Education Teacher Leaders Network

The Experience Factor

By John Norton — November 11, 2009 4 min read

About half the teachers teaching in the nation’s public schools today are Baby Boomers, 50 years of age or older. Many are—or soon will be—eligible for retirement.

A 2009 report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future noted that: “On a small scale, retirements can make room for a new generation of teachers who have the potential to bring fresh ideas and practices to our schools, (but) the impact of such a large scale exodus of accomplished veterans will be that a legacy of teaching expertise developed over decades of hands-on instruction in our nation’s classrooms will be lost to our schools, students, and new teachers.”

But how rapid will the exodus of Baby Boomers be? During some recent conversation in the Teacher Leaders Network discussion group, several classroom teachers who are approaching (or beyond) retirement age discussed their own late-career plans. While anecdotal, their comments point to a segment of Baby Boomer teachers who have a strong desire to capitalize on their hard-won knowledge and skills for as long as possible on behalf of today’s students.

Susan wrote:

Though I’m going to be 60 this year, I have no intentions of (retiring) for a few more years. I have had to go in for spare parts—teaching is hard on the legs so I’ve replaced both knees—but I think I’ve still got what it takes to make it in middle school.

I teach alongside colleagues who are younger than my own children and some of whom are my former students. Together we teach the children of my former students. They have energy and technology skills that I don’t, but I have pedagogical skill and experience that I can share and that they want.

I’m a trusted sounding board and a source of institutional knowledge to my younger principal. I may not be able to relate as well to current early adolescent culture as I once did, but I can be the safe grandmotherly figure that is lacking in many of my students’ lives, and I find that we can share across our generational gap as long as I don’t try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Finally, being a certain age allows me the luxury of time, focus, patience and humility that I didn’t have at a younger age. And those assets, along with the comfy green armchair in my office, make me a safe place for both students and teachers to come share their stories and problems.

Bill observed:

I’m turning 50 in a few days. I think the cut-off for when you should quit teaching and go do something else (get another job, retire, take a gap year and find yourself) would be when you have lost interest in the job or the age group you teach, for whatever reason. Me, I still love the kids I teach, they still seem to respond well to me (near as I can tell), and I’ve got enough energy to successfully run up to 50 miles in week. I guess I’ll put in at least one more year.

Kathie said:

I am back in the classroom at age 62. My knees are killing me; I need two knee-replacement surgeries myself, but who has time? That being said, I am teaching two core groups of 6th graders who are overwhelmingly special needs and/or low-performing, and my elective is a reading class with more of the same.

When I gave up instructional coaching to teach again, I worried if the kids would still relate to me and vice versa. What I’ve found is that my years of experience (most of the time since 1970) and the patience I’ve learned on the job is just what these students need. Even my most hyperactive boys seem to wander in before class or hang around after class to share stories with me.

A few months after the beginning of school, I already knew that Arturio’s older brother was shot three times and killed. Fortune’s mother didn’t want to care for the family, so she’s glad she’s with her dad. Katrina is acting out because her parents are divorcing. Donny and Jacob both have anger management problems, and Jacob is getting counseling for it. José can’t manage socially appropriate behavior with his fellow students no matter the situation.

It seems like I ended up with most of the most difficult children on campus, but I’ve managed to get into most of their heads. They share these confidences because they know I “get” them—and like them. Their behavior requires time, patience, and management, but I’m willing to put in the extra effort and thought.

Most younger teachers get away from these kids as fast as they can and don’t understand why I selected these classes. I do go home exhausted on a regular basis, but I hear teachers in their 30s complaining about that, too. I may be 62, but I feel I’m in the right place with the right kids.

Bill responded:

Kathie expressed what I feel intuitively. I know age isn’t really just a state of mind (though I guess that’s part of it), but I also don’t see any reason why age has to be seen as a barrier, and I definitely don’t take well to arbitrary limits. Kathie has found a way to connect with her students, and they know she genuinely gets them and cares about them. That’s a power that transcends age.

The NCTAF report recommends a new approach to assuring that all students have access to good teaching: deploying “learning teams” that include novice and mid-career teachers, plus older veterans charged with helping develop the next teacher generation.

If you’re a teacher in your 50s or 60s, why do you continue to teach? What might keep you in the classroom beyond your retirement eligibility?