Skip to Content

So You Want to Volunteer?

To avoid frustration, keep an open mind and be flexible say retired educators who have returned to school as volunteers.

Karen Kay was sitting in the middle school media center across from a familiar young woman again. They’d met like this more than 100 times for four years, but things had changed, and they both knew it. 

The retired teacher was introduced to the girl by her teacher when she was an awkward fifth grader, but a few years later Kay realized while the games and jokes and friendly chats weren’t enough, pressing the girl about grades and organizing herself was causing the relationship to deteriorate. “We were both frustrated and the focus had to change,” says Kay, 64, who had been a high school teacher for 33 years in the Lincoln, Neb., region.

“Even though I thought I was guiding my mentee towards success, I was frustrated when my recommendations didn’t get results. I didn’t take into consideration that success doesn’t always have the same definition. The results I wanted were my goals. I needed to refocus and realize I had to be an encourager, not an enforcer. When I did, the frustration disappeared—for both of us.”

Now, Kay says, after more than 100 more meetings and four more years, she is adjusting the mentoring relationship again as the girl works through high school and the problems that come with it, and plans what she’ll do as she moves on in a year.

Kay says through this interaction she learned some primary lessons for experienced teachers who return to volunteer in a school, a path many NEA retired members are encouraged and tempted to take: be open minded and flexible, and recognize you can have a big impact in small ways.

“Volunteering with students is extremely rewarding,” she says, “but former teachers should realize it also may be frustrating. They should be realistic about expectations.”

Kay works with a program called TeamMates, founded by famed former University of Nebraska head football coach Tom Osborne, which now serves some 7,500 students through 12 chapters in four states. It’s one structure where retired teachers nationwide are returning to schools, finding they miss interacting with young people or that they want to give back and believe they can have the biggest impact in the field where they thrived.

Just a short trip to the southern end of Lincoln, Kristi Lounsbury, also a 33-year veteran of area schools, is at Beattie Elementary working with a group of second graders who struggle with language skills and are working through their spelling lists.

“As volunteers, retired teachers have to be mindful of just that—you are a volunteer. Now you are a guest in the building, and should defer to their routines, expectations, and ways of operating,” she says.

But the payoff comes from working with kids again, the two say, and doing the type of work that interests them, but on their schedule—able to walk away after an afternoon and head home without lugging a folder full of papers that need grading.

“Volunteering is good for keeping a healthy body and mind, and puts former teachers back in touch with kids, which has great benefits,” Lounsbury says.

“It warms my heart to get a smile of recognition, a high-five, or a wave in the halls from one of my friends. I have one little guy who often comes up to me asks me ‘When do I get to work with you again?’ That alone makes it worthwhile.”

Lola McDowell taught elementary school for 47 years in Richmond, often leading a very successful Read Across America program that brought in high profile readers for the students, including the mayor and governor and McDowell dressed as The Cat in the Hat.

“I just still had a passion for working with kids, and I think a lot of teachers do. Now I can do the things I enjoy with them, but without some of the other pressures,” she says. She has now started the program to another school and is working on a third.

So, what to do and why

Retired teachers can undertake volunteer work in schools in a variety of ways. Some former teachers independently serve in a nearby school, helping with instruction in the area where they taught or just lending a hand where needed, in the office, a classroom, the cafeteria, or after school. Some help at specific times when an extra adult is needed—on a field trip, for a special event like a parent night or before the start of school when there are a number of tasks that need to be completed and an adult with an understanding of the system is a bonus. Others get involved in advisory committees for the school or serve on the school board.

Jim Albertson, 72, a former history teacher and coach in the Chesterfield (Virginia) County Public Schools, has helped with announcing sporting events since he retired nine years ago after 41 years, and has offered special talks on the Civil War, has graded papers and has assisted with testing and field trips.

He also now works as a mentor through The First Tee, a program that teaches young people core values through golf.

In rural southeastern Illinois, Gayla Dial, 69, works with elementary students at a high-poverty school, where she says she helps with fundamental reading skills. “The teachers know me, so I have a lot of autonomy,” she says, noting a key for her was having a regular schedule.

“I discussed the work with the teachers before I became involved and so I volunteer one morning a week. I know most teachers who want to give back have difficulty saying no.”

Meanwhile, in Sacramento, Calif., Shari Beck, 73, who taught in elementary schools for 32 years, now directs the Young Authors Club, an after-school club she helped found that this year will again guide about 25 students, many of them English language learners, in creative writing. And in Pinellas County, Fla., Jana Maples, a teacher for 36 years, used an NEA grant with other retired teachers to found a group called Teachers Helping Teachers, which supports new ,instructors with everything from setting up their room in the fall to advice and support when a class gets out of hand as the year wears on.

Pat Etherton, who travels to schools in southeastern Nebraska dressed up as The Cat in the Hat and hauling along some 75 stuffed animals representing Dr. Seuss characters—all to get young people interested in reading, says such support helps schools, but should help the volunteers too.

How it might take shape

“Before volunteering, I think retirees should think about what their own goals and plans are for retirement first,” says Etherton, who taught for 38 years. She notes that they should then consider how much time they want to commit and what they want to do—even if it should be in the school where they taught. “Maybe they want to do some volunteering for a school activity that is totally different from what they had previously done.”

She also recommends that volunteers “start small” and see how they enjoy working in the school again and whether a position is a good fit before they commit to too much time or effort.

Karen Bantuveris, founder of, which matches volunteers with organizations that need help, agrees.

“If you prefer quiet environments, choose to volunteer in the library or art room instead of at recess. If you’re passionate about science or drama, choose jobs where your excitement will shine through and inspire students.”

And Maples adds they also should give careful thought to how and where they can be most valuable.

“Most of my retired colleagues are busier than when they worked, so we have to tell people what amount of time we can volunteer. We know schools, teachers and students need a lot, but retired teachers have to devote their time in areas where they think they can make the biggest difference.”

McDowell says she knew she had been successful organizing the Read Across America program and that it was something which might be a burden to other teachers or not survive—and it was something she enjoyed. “It met both our needs,” she says.

Communications is key, says Lounsbury. Volunteers should offer feedback and seek it, and before they start they should describe their experience in education. Too often volunteers are underutilized.

But that requires a balance, says Bantuveris. “Before sharing your special method for solving the math problem, or other interesting ways the computer program can be animated, ask the teacher. She may have a specific plan and sequence for the lesson.”

Maples recommends that volunteers step away or scale back if they become frustrated or confused.

“As teachers, we were in control and responsible. As a volunteer, you’re not. We do sometimes have to bite our tongues and just say to ourselves ‘That is not how I would have done it,’ but, in the end, be happy that we have completed a long career of giving to others—and be okay with following another teacher’s wishes.”

She recalls a time when a teacher gave her menial tasks until she found out from others about Maples’ long, successful career as a teacher.

“She apologized and said that someone had told her about me and that I should be teaching her class and she should be learning from me.”

What do the folks running a school building want you to know about volunteering?

“Be flexible”, says Bradley Brown, principal at Bastrop High School in Texas. “It’s really helpful if you’re willing to help in whatever area the school needs, and get to know how a variety of areas operate.” He notes that volunteers should also realize that things can change quickly in a school—so their assignment may change or a student they are expecting to work with may be absent, for instance. It also may be different from when you taught.

“It’s important work,” says Jethro Jones, principal of Tanana Middle School in Fairbanks, Alaska. “But we don’t need them to be experts, and often it is nice just to have another person to support students in the classroom,” he says, suggesting that former teachers will be appreciated just for “fostering a spirit of learning and developing positive relations with students.”

Jones notes they can serve the school by staying positive, knowing that an upbeat attitude can benefit teachers and students in an atmosphere where educators and students interact for long periods and stress levels are high. He also suggests that they find the right balance of being willing to help with anything without being meddlesome or intrusive.

Brian Saxton, principal at Elma G. Bradley Elementary School in Corralitos, Calif., spells out detailed instructions for volunteers who work in his building, and reminds them they should follow school rules in the way they did as teachers, including those about interactions with students.

And Brian Cox, principal at Johnson Junior High School in Cheyenne, Wyo., agrees, noting that he is concerned that teachers remember to follow all legal requirements as volunteers and not be offended if staff members uphold rigorous rules.

Saxton also asks volunteers to specifically spell out what they’d like to do and develop a firm schedule about attending, being certain to let someone know if they aren’t available. Jones also notes, however, that sometimes schools need work that can be accomplished at home.

Paul Branagan, principal at Middleborough High School, in Massachusetts, notes a volunteer’s firm commitment builds a partnership where a school can feel confident they can rely on the volunteer and the retired teacher can feel they are contributing in a useful way. Teachers may get a lot of satisfaction from work in schools, he says, because they know the importance of the work.

“It always feels good to know that you are doing something to help where you are needed. However, how much more powerful it can be when you know the reason behind the work that you are doing.”

Most of all, ‘Enjoy Yourself.’

About 50 retired teachers are braving icy Wisconsin weather this winter to help out in the six schools within the Hamilton School District. They work as tutors, pen pals, mentors, and “cheerleaders”—even cooks and living history characters.

The educators are part of a unique program in the small, rural district west of Milwaukee that successfully puts some 250 retirees to work in the school system. Working a variety of jobs, volunteers help more than 1,000 students at all school levels, according to Becky Hubred, who coordinates the Seniors and Students program. In fact, the district approaches all its retirees about participating, and retired teachers from nearby districts who hear about the program seek it out.

“Retired educators are very valuable because they have years of knowledge as well as this great passion for students,” Hubred says. She says they often also help guide the many other volunteers, and principals sometimes ask them to work in a new teacher’s classroom.

“In many cases, however, they just want to be around kids, help out, and have fun,” she says. “That’s great too.”

What’s Hubred’s advice to volunteering teachers after her experience with such a large, successful organization that makes such arrangements work?

“Enjoy yourself. For years it was you managing everything. Now you can take the time to focus on a student or task and experience and observe the finer interactions and activities that you couldn’t appreciate when you were the one in charge.”

From the Blackboard to the School Board

When Lupe Ramos-Montigny was picking beets as a migrant worker in Michigan as a teen, she got the idea that she might want to some day be a teacher and perhaps leave her home in a small town just north of the Mexican border in Texas and come north.

She did that. And then some.

Ramos-Montigny is now halfway through an eight-year term as a member of the most prominent education body in Michigan, after nearly 40 years working in just about every capacity you can think of in Grand Rapids area schools.

“I didn’t retire from my family or my community—and I certainly didn’t retire from education,” she says.

She was one of nine children, all of whom ended up with high levels of education and training thanks to their parents, who took their children along as they earned extra money traveling to pick crops in various states, but insisted that their kids be thoroughly educated. Ramos-Montigny began teaching at about age 25 when she was recruited to work in a state migrant education program as a senior in college.

Since then her experience in schools creates a long and impressive resume. She has taught at every level, from kindergarten to adult education, served as a principal, held positions heading bilingual and adult learning programs and on museum boards and has been active with the Michigan Education Association and the state Democratic party. In 2012 she was elected to the Michigan State Board of Education.

Ramos-Montigny is quick to point out that she helped found, and for 17 years directed, a program that honors Cesar Chavez, an inspiration to her. The group celebrates the famed activist, thoroughly involving young people and educating them about his legacy.

All her work, she says, has revolved around students.

“You just can’t turn off that passion for teaching and involvement in schools like a faucet,” she says “You have to keep using that experience to serve in some way to enhance the educational system. For me it just kept flowing naturally.”

Ramos-Montigny is one of many former educators who don’t just return to a school in retirement—but seek office and serve on various education panels.

Across Lake Michigan, around the time Ramos-Montigny was working in Michigan farm fields, Robert Kaplan entered District 54 schools in Schaumburg, Ill. This year he was elected to the school board there after more than 30 years serving the district as a math teacher, coach, and principal.

“I am a lifelong resident of District 54,” he says. “I chose to work and raise my family in the district, and it is important to me to continue providing the excellent education that I received. I entered education to work with students. The same motivation [of] working with children and their parents in the classroom remains with me as a school board member.”

Near Allentown, Pa., long-time teacher Carol Klinger was also appointed to the board of education, then won election, and now serves on the Salisbury Township School District School Board.

“It was very difficult after being a teacher in Salisbury for over 30 years to totally disconnect myself from education. I wanted to play a vital role in educating students without being involved on a daily basis,” she says, noting she always had an interest in the school board.

“I felt one way I could give back to my former employer and the students of Salisbury and my community, was to run for a position on the school board.”

Published in:

Published In