Back to School for Retired Baby Boomers

Back to School for Retired Baby Boomers

The Tennessee Department of Education has achieved outstanding success with its Exemplary Educators program.

For retired teacher Georgette Charlton, heading back to school wasn’t a difficult decision: “A person never really leaves education if you’re a true educator. It’s always there.” Across the nation, schools increasingly are tapping into a vast resource pool—retired educators.

The potential effects of the retirement boom—baby boomers reaching retirement age—have been well documented. An April 2009 New York Times article estimates that by 2013, more than one-third of the nation’s 3.2 million teachers could retire. One study suggests that by 2015, the United States faces a potential shortfall of 280,000 teachers just in mathematics and science (Dillon, 2009; Business-Higher Education Forum, 2007). This loss of collective knowledge, talent and experience could have a devastating effect on public education.

Rather than watch idly as this mass exodus occurs, many states are bringing back retired teachers to work on a part-time basis. One such program is in the state of Tennessee.

Making a Difference

Since 2001, the Tennessee Department of Education has achieved outstanding success by calling upon retired teachers and administrators to serve as coaches, mentors and guides. These Exemplary Educators, as they are called, assist low-achieving schools while sharing their vast knowledge and experience with the next generation of educators.

The results thus far have been excellent. Since 2001, Exemplary Educators have helped 176 schools achieve adequate yearly progress (AYP) over a two-year period. In 2008-2009, 42 Tennessee schools were moved off the state’s high-priority list, with 38 categorized as in “good standing.” Significantly, all 42 schools were part of the Exemplary Educator program. The program also was honored in 2007 by Harvard University with a Top 50 Innovations in American Government Award.

Training for Success

The program is managed by Edvantia, which uses a rigorous selection process to recruit retired educators with proven track records. Wanda Johnston, a former Exemplary Educator who now serves as director of Wayne County Schools, describes this process as the most demanding she has ever experienced. “If you can make it through the oral and written portions,” Johnston states, “you have really accomplished something.”

From left to right: Kathleen M. Airhart, director of schools, Putnam (Tenn,) County Board of Education; Jerry Boyd, assisant director of instructional services; and Rusha Sams, Tennessee Exemplary Educator

Through funding from the Department of Education, Edvantia then hires the Exemplary Educators as independent contractors and provides intensive professional development, which clearly is the program’s foundation for success. The training incorporates Edvantia’s patented coaching standards, which emphasize a learning culture, shared leadership, school-family-community connections, an aligned and balanced curriculum, shared goals for learning, purposeful student assessment, and effective teaching. As a follow-up to the initial professional development, Exemplary Educators must attend at least four training sessions per year to learn about the latest research, work through specific issues, and share ideas with their peers.

Exemplary Educators are trained to learn as much as possible about a school before walking through the front door. Johnston points out that Exemplary Educators must do their homework: “You have to learn everything going on inside the building—the structure, the educational program, the culture, and even the administration.”

Jim Ratledge considers the Exemplary Educator training the best he has received during his 37-year career in education, which included a quarter century as an administrator in Blount County: “I’m doing now what I should have been doing as a principal but I didn’t have time to do. I would have given anything to have had the training I have now back when I was a principal.” Before retiring, Ratledge was honored as the 2001 Distinguished Principal for Tennessee.

Turning Schools Around

Prior to retiring last year, George Chapman had served as director of schools in rural Haywood County for eight years. In his first year as director, a high school and elementary school were targeted as high priority. He admits to some initial hesitations about inviting Exemplary Educators into his schools; he did not want to alarm the community and thought the district could work out its own problems. He changed his mind, though, after test scores declined for a second straight year.

Exemplary Educator Becky Kolb worked closely with the language arts teachers in Haywood County’s one high school. She discovered skilled classroom teachers who did not fully comprehend the expectations of standardized tests. By studying the existing data, Kolb helped these teachers restructure their curricula to benefit underachieving students. Despite his initial reticence, Chapman observed that Kolb and other Exemplary Educators “became friends of the system and friends of the county.” Since that first year of assistance, Haywood County’s schools have remained off the high-priority list.

Wanda Johnston worked as an Exemplary Educator with a high school that was placed on the high-priority list due to poor graduation rates. Just like Kolb, she discovered a good academic culture with committed teachers. The missing ingredient was the absence of a detail-intensive system for monitoring graduation rates at the school or district levels. After surveying the situation, Johnston worked with the principal to raise awareness about graduation rates among faculty and students. They explained the situation clearly to seniors who were in danger of not graduating, developed individual student plans, and assigned teachers to keep in touch regularly with certain students. As a result of this effort, all the targeted students graduated.

Johnston gives the lion’s share of the credit to the school principal, who welcomed her input. “A school operates only at the level of the administrator,” says Johnston. “Stronger schools have stronger administrators. Some schools are designed for failure. They have no procedures set up to succeed.”

A Data-Driven Approach

Steven Moats, the program’s director, stresses the importance of data-driven strategies: “Our reliance on research and best practices in education, and our own research and evaluation efforts, so we can look at how well we’re doing—these help Exemplary Educators target the right problems.”

Putnam County offers a good example of this approach. In 2003, the district was identified as a high-priority system for students with disabilities. Exemplary Educator Rusha Sams helped special education supervisor Kathleen Airhart analyze Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) data to inform individualized education programs (IEP). Airhart began looking for student-teacher patterns and, based on the data, implemented new programs and student tracking methods. The results materialized quickly. Between 2004 and 2005, students with disabilities registered the following test gains:

  • K8 mathematics: 56-69 percent
  • K8 reading/language arts: 58-80 percent
  • High school mathematics: 58-86 percent
  • High school reading/language arts: 61-87 percent

Airhart, who now serves as Putnam County’s director of schools, credits the assistance from Exemplary Educators for this turnaround. “They helped me pinpoint where the greatest needs were,” says Airhart. “I had been in education for 18 years, but they brought new information.”

A Lasting and Exemplary Legacy

Retired baby boomers clearly have unique talents to contribute. Chapman believes strongly in the adage that “there’s no replacement for experience.” He states, “The best training for teachers is actual hands-on work. As you look at the whole slice of things, older teachers who have been through the wringer have seen successes and they’ve seen failures. They know what will work in different situations. If you’ve been in the education world 25-30 years, you’ve seen every problem there is to see.”

Airhart echoes Chapman’s sentiments, “They still have a lot to give. As they say, ‘Been there, done that.’ It brings credibility to the system.”

The benefits to schools are obvious, but what motivates these administrators and teachers to give up retirement and return to the education world? The most common answer is that they have a second opportunity to make a difference while doing something they dearly love.

"Stronger schools have stronger administrators. Some schools are designed for failure. They have no procedures set up to succeed." -Wanda Johnston, Exemplary Educator

Hollye Shotwell taught 41 years in Memphis City Schools as a classroom instructor, curriculum coordinator, assistant principal and principal. After retiring briefly, she grew tired of watching from the sidelines. “I wanted to be part of it,” she notes. As an Exemplary Educator, she has helped two schools improve sufficiently to be removed from the high-priority list.

Ultimately, the Exemplary Educator program gives something back to the schools and to the educators. Roger Bynum, an Exemplary Educator who previously was Tennessee’s assistant commissioner of education, observes, “It’s the most professionally rewarding experience of my life.” He adds, “It’s like falling in love again.”

Charlton sees a lasting impact that extends far beyond her contributions and those of her colleagues. She reflects thoughtfully about the goal of every educator: “The children are going to take over for us. We’re not going to be here long. We need to leave a legacy that will make things better, not worse.”

Stan Bumgardner is an Edvantia writer. For more information about the Exemplary Educator program, contact Steven Moats at steven.moats@edvantia.org.


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