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Q&A: A.A.R.P. Head Exhorts Older Americans To Work in Schools

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During Older Americans Month this month, the American Association of Retired Persons is making a special push to encourage its more than 32 million members to become involved in education, especially as volunteers in their local schools.

The organization's interest in education represents a "returning to our roots," the group's president, Robert Maxwell, said, noting that it was founded in 1958 as an outgrowth of the National Retired Teachers Association, now a division of the AARP

Mr. Maxwell spoke last week with Staff Writer Millicent Lawton.


Q. The message that the AARP is sending to older Americans this month is "Share the Wisdom and Prepare the Way." How did the AARP settle on that message and what does it mean?


A. As we survey our membership ... one of the things that they constantly bring up is the quality of education these days. ... Many, many of our members are retired teachers who really have been showing a concern for having retired and not doing anything to contribute to the educational milieu.

So we find that we have many, many members who would be very happy to volunteer in the school systems to assist teachers. I want to emphasize--not to take over the teacher's position in the classroom, but to supplement the work done by the teacher and things like mentoring and tutoring. ...

Another thing I think is so important is that ... our members who are volunteering are finding it such a rewarding experience in seeing, you might say, the light of wisdom coming into the eyes of some of the young people that they're working with.


Q. What is it that you believe older people will get out of their experience?


A. I think the big problem when someone retires is that, if they just sit around and do nothing, they begin to have a self-fulfilling prophesy of being useless. ...

I think that the rewarding experience of working as a volunteer in the school system is just the perfect answer to a feeling of being useless.


Q. What do you see the students getting out of it? What kind of expertise or help can a member of the AARP offer that perhaps the teacher or another younger volunteer could not?


A. I think that we are relying on the grandparenting relationship. ... And, as a consequence, we're achieving an intergenerational relationship which AARP has really been emphasizing in the past few years--that we're not just a bunch of old folks interested only in old folks. ...

I think that young folks have a respect for older people, and I think that it's important that we, as older people, come up to their expectations of us.


Q. You first broached this issue of getting older Americans involved in education in your inaugural speech last year. What specific steps has the AARP taken since that time to encourage such participation?


A. We're using our publications to emphasize the opportunities and encourage our people to volunteer. The important thing we're trying to do is encourage people to get involved in existing programs. ...

What we're planning on doing is, as we're getting feedback as to what people are doing in their communities and volunteering to help in the schools, we're going to publish an abstract of all of these things and distribute them to our members, to our chapters, and to our units, encouraging them to implement some of the programs that are being used successfully elsewhere. ... And I think that this publication will give people across the country better ideas of how to approach [volunteering].


Q. There's a popular notion that older Americans, who vote in disproportionate numbers, tend to vote against local school-bond proposals.


A. That's why we feel it's so important to get them involved in the schools, so that they can see what's going on there and realize what the needs and the re6quirements are. ...

I just think there are two unfamiliarities among older people that are very important. One is, they feel the schools are all young people, and they would be out of place if they got into that milieu. We're trying to discourage them from that feeling. The other is that older folks feel that they are beyond needing to support the educational process.


Q. What is the best-case scenario of how the AARP and its members might affect American education over the next five or 10 years?


A. I think it's imperative that we do provide a volunteer cadre that will support the educational process. And the second thing I think is vital is that we convince our older folk that a viable, living, producing school system is important to the economic world that we're living in.

As we look at the factories that are going to foreign countries because they have a better-educated high-school graduate, I think we have to offset that--returning [the status of] our young people to be the best-educated in the world. ... I think most [AARP members] are convinced now that education is an imperative in this country.

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