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Cover Story

Don’t Flunk Retirement
Keys To Success For Life After Work

By Susan Belford

After much waiting and anticipation, your retirement is a reality. You’re free of hectic school days, countless lesson plans, too-short lunches, and long PTA meetings. It’s time to rest, relax, and control your own life. You know what your pension and Social Security will provide and how much money will be left for living expenses and health care. You attended pre-retirement seminars, studied all the pamphlets about Medicare, revised your will, and purchased long-term care.

But the truth is that even retirees who long ago screwed the financial nuts and bolts of retirement into place sometimes find that they didn’t fully contemplate the emotional and psychological hurdles that can occur in the transition from the workforce into retirement.

Recreation and relaxation aren’t always the ingredients for instant happiness. Instead, a surplus of time can be the source of angst, frustration, discomfort, and fear. The remedy, according to experts, lies in three things: emotional preparation, dedicated planning for life after work, and the discovery of a passion that will inspire you to face each day with anticipation.

Just like recent retirees, those who left work behind long ago can feel bored, confused, and underutilized. It isn’t unusual for retirees to feel regret about things they wish they had handled differently. The retired lifestyle can spark thoughts of returning to a former position, and can cause many to wonder whether fishing, golfing, playing bridge, traveling, or volunteering is really all they want to do.

Certified Life Coach Phyllis Levinson of Washington, DC-based Big Tent Coaching says, “Retirement from any profession creates the same anxieties: change of identity, change of routine, leaving the friendship and stimulation of colleagues, and finding new activities and friends.”

That’s especially true for educators whose careers require creativity, communication skills, patience, perseverance, time management, decision-making, and organizational skills. Most waking hours are spent in the company of children or young adults. Committees and social interactions occupy a huge chunk of time. After retirement, it’s especially difficult for educators to find meaningful activities that will replace the things they love about the profession.

Some educators are well prepared for retirement and have easily strategized how they will handle their newfound freedom. Others let this enormous life change evolve on its own. Either way, the end game is to create a retirement that doesn’t signal an end, but raises the curtain on a satisfying encore.

Prepare Your Emotions

Just as the transitions into other phases of life—the birth of a child, the death of a parent or spouse, the purchase of a new home, becoming an empty nester—can create considerable emotion, the same is true when it is time to retire. The authority one may have commanded within the school and community may be gone, along with the daily connection to students and staff members and the feelings of self worth that come from a meaningful career.

Maria Bellamy, a retired high school English teacher from Kentucky, describes her post-retirement feelings: “I felt very daring—like I was playing hooky. Then I felt really down, because the school was not calling me for help, and they were able to carry on without me.”

Glad to be freed from outside factors that influence what happens in the classroom, Mimi Dash, a retired Virginia teacher, who held NEA leadership roles at the local, state, and national levels, says: “I am at a loss to come up with the superlatives to describe my joy. After I retired, I breathed a sigh of relief that I did not have to explain 9/11 to 8-year-olds. I had to explain Columbine. How does one explain the unexplainable?” Dash wonders aloud.

Dash says she is also glad that she no longer has to “give tests that are designed to trick students.” Calling teaching her passion, she adds, “leaving teaching at a time when the profession was under attack and moving in a horribly standards-driven environment made the decision even easier.”

Bellamy says she “wasn’t prepared for how awkward I suddenly felt when it came to introducing myself or answering the question ‘What do you do?’ There is a loss of identity with retirement. The more we identify with our careers, the truer that is—and I think career teachers feel it keenly.”

Knowing who you are and what you like is critical. To figure that out, you’ve got to know whether you are an introvert or extrovert, whether you prefer structure or flexibility, and whether you are easily stressed or laid back. When unchallenged, do you become bored? Do you seek out new interests and competition? Are you happiest when you get out of bed and have time to read the newspaper while drinking your coffee, or, do you need somewhere to go each day? Is the thought of a new job exciting?

As with any profession, retired educators must consider what they love about the profession and the best way to continue activities that provide the same satisfaction.

Dash—who retired in 2001—maintains her connection to education as president of the Fairfax Education Association-Retired. “I was a part of the committee that established the retiree organization for my local,” she says. “We serve as mentors, lobbyists to elected officials, and historians. We support and work in campaigns of endorsed candidates.”

Certified Business and Life Coach Susan Commander Samakow facilitates retirement transition workshops, and says retirees must be “emotionally prepared” to take full advantage of their newfound status. “I teach my clients to shift their thinking from negative thoughts to positive self talk. In other words, we look not at what they are leaving behind, but what they are moving toward. I help them set smaller goals that lead to larger goals. We also discuss the importance of values. Our values are who we are, and they drive our decisions and priorities. The more you can learn about yourself, the better choices you will make for yourself in retirement.”

Have A Plan

If you’ve been retired awhile, and remain unsure which direction you should take, consider developing a bucket list of activities and interests, hobbies and volunteer opportunities, post-retirement employment opportunities, or courses you would like to take. Then try them out. If photography is a hobby you would like to develop, sign up for a class, join a photography club—or take a photography safari. Who knows where the experience might lead?

Say you’re planning a trip out of the country. Consider supplementing your upcoming experience by taking classes in the language of the place you’ll be visiting. Maybe cooking is your interest. Get involved, take classes and join a related organization. Whatever you do, your activity will provide a social network, intellectual stimulation and a ready-made activity. You might choose to reinvent yourself, redevelop an interest or find a new hobby. Acting on it will give you a chance to accept or reject it—or to fall in love and enthusiastically pursue it—and ultimately create a richer life.

Along the way, remember that if something doesn’t work out, you can always make a new choice. Life coaches Samakow and Levinson agree that retirees should try out new interests before making a commitment. Says Levinson, “One retiree was afraid of taking the risk of trying something new, for fear she wouldn’t like it. However, the beauty of retirement is that you can dabble—and you can quit if you don’t like it. It’s your leisure time, and you should enjoy it.” Another Levinson client wanted to continue to share the knowledge he had accumulated on the job. Exploring his goals, he and Levinson realized he could teach as an adjunct professor at the university level. Today, he is busy sharing his knowledge with adult students.

Dixie Hughes retired from teaching five years ago. She is part of a team that presents pre-retirement seminars for the Washington Education Association. Hughes ticks off a list of common retiree mistakes, such as “underestimating the effects of inflation, assuming all medical costs will be paid, closing the sale of your house without checking with a tax expert, trying to follow your kids around, overdoing husband-and-wife togetherness, assuming that an area you loved for vacations will prove as lovable on a year-round basis and thinking it’s too late (or to soon) to start planning for retirement.”

If a move is in the cards, here are some things to consider: Will you keep the house where you raised your family, or move to a smaller place with less maintenance? Will you relocate to a new area of the country, or an entirely new country? How will you travel—by boat, air train, or maybe by motorcycle? If you buy a second home, will you use it often enough to justify the purchase?

Before committing to a new area, some retirees rent in the area where they think they would like to establish permanent roots. That way, they are able to realistically explore what an area has to offer.

If you are moving to a climate for year-round golf, tennis, biking, hiking, sailing, gardening, or another endeavor, think about a time when your body may no longer be able to handle these activities. Be sure the area offers other cultural, educational, or social activities that will keep you busy and mentally stimulated. It’s also important to consider whether your new location will make it possible for you to visit family and friends easily and affordably. What are the up and down sides—yes, there can be both!—of living closer to children and grandchildren? Could the decision turn you into a permanent babysitter? What if you move to your kids’ location and they move away? Will you follow?

Every step of the way, think back to the times you have said, “Someday I will ________.” This is the time to live the experience that goes in the blank!

Find A Passion!


Anne Kabo Cohen (pictured left), a retired teacher from New Jersey, explains, “I have been retired from teaching high school English since 2005, and I have never looked back. I keep busy with a baking hobby that has turned into a true passion.” Cohen bakes healthy desserts made from natural ingredients, sharing her products with friends and family. “Everybody gets happy!” she says.


Retired Norfolk, Va., special education teacher Charlene Christopher (pictured below) now has time to serve as queen of her Red Hat Society, on the board of directors of her local Head Start, and also part time as a consultant and test examiner. “I traveled every summer as a VEA/NEA delegate and now I enjoy being home, caring for my tomato plants and reading late into the night,” she says. “I would say as a retiree, having a support system in place is very important. I found that through the Red Hat Society.”

Larry Schmitz taught science in the North Kansas City School District for almost 30 years. In 2011, he retired and he and his wife became missionaries. Working with the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries, they teach in the English-speaking School of Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo. In his blog, Larry explains the many surprises of their new lifestyle: electricity for a shower, enjoying a two-hour church service, the importance of remembering to drop the bed net before dark, and the ease with which a sugar scoop can be used to remove ants from the water filter. For more, about the Schmitz’s experience, visit

Discovering a passion and finding a way to act on it is empowering. Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Learn the banjo. Write your novel. Change the world through small acts of kindness. Adopt a pet. Act in community theater. Travel the world. Sing in the church choir. Volunteer to help the homeless. Write poetry. And if you don’t enjoy your choice, change it. You’re retired!

Kristy and Larry Schmitz after hiking a couple
of miles to the cross that overlooks the United
Methodist Station at Mulingwishi,
Democratic Republic of Congo
Many educators wish they had saved more money while they were working. Some believe they should have developed more leisure activities throughout their working years. Others have enjoyed trying out new interests and then settling on their favorites.

Maria Bellamy gained insight from the Breathitt County, Ky., Retired Teachers Association. “They gave me two pieces of wisdom when I retired,” she stated. “The first was to volunteer and give back to the community. The second was to say no to everybody the first year while I was still trying to figure myself out.”

Dixie Hughes agrees. First on her list of mistakes is, “Don’t be afraid to say no to demands on your time.” Everyone thinks that because you are retired, you have unlimited time to do whatever they are asking you to do.

If you plan for retirement, develop your skills and interests, and pursue your passions, then you will pass retirement at the top of your class. “I don’t know how I had time to work” could become your new mantra.


Helpful Resources for Becoming the New You

  •  NEA-Retired provides many opportunities for retired educators to stay active in the effort to protect public education through volunteerism, mentoring, and a variety of activities.
  •  “Don’t Retire, Rewire” by Jeri Sedlar and Rick Miners explains the 5-step Rewiring® tools that will help you build a fulfilling future and obtain the keys to a happy retirement—“knowing what you want to do, what you need to do, and when you need to do it.”
  •  “The New Professional Person’s Retirement Lifestyle” by public school educator Jeffrey Webber provides detailed and innovative activity-based recommendations for the retiree.
  •  The Transition Network (TTN) is a national community of professional women over age 50 who seek new connections, resources, and opportunities.
  •  Newcomer’s Clubs help people meet other area residents. Many clubs have separate groups that are devoted to a variety of interests, from bridge, canasta and golf, to tennis, travel, culture, and crafts.
  •  The Oasis Institute offers classes in history, literature, arts, culture, computers, health, and more at locations nationwide. —Susan Belford


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