Skip to Content

Cover Story: Display of Skill

Docents. Interpreters. Guides. Founders. . . .

Susan Breitkopf

Retired teachers fill key roles in some of the nation’s premier educational and cultural destinations.


Suzanne Adams Kilczewski has no trouble getting out of bed on days when she is headed to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where she volunteers as an interpreter, teaching visitors about the reptilian and amphibian inhabitants of the zoo’s Reptile Discovery Center.

Today might be a day when she feeds tortoises big chunks of carrot while visiting families gather to watch. Or it could be a day when she gets a group of children excited about a brightly hued veiled chameleon, who uses its curled tail as a fifth appendage and shoots its sticky tongue out more than two feet to capture crickets.

“When that [chameleon’s] tongue comes out, people are always awed,” says Kilczewski, who taught first grade for almost 30 years in Maryland and began her interpreter training more than two years ago. She says her work at the zoo is “always varied because of the visitors. People are so appreciative. It warms my heart. I don’t feel like I’ve ever had a bad experience.”

But Kilczewski didn’t just walk into this great gig. She had to complete 24 hours of training, and still meets with zoo staffers once a month to build on her knowledge. “I thought I knew something about reptiles, but I’m constantly learning,” she says.

Kilczewski is one of many retired teachers who dedicate their time to volunteering at art museums, zoos, science centers, historic sites, and similar institutions, where they educate an ever-changing audience surrounded by animals, objects, or artifacts.

A recent Google search yielded hundreds of museums seeking retired teachers as volunteers. According to Rhoda Hopkins, coordinator of volunteer services for the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, the 60 retired teachers in her corps of 1,200 volunteers “contribute greatly. They are enthusiastic. They are willing to do a major amount of research.”

At one time, Mystic Seaport actively recruited former teachers. The response was so overwhelming that the museum now relies on word of mouth. “Retired teachers gravitate to the museum,” she explains. “It’s a comfortable academic atmosphere.”

The retired teachers we spoke with said that serving as a docent or interpreter offers an extraordinary outlet for their passion to teach—without the administrative responsibilities they faced as schoolteachers.

After more than 35 years as a high school history teacher in Connecticut, Michael Norman put his experience to work as an educator at the Connecticut Historical Society.

For six years, he led tours at the site and also visited area classrooms to give presentations on everything from the Revolutionary War to how slavery led up to the Civil War. “That was very exciting,” he says. “You get to dress up in period costumes. It wasn’t just [about] looking at a textbook.

“It was a natural continuation of teaching,” Norman adds. “A good teacher has to be enthusiastic. That’s also necessary in museum work.” Norman says as a teacher, he regularly took his students on field trips to museums, particularly living history museums. “I liked to take them [to see] live action where people actually work as they did in those times. It brought things to life for them.”

Bringing history to life is Emma Jean Melton’s current line of work. The retired biology teacher from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was recruited by the local preservation society to help reopen what is now the Murphy African-American Museum.

 She was named chair of the management board and now is also volunteer director. When she began working with the museum in 1996, she secured grant money and oversaw a renovation that was completed in 2004. Home of the first licensed African-American mortician in west Alabama, the museum contains family memorabilia, as well as displays on local history and African art and artifacts.

Melton says her days as chair of the biology department have helped her in her new role. “That was a leadership role. I'm back in a leadership role in the museum.” The subject matter is a departure from science, but Melton always had an interest in African-American history and culture.

After she finishes her current project, a documentary on the civil rights movement in Tuscaloosa, and finds the right person to take over for her, she will leave the museum to write a book about growing up in the Black Belt, the majority black counties that stretch from Texas through Virginia. Until then, she continues to enjoy her work and says, “It's been keeping me going. I can't really say I've been retired."

Evelyn Duffner, who retired in 2002 after 33 years teaching first, second, and third grades in Connecticut, took on a leadership role not long after she started volunteering at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University. She became one of the chairs of “Peabody on the Road,” a program that brings artifacts—everything from

T. rex teeth to bear pelts to tarantulas—to public events in the community. Duffner’s job is to choose objects from the collection, research them, and then train the 30 volunteers who will attend the different events.

She says one-third of all the docents at the Peabody are retired educators. “We [retired teachers] have good organizational and people skills. Teachers have this ability to take a job and divide it into small parts and complete it.”

Dallas Miller’s work at the Montana Historical Society is so similar to his job as a high school history teacher that his wife called it his “busman’s holiday” when he started there 18 years ago. Miller gives tours of the state capitol and the original governor’s mansion.

“The methodology of getting a point across is certainly universal,” he says. “I always used props and told stories to teach history—I do the same thing here.” But the biggest contrast between tour groups and high school students? “These people are here because they want to be. There is a real difference.”

For Sally Lehman, being a docent at the Louisville Zoo is the culmination of her professional aspirations. “My first real desire was to be a veterinarian, but the training was very expensive,” explains Lehman, who taught kindergarten for 30 years in Kentucky. “My second love was teaching. Now I have the best of both worlds.”

She says her experience helps her relate to children and keep them engaged. For instance, she knows that the best way to get children to pay attention is not to chastise a rowdy table but to commend the attentive children. “Parents really like that,” she says, adding that refusing to bring the animals out until everyone quiets down really helps crowd control. “They quiet down immediately.”

Lehman underwent three months of training that covered everything from animal habitats to how to present animals to children. She must complete 48 hours of volunteer work per year, which must include 24 hours teaching classes. “There are all different ways people can volunteer,” says Lehman. “We have docents in their 80s. Once a person retires from teaching, the community really wants them because they have certain talents.”

Mike Barker took his talents to the board of directors of the West Tennessee Regional Art Center, which has both an art museum and a history museum. His career in education started with five years teaching high school science, followed by 25 years as an administrator with the Tennessee Department of Education. Barker became involved with the art center after retiring in 1990 and then was named director of the local chamber of commerce, which oversaw the center’s opening.

Barker says that in the era of No Child Left Behind, informal education organizations like museums are more crucial than ever. “There is so much time spent on reading and math that the arts have gone by the wayside,” he says. “It’s important for students to have a broader understanding and appreciation of the arts and the world around them.” He points to the center’s recent exhibit of photographs of Sudan, which paint a rich cultural and geographical picture of the war-torn African nation. “It really opened up people’s eyes.”

Lois Kuter, volunteer coordinator at Philadelphia ’s Academy of Natural Sciences and a board member of the American Association of Museum Volunteers, says retired teachers are invaluable in the museum’s volunteer force because they already know how to teach. She says the academy values teaching, as evidenced by its annual Joan Summerfield Award for Excellence in Teaching, named for a retired educator who was a longtime and exceptional museum volunteer. Three of the 10 volunteers nominated for the award so far have been former teachers.

Although retired teachers excel at guiding tours or researching, Kuter has encountered some who choose a different path from their former careers. “Some welcome a total change of occupation,” she says.

Gin Wachter, once a teacher herself, is now president of the National Docent Symposium Council, which holds biannual meetings across the country that include lectures, networking, workshops and tours of local museums (see sidebar, opposite page). Wachter retired from teaching to raise her children, and once they started school, she began docent training at the St. Louis Art Museum. She loved being a docent so much that she eventually added St. Louis ’ Contemporary Art Museum and Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts to her roster. She has continued to volunteer for a total of 19 years.

Her advice for those considering becoming docents is to find a museum or educational site that fits your interests and give the volunteer department a call. Training varies and may last anywhere from six weeks to five years, depending on the size and type of institution. Historic homes tend to have shorter training, while large art museums’ training can be much more involved.

“In most institutions, you don’t need a degree in that subject because they will train you,” she said. “You just have to have a love and passion for it. That’s what all docents have in common—a passion for learning and sharing knowledge with other.”

While volunteers can run information booths or work in museum libraries or gift shops, Wachter says docents are the only volunteers who are trained to teach about exhibitions. “Docents are a special group of people. They’re doing what they love and it shows. [By being a docent], you meet other people who share your passion and you get really close.”

Miller is very clear about his commitment to educating as a docent. “It’s about service to others and being involved in teaching,” he says. “You know, we all need to give back. That’s what really drives me.”

Guidance for Guides

Several books written for museum educators can be helpful for the volunteer. The Docent Handbook ($17.50, or $18, is a how-to guide outlining all aspects of docenting from holding visitors’ attention to dealing with sensitive issues such as nudity in art. The book offers a list of additional reading, including "The Good Guide: A Sourcebook for Interpreters, Docents and Tour Guides" by Alison L. Grinder and E. Sue McCoy and "The Professional Guide: Dynamics of Tour Guiding" by Kathleen Lingle Pond.

The National Docent Symposium Council holds biannual meetings across the country that include lectures, networking, workshops and tours of local museums. The next symposium is in April at the Phoenix Art Museum.

The American Association of Museum Volunteers hosts a yearly annual meeting in conjunction with the American Association of Museums’ annual conference, which this year will be held in Chicago.

Published in:

Published In