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Cover Story: Adventures in Advocacy

. . . . in which Team NEA's senior superheroes use their powers to fight for public education

Kristen Loschert

Here’s how some people picture retirement: Rocking on the porch with a tall iced tea, finally having the time to travel and visit family, leaving the concerns of their former professions far behind. Not so for many retired educators. NEA-Retired members across the country have shown they’re not done fighting for great public schools.

NEA relies on its Retired membership to continue being strong advocates for students, teachers, ESPs, and public education—and you do not disappoint.

Whether you are organizing reading events for NEA’s Read Across America, painting classrooms as part of Outreach to Teach, or lobbying legislatures for higher pensions and teacher salaries, retirees tirelessly support public schools—and prove that being a retired educator doesn’t mean you can’t still be an active one.

Supporting Students

In Nebraska, the Omaha Education Association (OEA) Foundation has a long history of supporting educators and students. Members of OEA originally created the Foundation more than 40 years ago to help retirees living on limited incomes. 

Now, retired educators oversee the Foundation’s operations—all six board members are past presidents of OEA and current members of the Nebraska State Education Association-Retired (NSEA).

“When I think about the retired members who were the backbone of our Association, it’s really awesome,” says Mary Moberg, a retired kindergarten teacher and president of the OEA Foundation. “They gave up a lot of their time to get us where we are today. We have [to] continue to be leaders in supporting active and retired members.”

When the Foundation started in 1964 it sponsored the OEA Manor, an apartment building that provided affordable housing to retired and beginning educators. Later, the Foundation opened a thrift store, staffed by retirees, that raised additional money for a teacher healthcare fund and student scholarships. The Foundation closed the OEA Manor and thrift store during the 1990s, but it continues to raise funds for the 105 scholarships it awards to local high school students each year.

“We want to be able to give back to the community, give back to the students of today,” says NSEA-Retired Treasurer John Jensen, who has served on the Foundation’s board for more than 20 years. “We still are educators and we care very much about helping students obtain a higher education.”

The Foundation’s first scholarship, awarded in 1966, was $250. Today, the Foundation awards more than $300,000 in scholarships each year, ranging from $750 to $10,000 each. Schools, Association members, and even members of the community have established scholarships over the years, often in memory of family members or favorite teachers who died.

The Foundation manages the funds for all of the scholarships, with the board members reviewing applications and selecting recipients for about half of them, and individual schools and other scholarship sponsors selecting the remaining recipients. The majority of the scholarships go to the children and grandchildren of OEA and OEA-Retired members.

Moberg says some educators who did not belong to OEA joined in order for their son or daughter to be eligible for one of the scholarships.

Retired members also provide the Foundation’s greatest source of revenue, through monthly donations and bequests outlined in their wills. One of the Foundation’s former trustees, in fact, left more than $1 million to the Foundation.

“We do encourage members to consider us in their wills, and there are more than just a few who have become well off through their own investments over time,” says Jensen.  “This provides a way they can always give back and help students, even when they are not here.”

Supporting Teachers

In Florida  , meanwhile, members of Pinellas Education Employees-Retired (PEER) give back to beginning teachers by passing along their favorite classroom materials and supplies. 

For the past three years, retired educators have organized the PEER Flea Market, where new teachers collect all the flashcards, posters, borders, decorations, and materials they need to outfit their new classrooms, all for free. This year, PEER also opened the event to returning teachers who received new classroom assignments or changed schools.

“Even though we are retired, we always will be educators, so any way we can help out these teachers is good for us and good for them,” says Marilyn Warner, a retired first-grade teacher and president of PEER. “It’s very expensive to start up a classroom and get supplies, so this is a tremendous help to them financially.”

Preparations for the event begin about six months in advance, when PEER volunteers collect donated materials from active and retiring educators. Then in August, Warner’s team organizes the classroom supplies and supervises the one-day “shopping spree” on the Saturday following teachers’ return to school.

“When these new teachers come in and they are so excited and enthusiastic, it gives us that boost and we remember why we went into education,” says Warner. “It’s just wonderful for us.”

But the teachers attending the flea market receive more than just a few free pencils and workbooks.  They also gain access to the teaching experience and professional knowledge of PEER’s members.

“A few years ago, we had a kindergarten teacher come in who didn’t know where to start or what to do,” Warner explains. “She left with a carload full of materials and her entire year planned out. 

“Teachers are getting the materials they need, but they also are getting advice from people who have been there, people who share their excitement, even though we did it years ago. … We may be old in age, but we’re young at heart.”

Supporting the Association

In Mississippi, retired educators serve on the front lines supporting the next generation of teachers by encouraging them to join and participate actively in NEA and the Mississippi Association of Educators (MAE).

“Young teachers need to feel the professionalism of teaching, and MAE and NEA are our professional organizations,” says Margaret McCaskill, a retired elementary teacher in Moss Point, Mississippi. “Doctors, lawyers, and other business people belong to professional organizations, and teachers should too.”

In January, MAE launched a statewide campaign to re-engage its local members and recruit new ones. Throughout the effort, members of MAE-Retired served as part-time organizers, visiting schools, talking with current and potential members, and supporting the work of the local Association leaders. 

“Retired members are good advocates because they know the value of membership,” says George Williams, an organizational specialist in NEA’s National Membership Strategy department. “What you get are workers who become our best advocates because they once worked in the system.”

As part of the membership campaign, retirees like McCaskill and William and Margaret Buse spent one to two weeks visiting schools, often in the districts where they once worked.

During their visits, they talked with school staff members, usually one-on-one, about getting the state Legislature to fully fund Mississippi ’s education program, which included raises for teachers and assistant teachers. The retirees also fielded questions about the work MAE is doing around the issue. Additionally, they offered information about Association membership and brought classroom supplies and other items for members.

“[As retirees] we can show them how, in our careers, we benefited from membership,” says Margaret Buse, a retired teacher and counselor from Booneville. “We also have the time to put forward. Teachers in the classroom, their plates are pretty full, and this shows the teachers that the Association recognizes that they are busy and cares about that.”

Buse and her husband William, a retired teacher and administrator, visited two school districts to support the membership campaign. They found their team approach helped them connect with more members.

“We really like working together,” says Margaret Buse. “Between the two of us, we’ve covered every age level in our careers and just about every [teaching position] in the school, except for maybe the band director since neither one of us ever did music. And some people were more comfortable talking with a man and others were more comfortable talking with a woman.”

Their efforts did not go unrewarded. Statewide, 235 new members joined MAE during the early enrollment membership campaign. Now, Margaret Buse hopes those new members become involved members.

“You need to be an active member because if you don’t take an active role you don’t truly become a part of the Association,” she says. “By being involved, you can stay on the cutting edge of what is going on in education.  That is something the new members, as well as the retired members, need to do.”

How to Be an Active Member

Whether you have a lot of spare time or just a few spare minutes, you can make a difference for your local chapter, school system, and Association. Try some of these ideas for getting more involved.

  • Contact your local UniServ director and find out how you can help. This staff person can tell you about upcoming Association meetings and events you may want to attend.
  • Offer to lead a session during your state’s professional development conference. Retired educators have plenty of wisdom to share with new teachers.
  • Write to your state legislators and urge them to increase funding for your state’s education and pension plans. Or better yet, visit them in person during an organized lobby day.
  • Attend your chapter’s meetings and events. Get to know your officers and fellow members.
  • Speak out about education issues that matter to you and your Association. Share your own experiences as an educator with your friends, family, and neighbors.
  • Read to students during NEA’s Read Across America event. Your grandchildren will love it.

Rally the Troops

Getting (and keeping) members actively involved in Association business sometimes can be challenging. Here are a few tips from NEA-Retired members and staff for keeping people engaged and energized.

  • Survey members to find out what interests them and then call on them when you have an event that fits those interests. For instance, would a member rather volunteer in a school or in the community? Would he or she prefer to work with students or with active teachers?
  • Encourage members to get to know your chapter’s officers and each other. In Florida, for instance, the Pinellas Education Employees-Retired organizes a social event every summer so newly retired teachers can meet the chapter’s 300 members. 
  • Create an e-mail list to distribute chapter information, contact members, and solicit volunteers for chapter events. Don’t have e-mail? Organize a phone tree instead.
  • Speak up when you need help. “Most retired people want to do something part time,” says William Buse, a retired teacher and administrator from Mississippi. “If they were active in education up until they retired, they still care about education and want to support the process. A lot of them just need to be asked.”

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