Where You’re Needed Most
NEA-Retired members make helping schools in need a priority.
By Rebecca Bright
Photo by TwinLens
When Angie Lucero arrives at Tomasita Elementary each Monday, two once-shy first-graders greet her, eager to share details about the past week’s activities, read together, and get help writing in their journals. Lucero, a retired teacher with 36 years of experience, is a stable source of one-on-one attention for these girls, in a school struggling to provide everything its students need.
“I’m not there to do their work for them, but I’m there to guide and give direction,” says Lucero. “The students think, this person likes me, they pay attention to what I like—even as an adult we want that.”
Lucero tutors once a week at Tomasita, a small K-5 school in eastern Albuquerque, New Mexico, that faces significant challenges in raising student achievement.
A majority of the students at Tomasita—78 percent—qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch and a quarter of the students are English language learners. “Extra help in the classroom is especially important now with all of the budget cuts,” notes Lucero. “There are more kids in classrooms now, and they need so much individual help.”
Lucero volunteers through Oasis, an organization that provides classes, health programs, and volunteer opportunities for adults over 50. She is trained to provide struggling first-graders specialized literacy instruction, but she often provides emotional support, as well. “Sometimes we just talk. I’m bilingual, and I go in and talk with some of the kids in Spanish and English, sometimes just about what’s going on at home,” she says. “When I used to teach, I saw that just having someone to talk to was important.”
Lucero is one of many retired teachers who have chosen to return to a high-needs classroom, using her experience and passion to help students succeed in academics and beyond. Around the country, union-led collaborations are engaging both retired and current educators and are partnering with parents, communities, and businesses to positively transform struggling schools as part of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign. Whether providing extra one-on-one attention for a student or mentoring a new teacher in a priority school, retired teachers are an essential element of these partnerships.
“NEA-Retired educators continue to lead the way on critical issues, as evidenced by their invaluable efforts to transform Priority Schools,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “The energy, enthusiasm, and experience that retired educators bring is integral to our work—they are making a real difference in our most challenged schools.”
It’s this dedication that motivates retired teacher and counselor Martha Adamczyk to make the one-hour drive from her home to Sussex Elementary, a Title One school in Baltimore County, Maryland, that is struggling to improve student performance.
“I live in Harford County, where scores are pretty high overall,” says Adamczyk. “Those kids don’t need the help that I know the kids at Sussex could use. That’s why I drive an hour to volunteer there.”
Adamczyk understands Sussex’s challenges well—she taught and served as the counselor there for 17 years. When Adamczyk retired last year, she wasn’t ready to leave her old school community for good, so she began to volunteer one day a week in a friend’s second-grade classroom.
“One-on-one instruction helps a lot, because some of the children who have difficulties want to give up, and don’t even feel like coming in to school,” she says. “It’s hard when you see other kids reading but you don’t know those words, or you see other kids writing and you want to put your thoughts down, but you can’t spell the words.”
For Adamczyk, helping these students has made her volunteer hours—and the long drive—worthwhile. “It’s just the most rewarding thing—you can sit with a child and you can help them write down their words and draw their pictures, and when they’re done, their journal entry is just like their neighbor’s,” she says. “The most rewarding part of tutoring came toward the end of the school year, to see what some of the kids could do.”
Although Adamczyk has enjoyed her role in the students’ success, she gives most of the credit to their full-time teacher, Terri Schwartz. “The teacher I work with is phenomenal,” she says. “She helped these kids gain so much during the year. They all left feeling better about themselves.”
Adamczyk says working with a highly skilled and experienced teacher has made her tutoring even more effective. For new teachers, this kind of success can be elusive and the demands of the job overwhelming—and the challenges are even greater when a teacher begins his or her career in a struggling priority school.
With this in mind, retired educators like Linda Walcher devote their time to mentoring new and aspiring teachers. Walcher, who began mentoring seven years ago, is also the director of the Illinois Education Association—Retired Mentor Program. “When I retired, I felt like, here I am with all of the experience and knowledge of 33 years of teaching, why can’t I share it somewhere?” says Walcher. “If I can give some support to these young people, I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.”
The IEA-Retired Mentor Program is one of a dozen such programs in state Associations across the country, and a part of the NEA—Retired Intergenerational Teacher Mentoring Project. Although the details of the programs vary from state to state, NEA-Retired members work with Student members throughout the student’s college career and into those crucial first years in the classroom. The mentor serves as a stable, experienced source of knowledge and a sounding board for new ideas.
“When they start student teaching, they’re not sure what’s expected, and a tutor is a safe person, not a professor or assessing teacher, so they can offer support and advice from the outside,” Walcher says. “When you establish a good relationship, you talk about engagements and marriage, those personal things, too. It’s kind of fun—they’re like daughters to me.”
This maternal relationship became literal for Walcher when her daughter, Rachel, began teaching kindergarten at a struggling school in Shreveport, Louisiana.
“It’s not as easy to mentor Rachel, because that wasn’t my experience. When I taught, it was just a small town school. Everybody knew everybody, so everybody mentored each other in the building,” she says. “But when Rachel started, she was pretty much on her own.”
In the face of challenges like the lack of a school nurse or many classroom supplies, Walcher advised her daughter to ask for help and seek out a support system in the community. “They didn’t have teacher’s manuals or materials, so I’d tell her to talk to other teachers and find out how to get these materials or where she could go for help,” she says. “I had to teach her to speak up for herself.”
The mentoring program has given Walcher a way to share her skills, and she has valued the chance to be there for her daughter. “It’s been fun being able to talk to her, and she knows she always has me to call and talk to about it,” she says. “All of my mentees know that they have someone who gets it and understands what they’re doing.”
As director of the IEA-R Mentor Program, Walcher leads a group of more than 50 retired educators who “get it” and who are ready to share their knowledge with the next generation of teachers. One of the mentors “who goes above and beyond,” according to Walcher, is Dr. Robert “Bud” Phillips.
Dr. Robert "Bud" Phillips and Courtney Almanza
Photo by John Dziekan
Phillips has mentored at least one student—often more—for the past 10 years, since the Illinois retired mentor program began. Because of his teaching background, Phillips is an especially good resource for new or aspiring educators in priority schools.
“I used to teach in a school of need in Des Plaines, so I can give students advice on how to deal with classroom discipline, and some techniques that are useful,” he says. “Sometimes they ask me for help with paper topics for a class if they can’t think of one.”
Currently, Phillips shares his advice with Courtney Almanza, a rising junior and aspiring teacher at Illinois State University who joined the Student Education Association during her freshman year. Last summer, Almanza was matched up with Phillips as part of the IEA-R Mentor Program, and Phillips introduced Almanza to his friend Jim Sorensen.
If you’re an aspiring teacher in Illinois, Sorensen is a good person to know—he is the director of the Golden Apple Foundation, a nonprofit that works to inspire, recruit, and develop new teachers in Illinois. Sorenson gave Almanza an application for the Golden Apple Scholars program, which prepares students to teach in schools of need in Illinois through mentoring, classroom training, and scholarships. She applied to the program and was accepted.
“Mr. Phillips opened up a big door for me with the Golden Apple program,” says Almanza. “It’s a big commitment, but a big opportunity.”
This summer, Almanza completed her first session of the Golden Apple Summer Institute, an intensive five-week program that places scholars in a school of need in the mornings and provides classes every afternoon. She loved her time at Shoop Academy of Math, Science, and Technology, a Chicago magnet school that serves primarily low-income students, and found the faculty welcoming and enthusiastic. And, of course, her mentor was just a mouse click away.
As part of the program, Golden Apple Scholars commit to working in a school of economic or academic need for at least five years after graduation. “I like that commitment, because those kids are the ones who need the most help,” Almanza says. “I’m looking forward to helping those kids, and I feel like I’ve already made a difference in the lives of my students through the summer program.”
Not all aspiring teachers have this level of passion or experience before their career has even begun. But Almanza feels that Phillips and her Golden Apple teachers are preparing her well for the challenges that lie ahead. She knows that Phillips will be available to answer questions, discuss her studies, and give advice well into the future.
“He’s opened up so many doors for me—I can tell he’s genuinely concerned about what I’m doing,” she says. “He’s just the greatest guy.”
How can I help?
NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign needs the life skills and expertise of retired educators to help transform public schools. Many of today’s students face tremendous challenges to academic success. The Priority Schools Campaign is the work of NEA members in struggling schools to meet those challenges and close student achievement gaps for all students.
Whether or not you belong to a local chapter of NEA-Retired, you can contribute to the success of your local schools.
- Tutor a struggling student. Many students at high-priority schools need intensive one-on-one attention on a regular basis to help them master the skills necessary for success.
- Mentor teachers. Offer your services as a mentor to help new teachers gain valuable knowledge and the confidence that comes from being a classroom veteran. Contact your state Association to find a mentor program for your area.
- Volunteer at a priority school. Help educators by assisting with small group instruction in the classroom, coaching students, creating bulletin boards, planning and volunteering for field trips, and a host of other important support roles.
- Write a grant. Schools identified as low-performing often don’t have adequate resources to meet the needs of their students. By writing grants, retired educators can acquire valuable resources for students that will help level the playing field.
- Join a school advisory council. Your knowledge as an educator and member of the community can be a valuable resource for a school council, parent-teacher association, school improvement team, or other advisory board.
- Speak up at school board meetings. Use your knowledge and experience to influence the policies that will shape your local schools. Organize groups of your colleagues and other concerned citizens to let the board know how important it is to provide meaningful support for students at high-needs schools.