like the one you describe.

I am also a teacher of 33 years in the New York city school system. I agree withyou that as a veteran teacher we can help new teachers, however in the city schools the younger teachers think they know it all. As a high school English teacher I am there to get the children interested in literature and what goes with it; I am not there to be their friend which is what the young teachers in a lot of the city schools do. In the New York city schools we also do nothave in school mentoring programs to teach new teachers behavioal skills as well as how to write lesson plans. Whenever I offer help the new teachers say "I don't need your help." I think if the U.S. had a standard curriculm across the boards our education system would be better. Thank you, Sandra Probert Bayside High School, Bayside N.Y.(city school)

I do agree with you Susan. I retired in 2006 @ 55 and one minute. I still loved teaching but refused to "teach" the watered down, highly scripted, developmentally inappropriate curriculum
that we are forced to feed today's students. In the urban district where I taught 1st-2nd grade, I felt my creativity, insight, and breadth of pedagogical skills were no longer needed or valued...no time for what I had always offered my students. I often wished there was a place for me to mentor those entering the profession or floundering for whatever reason, Lord knows the administrators don't. I would have loved to downshift to a 1/2 time position and be assigned a group to assist(remaining full-time would have been fine too)After 30 years in the classroom, I had other ways to offer but no avenue to offer it. So, the 30% of new teachers continue to bail within 5 years out of frustration and demoralization. Any of us who think back over the evolution of our own careers can likely identify with the knowledge that we only really began to hit our stride at around the 10 year mark. IMO, 10-25 years is, in general,prime teaching years depending on the support coming from the district.
To lose so many so early hurts the profession. To not capitalize on the expertise of veteran staff approaching the end of their careers is a waste. While burn-out is a real issue for many, mentors could also offer support in that area and provide a new perspective to flagging careers. So, my district is grudgingly, bitterly paying for my lifetime health while I embark on a 2nd career out of the field. I could have been useful to them helping to provide a better trained, more confident young staff and perhaps a revitalized veteran staff that stays in place, likely raising those "all important" test scores that drive instruction these days. Too bad, too sad.

Thanks for the article.
Penny Mckenna

I too agree that we have a generation of teachers who know everything before they enter the classroom. I think the high turnover of teachers is due to many new teachers do want assistance and will refuse any positive suggestions.
Being a veteran teacher is an honor and we learned and listened to veterans when we entered the profession. In the 20 years of teaching, I have watched more teachers come and go that could have survived if only they would have allowed teachers to assist them with minor problems.
I think veteran teachers as coaches is a new strategy that has proven to be very successful.
The first problem is getting leadership to appreciate veteran teachers. Many administrators attempt to employ new teachers in their building due to the manipulation of them wanting to please and lack of union guidelines. The building becomes a building of teachers so busy doing everything but teaching.
I think until we as a nation can appreciate seniority in any profession, we will continue to decline in our competitiveness with other nations.

After many years as a classroom teacher I really enjoy chatting with new teachers. I learn as much or more than I teach. For the past few years, I've worked with new teachers both in my day job as a classroom teacher and as an online mentor teacher. It's incredibly gratifying work! I feel I'm giving back to a profession that has given me so much.

If the nation is truly interested in using the talents of retired teachers it should enable them to earn the money tax free as an incentive. For many retired teachers living on a fixed pension the extra income may put them into a higher tax bracket and it'll end up costing them money themselves to return to the classroom.

I agree with all those who responded to the concern of retiring teachers. Because of a system that has been in place for decades - retirement - it has become the norm for most teachers' goal. I believe that retired teachers could be valuable resoources for new teachers, and could help create a stronger and more integrated educational environment for the students. YOU DON'T CLOSE A LIBRARY BECAUSE THE BOOKS HAVE BEEN ON THE SHELVES TOO LONG.

Susan -

What an inspiring article! Teacher mentors are crucial in our demanding, highly stressful line of work. Programs such as the New Teacher Center have the hard data of reduced new teacher attrition and increased test scores to prove their efficacy. But, as a full time mentor, I also see daily evidence of the 'soft' data as well. Teacher mentors (formal or informal) can establish postive school culture, raise expectations, address issues of systemic inequities and bridge the gap between teacher and administrator. Mentoring can no longer be coffee and copiers. It is a full time job and should be recognized as such. Veteran teachers most certainly have a place at the table, right beside our newer counterparts. Let's hope that more districts realize the importance of quality induction !

Lori McNulty-Pope
New teacher mentor
NTC trainer

I would just like to say that i am 72 years old and still teaching English, History and Religious Studies to Year 7, 8 and 9 students and loving every minute of it. I have been asked to continue teaching next year!! You are right but there are schools where we are valued and wanted!

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  • June Nash: I would just like to say that i am 72 read more
  • Lori McNulty-Pope: Susan - What an inspiring article! Teacher mentors are crucial read more
  • Rupert Cort: I agree with all those who responded to the concern read more
  • Dr. Norma Lent Auerbach: If the nation is truly interested in using the talents read more
  • Ruth Manna: After many years as a classroom teacher I really enjoy read more

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