Rethinking Retirement

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William Babcock was an early retiree bored with fishing when he started his teaching career at Ormond Beach Middle School here in 1993.

Changing Face Last spring, the math instructor was named teacher of the year by the Volusia County school district, an honor that an extensive selection process and an hour in his class suggest was richly deserved. At the time he was 57, the average retirement age of district employees.

School administrators and policy wonks hope there are a lot more Bill Babcocks out there. Without them, it's easy to imagine teacher shortages getting worse and teacher quality declining. More broadly, the contributions of older workers can help shore up and secure the nation's continued economic growth.

In Volusia County along Florida's Atlantic coast, close to one-third of the district's 4,200 teachers are over 50, which leaves school officials facing a coming teacher drain of serious proportions. And the problem extends beyond the teaching corps: Superintendent William E. Hall warns that by 2003, 12 out of his 16 current top administrators will be retired.

Nationally, experts say, it would benefit the United States to reverse the post-World War II move toward earlier and earlier retirement, a trend fueled in large part by the combination of private pensions and Social Security. At the same time, those analysts warn, many baby boomers will not have the means to give up working at the ages their parents did. One reason is that the age at which retirees can begin collecting full Social Security benefits—long set at 65—will begin to inch upward in 2003; by 2027, the age will reach 67.

Post-retirement work wasn't originally in Bill Babcock's plans. With his mortgage paid off and his two sons through college, he decided to take advantage of a generous early-retirement package from his employer of more than 20 years, the Boston-based Digital Equipment Corp. An engineer with a graduate degree in business administration, the Massachusetts native says he loved his job as the director of engineering operations for DEC's semiconductor division, but it grew increasingly wearing.

"I was going to lie on the beach, fish, and read books," he says. He and his wife chose Ormond Beach for retirement in part because her parents live in the area.

But in less than two months, Babcock, a trim, smallish man brimming with energy, had had enough of leisure. His wife said, "Go be around young people," so he looked up the nearest school in the phone book. It was Ormond Beach Middle School.

'Just Loving It'

He volunteered as an aide in some computer classes, then started helping with math classes. "I was just loving it; it was a ton of fun," he says. "These kids say thank you, and they are so unpredictable."

In May of 1993, the then-principal of the 1,700-student school, Roben Smith, came to him and suggested that he take the job being vacated by a retiring math teacher.

All right, he said, never really intending to take the seven courses he would need to get a full-fledged teaching license. But after another year, he didn't want to stop, so with the help of the district's credentialing expert, he scheduled himself at four different colleges to complete the requirements in time.

Meanwhile, he had his own method for learning the job. "My first year I went and sat in the back of classes of teachers I had respect for," he recalls. "And I asked them questions: How do you do that? What's the best way to do this?"

Four years ago, in addition to his math teaching duties, Babcock became the leader for one of the four 8th grade teams that subdivide the grade into more manageable groups of students and teachers. With the $1,200 bonus he earns for teaching in a shortage area, mathematics, he earns about $33,500—some $100,000 less than his old job paid.

In a recent Algebra 1 class, Babcock kept things moving at a brisk pace through a routine obviously familiar to his 32 8th graders. He confides that he learned to put a short quiz toward the start of class from one of the master teachers he watched in his first year.

Meagan Foley, one of Babcock's students, says it doesn't matter to her that he is older than most teachers, and she thinks it's "cool" that he had another career before turning up on a middle school faculty.

"He's fun, and he's nice," she says, "and you can always get help from him after school."

Superintendent Hall praises efforts by Florida leaders to lure older people into or back into the classroom. The state has long allowed teachers to return to the classroom after a year's absence without any reduction in their pensions and at full pay. But a more recent change allows teachers to be vested in the state pension plan after six years rather than the 10 years required previously, so that people can start earning a second retirement income sooner.

And a 2-year-old program allows teachers and administrators who reach retirement age with enough years on the job to stay in their current positions for an additional five years as their pensions accrue interest. So far, 250 employees have enrolled.

Dixie Lee Blake, the district administrator who helped Babcock navigate the state licensing requirements, has nothing but good words for the teachers who chose to continue when they could retire.

"Every single one of the ones I knew who came back was an excellent teacher," she says, "the kind you would definitely want in the classroom."

Vol. 20, Issue 13, Page 33

Published in Print: November 29, 2000, as Rethinking Retirement
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