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‘Never Stop Learning’: Inside the Club for Retired Teachers

Once a teacher, always a teacher, as the saying goes.

Many teachers stay involved in education long after they leave the classroom. For instance, more than 850,000 educators belong to the National Retired Teachers Association, a chapter of the AARP. Most local teachers’ unions have active chapters for retirees, too.

And at Shorewood Senior Campus, a retirement community with independent and assisted living facilities in Rochester, Minn., there’s the Retired Teachers Club.

Chuck Nelson, 83, started the club two years ago when he realized that there were dozens of former educators living in the community. On his floor alone, he’s one of about 10 former educators.

Nelson, who taught math, career education, peer mentorship, and conflict resolution over the course of a 38-year career in St. Paul, Minn., put a notice in the community newsletter. About 20 teachers showed up to the first meeting. The group has met about once a month ever since.

“People need to be involved in something,” said Nelson, who retired in 1998. “I thought, this is one way that people can be involved in something that’s of interest to them, and it also helps people to meet other people.”

The main theme of the club: “This is my story.” At every other meeting, a member shares their backstory—how they became a teacher, and who influenced them when they were young—and some of their teaching experiences. The other members will ask questions, and then there’s usually time for socialization.

“There’s never a lull in conversation at a table,” said Jen Koop, a member of the club. “We always have something to share.”

Other times, Nelson invites people who currently work in education to speak to the members, including teacher-educators, school resource officers, and school librarians.

“I very much like to keep up with education because it’s important to me,” said Koop, 85, adding that she and her fellow retired teachers “never stop learning.”

The superintendent of the Rochester, Minn., public schools even visited in December and spoke about the district’s plan to overhaul its reading instruction to be more aligned with the “science of reading.”

For Koop, who used to teach elementary special education in Rochester, it was welcome news. When she retired in the early 1990s, the district was phasing out explicit phonics instruction, she said, which she didn’t think was a good idea.

“You have to be able to attack a word that you don’t know if there’s no one around to tell you the word,” she said. The superintendent “told us that … phonics will be a part of [the new reading program]—I was pleased to hear that.”

A connection with current students

But the closest peek the members of the Retired Teachers Club have inside classrooms today comes via the pen-pal exchange program.

For the past two years now, the retirees have written to and received letters from students in Sarah Coffing’s 5th grade class at Folwell Elementary School in Rochester. The program has been a source of joy for both the retired educators and the students.

“In a day and age when these kids are so connected electronically, you would not believe how excited they get when it’s mail day,” Coffing said.

There are more participating retired educators than there are students, so some retirees have multiple pen pals—Nelson has three. The retired educators write the first letter at the start of the school year, telling their pen pals about themselves and then asking questions: What are they reading? What do they like to do for fun?

“They often have things in common that they didn’t even realize,” Coffing said.

Nelson said he tells his pen pals to include a joke or a riddle in their letters, too. Coffing said the retirees will often share funny stories from their time as teachers—for example, one wrote about how her class pets once escaped from the classroom.

There was one learning curve: The educators realized they couldn’t write in their usual cursive because the students can’t read it.

“Penmanship was a big deal” for us, Nelson said. “It’s hard for some of the teachers not to write in cursive.”

And even now, with the retirees writing in print, “I do a fair amount of translating,” Coffing said. “Handwriting can be a difficult thing—I do have to make out words for [the kids].”

She also monitors the students’ spelling and grammar in their letters. “When we are writing the letters, I feel this sense of duty to the profession,” Coffing said with a laugh. “Guys, come on, we’re writing to teachers!”

She said the program has been one of the best opportunities she’s had with her students in her more than 20 years in the classroom.

“I just see this sense of pride in the kids when they’ve been able to sit down and share their lives in their own words and in their own writing with someone else,” Coffing said.

At the end of the school year, Coffing takes her students to Shorewood Senior Campus to have a picnic with their pen pals.

“When they all got to sit down together at a table, you couldn’t contain the smiles in the room,” she said. “I think it’s really cool to have that connection with someone who was part of this educational world that [students] spend so much time in.”

After last year’s picnic, Nelson wrote one last letter to that group of pen pals. In it, he wished them well as they prepared to head to middle school: “New friends, new learning experiences, new almost everything. (And it gets better every year of middle and high school.)”

“We will think of you often,” Nelson wrote. “If you see us at the mall or around town, holler hi. Some of us can’t hear [too] well.”

Why so many retired teachers stay involved

Teachers tend to retire at younger ages than other working professionals because their pension wealth spikes once they reach a certain age or length of service—often in their 50s or 60s, after 25 or 30 years of service. Many often still have more to contribute.

Retired teachers who still want to work in some capacity often turn to substituting. In some states, retired teachers can return to the classroom and “double dip” by earning a paycheck on top of their pension—a tactic state lawmakers have used to lessen teacher shortages.

Union membership doesn’t always end after retirement, either. The American Federation of Teachers says that it has nearly a quarter million retired members, and the National Education Association says it has more than 300,000 retired members.

Such chapters advocate for pension and health benefits. Bobbie Margo, a retired elementary school librarian and media specialist who now sits on the executive council of NEA-Retired, said it’s also an opportunity for retirees to maintain a sense of community.

“Teachers still want to be connected,” she said. “We are used to, and we want to continue to go to, meetings—to share ideas, to make a difference.”

And teaching, she said, can become part of one’s identity, even after retirement. She often sees her former students around town, and they still call her Ms. Margo.

“I think that many teachers miss the routine of going to school,” she said. “Many jobs are routine, but school is different. You are spending more time with people’s children than many parents, and you are raising those children in a way. You spend a lot of time with those kids.

“When it’s all said and done,” she said, “I think many educators miss that.”

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