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The Write Way to Retire

After leaving the classroom, some of your colleagues contine to fill their days with words.


By Mary Ellen Flannery

Do you have a story to tell? Maybe it’s one about a favorite student, the sixth-grader with a gentle smile who, years later, was unfairly accused and unbelievably convicted of murder. That was Joann Goetz North’s tale of injustice that she couldn’t help but spill onto 127 compelling pages.

Or maybe, after nearly three decades in the classroom, you’re thinking: I can help that new gal down the hall!

I can advise her in the incredibly important, intensely difficult job of teaching. That was Dave Foley’s motivation in his work, the Ultimate Classroom Control Handbook, dedicated, in part, to “an excellent student teacher of mine…who gave me the impetus to start writing down my thoughts on classroom management.”


Photo by John Polak

Or maybe you’ve always been a writer. Gary Metras, retired Massachusetts teacher and past recipient of the Massachusetts Fellowship in Poetry, is the author of more than a dozen poetry books and chapbooks, and his decades of work has appeared in journals such as The American Voice, and The Boston Review of Books.

At the same time, his own printing press—the hand-cranked antique he keeps in a heated room behind his garage—receives more than 400 submissions a year for publication.

Whatever your motivations or methods, consider that among your retired colleagues are dozens, maybe hundreds, of published authors—travel guide writers, cookbook denizens, and mystery craftsmen. Maybe you could join them? Learn more about how, and why.


On the road with the Joneses

Bob and Anne Jones, retired Oregon teachers, have a combined 70-plus years in the classroom. They’ve also logged thousands of miles and hundreds of days in their travels to Ireland and the United Kingdom, where their love of travel, photography, and golf has resulted in the publication of several titles, including Scotland’s Hidden Gems and Ireland’s Small Greens.

1. What’s a perfect day of travel look like?
For me, a good travel day starts with a good travel companion, someone to share the experience. Next you need an interesting location—it could be historic, cultural, or even touristy, if it’s engaging. Finally, it would be nice to have decent weather. Notice I don’t say ‘good weather’ because you can’t ask for too much. The day would be capped off by downloading and reviewing photos on my laptop and journaling the experiences of the day.

2. What was the best surprise you’ve experienced while traveling?
The best surprise is how important the people we’ve met have become to us. We’ve become family to the owners of our Scottish B&B home in Crieff. We continually meet interesting people on the golf courses and have been helped numerous times by strangers—mostly when we’ve been lost in some small village or big town.

3. Name an unexpected but indispensable item in your carry-on bag.
 I don’t know how unexpected to consider this, but an essential (now) is a good set of noise-reduction headphones. Once we discovered them, we won’t travel without them. At the end of the flight we end up so much more rested, even if we didn’t sleep.

4. When in Scotland, is there a drink or dish that everybody should try?
 Two suggestions: First, you really should try haggis (sheep’s liver, lungs and heart, mixed with oats and spices, then boiled for hours in a sheep’s stomach). I don’t say that you’ll like it, but good haggis isn’t as bad as it sounds and it shows the Scot’s propensity to use everything. Second, you should try Cullen Skink (smoked haddock chowder). It’s truly delicious.

5. If you had a friend with limited mobility, is there an overseas city that you think they might find welcoming?
 In the U.K., whether big town or small village, people with limited mobility seem to get around fine. Current law means that most places of interest have been made mobility friendly—and, if not, they tell you that.

6. What’s the one thing NOT to say to a Scottish host?
 Don’t brag about your English heritage to a Scot. Remember what the English did to Braveheart.

7. Let’s say you had a helicopter at your disposal and the desire to play golf all day, where would you ask the pilot to take you?
Who needs a helicopter? There are six great courses in St. Andrews alone, and a dozen more great ones within 20 miles of the town. Gleneagles has three great courses on the property and five or six more nice ones within 20 miles. The Isle of Arran off the Scottish Ayrshire coast has seven courses and the island is just 60 miles around. Royal Dornoch in the far north of Scotland has six or seven nice courses within an hour. So, who needs a helicopter?

8. What’s the one thing that everybody must see or do in Wales?
 See as many of Edward I’s castles, built to oppress the rebellious Welsh, as you can, especially Caernarfon and Harlech.

9. Where, and when, did you honeymoon?
 Married in 1968 while we were teaching in California, our reception was in a friend’s apartment watching the USC–UCLA football game, then down to Seal Beach for the night and back home to teach again on Monday.

Stories that Change Lives

JoAnne North Goetz, retired North Carolina teacher and co-author of Long Time Coming: My Life and the Darryl Hunt Lesson.

JoAnne North Goetz was sitting at her kitchen bar, sipping coffee, when she read the headline on her local newspaper, September 15, 1984: “Man already in jail is charged in Sykes murder.” That crime, the horrifying murder and rape of a young woman who had been walking to work downtown, had gripped the Winston-Salem community.

She dropped the paper and leaped off the barstool.

“You’re not going to believe this,” she called out to her mother. “They’ve arrested my Darryl.” She looked at the picture again. Staring back at her, Darryl’s familiar almond-shaped eyes looked more like a scared animal than the gentle child of her memory… No way, she told herself..

Goetz’s unwavering belief in her former student’s innocence put her on the witness stand, delivered her to the prison where he spent 20 years, and finally, was rewarded with his exoneration. It also brought her to this book, which she co-wrote with a local author.

You might read it and think, “What a tragedy!” But Goetz and Darryl Hunt wouldn’t say so. His incarceration led him to a new faith and marriage, and also his work with the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice where he helps former prisoners find work and housing.

Goetz wants you to read this book and think about forgiveness. Despite the 20 years lost to shoddy police work, Hunt has no bitterness in his heart. “It hurts nobody but you if you don’t forgive,” Goetz says. She also wants you to know that there’s good in any experience. “Nothing is so bad that some good can’t come out of it.”

Most of all, consider this: It was a real act of bravery for Goetz to testify on behalf of her former student, a black man accused of raping and murdering a white woman. “If people had known that I was going to court for Darryl, they’d burn my house down!” But she did it—because she believed in him. “If you believe in something, you’ve got to take a stand. You’ve got to believe there’s something you can do.”

The Icy Strike of Inspiration!

Cindy Aillaud, retired Alaska teacher and author of Recess at 20 Below.

It was noon on November 20, 1997, a sunny 20-degrees below zero day in Junction, Alaska, when Cindy Aillaud’s inspiration struck.

“All my kindergartners were out at recess having a great time and I was watching the action, shivering in my boots, wondering again why I live here, and it popped into my head, ‘These kids have a story to tell!’”

That story turned into Recess at 20 Below, a children’s book that describes the uniquely Alaskan experience of dark mid-day breaks—right down to the frozen eyelashes.

“When it’s this cold, we have to be careful never to touch our tongue on something metal. It will stick! Then a teacher will have to use a hair dryer or pour a glass of warm water over it to get your tongue free. How embarrassing!”

Aillaud, a 2004 Disney Teacher of the Year, snapped the photos on her own schoolyard, which is no easy task at those temperatures. To keep her camera’s batteries functional, Aillaud tucked it under her parka, next to her skin. “If there was a photo, I had to quickly unbutton and pull it out,” she recalls. And then, of course, to operate the setting and buttons, she had to wear very thin gloves. “Yep, I had very cold hands that year!”

She also wrote at night, “When my whole family was in bed, between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.,” she recalls. “Now I look back and think, ‘how did I do that and still teach?’”

From inspiration to actual book in hand, it took eight years—but it was more than just the long gestation of a new project. The publication also marked the birth of her own new life, as a retired teacher, book author, and guest lecturer at schools across the country. Aillaud’s newest book, called Everybody Plays, is about visually impaired athletes, but she also stays busy with guest appearances at schools from Arizona to Illinois or wherever they want to hear about school life around the Arctic Circle.

“My life has taken a different direction but I love it—and I’m still connected to schools, which breathes life into me!”

The Voice of the Expert

Dave Foley, retired Michigan teacher and author of Ultimate Classroom Control Handbook.

The old adage, espoused by writing coaches and high school English teachers alike, is this: Write what you know. And lucky for the less experienced educators out there, Dave Foley, a middle-school teacher for 29 years, knows exactly what they need to learn.

His book, a practical primer with on-the-spot strategies for student behavior issues, got started with a long note to a student teacher at his school. He had left her (and a certified substitute) in charge of his classroom while attending  a conference. After two days, he called to say, “Mindy, how did it go?” And she burst into tears.

“You make it look so easy!” she accused.

“I sat down that night and wrote a few thousand words,” Foley recalls, “and she thought it was so helpful, she asked if she could share it with other student teachers.” At that, Foley was intrigued—because there was so much more he could tell them, about talking to parents, providing behavior incentives, leading class discussions.

So he kept writing.

His expert notes eventually turned into a recognizably valuable manual. In fact, when he sent it out to publishing houses, he got back three contractual offers, including one from JIST Publishing.

It also turned into a new career: Foley currently works as a “classroom management coach,” to local schools and also writes articles for magazines like “Silent Sports,” on paddling and cycling activities.

 So, ask yourself: What do you know?

Not Rhyming Stuff…Poetry

Gary Metras, retired Massachusetts teacher and poet and publisher of Adastra Press

In a heated room behind his garage in Easthampton, Massachusetts, poet Gary Metras hand-cranks a small printing press that once was named best poetry publisher of the year by Contemporary Poetry Review.

There are years when Metras receives more than 400 submissions, vying to be among the handful of books published annually by Adastra Press, his small press. He listens to his gut, mostly, for the choosing. “I like poetry that comes out of the author’s real experience, that shows the stuff of real life, the language of real life,” he reflects. “I don’t like rhyming stuff, greeting card verse, religious verse…Spiritual verse, I like, but not religious verse.”

His favorite living poet? Galway Kinnell.

“I also like, oh jeez, there’s so many of them: Billy Collins, the former poet laureate, Robert Bly. If you want to go back to deceased poets, I read poets like Anne Sexton, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and I still love reading Shakespeare, both his poems and his plays. And English poet William Blake too.”

“He was really influential in his work when I was beginning to write.”

Metras also is a well-regarded poet with more than a dozen books or chapbooks of his own, including, Francis d’Assisi, a long verse inspired by a trip to Italy and named a finalist for Massachusetts Book of the Year. His next title will be poems inspired by fly-fishing in local rivers.

“The poetic mind looks at something like fly-fishing different than a prose mind. The poetic mind looks for an instant, when a revelation came to the person, when the prose mind is more interested in telling a story, narrating the characters and events that happened.”

Metras has been writing and publishing for decades—he bought his press in the late 1970s from an older gentleman who had been publishing prayer cards. While still teaching, he taught like a poet, looking for those same revelations.

“Of course I had curriculum, lesson plans, unit goals, semester goals, year-long goals for students—but you look for the little moments when spark happens, and you go for those sparks and make a fire. If you can get a bonfire, even better….”

The Secrets of Marlis Day


Photo by Tina Leigh

Marlis Day, retired Indiana teacher and author of the “Margo Brown” mysteries

Q:  Tell us about your writing life.
A:  I love to write. I first began writing when our kids left home for college and the nest was empty. I was teaching full-time then, so I’d get ideas during the day, jot down notes, write like crazy when I could. Now that I’m retired, I have a proper office (you can see it at, scroll down until you see “Why I Write.”) My office has a window looking out onto our small farm. I can see our lake, trees. Sometimes my grandgirls go past in their golf cart.

Q: Do you know where the story is going before you begin?
A:  Before I start, I know how it will begin and end. I know who did it and why. Then I make a rough outline and follow that, expanding as ideas come to me. When I reread what I’ve written the day before, I often “jazz it up” a bit by adding colorful phrases, etc.

 Q: Why mysteries?
A:  I love mysteries—the interaction, the small-town flavor, the amateur sleuth who always knows more than the police. When I read a mystery, I look for clues and try to solve it before I get to the end. When I write, I try to be fair to the reader and sprinkle clues along the way. My favorite mystery author is Sue Grafton and I met her at the Kentucky Book Fair a couple of years ago. She was so gracious!

Q: Margo Brown has a very distinctive voice—in a good way! She sounds like a real person. Is that your voice? Do people who know you read this book and say, “Marlis, this is you!”?
A:  All the time. People tell me, “I can just hear you talking when I read your books!” I guess Margo Brown is my alter-ego. They say write what you know, so when I have Margo get up in the morning, I think: Now what would I do today? How would I answer that? I’ll admit, she’s younger, smarter, more gutsy, and better looking than I am, but I’m in there.

Q: Do you borrow from other friends and family members to create characters or anecdotes? Like in Death of a Hoosier Schoolmaster, when the snakes fall from the trees: True story?? (ACK!)
A:  All of my characters are either people I have met or combinations of people I know. Only occasionally do they recognize themselves. I guess we never see ourselves as others see us. I come from a family of storytellers and I pull on old family and neighborhood stories at times. Yes, my Uncle Harry shot at snakes in trees in front of my teen-age son, who came home and told me that story.

I based that book, Death of a Hoosier Schoolmaster, on a real unsolved murder in my community. I’d always heard about it, so I went to the cemetery and found his grave. Then to the library to read the old newspaper and court documents on microfilm. It was an amazing story. All of it is true, except the ending. Margo Brown solved it, so of course it’s fiction. I changed the names and dates, but a relative of the victim recognized the family murder. She called me from Virginia and sent pictures of the characters. It was eerie how much they looked like I described them.

Q: How do you know when a book is done?
A:  I love the writing part. I love the rereading and adding punchy verbs and modifiers, throwing in some metaphors, et cetera. When I think it’s perfect, I send it to my publisher. I hate the next part. They keep it about six months, then return with suggestions for rewriting. I do the rewrites, reluctantly. Then I send it back. Months go by. I think we’re done. Then those darn editors send it back again…and again…. At this point, I’m totally stressed and want to take the whole thing out behind the barn and shoot it. But, I do the corrections and you know what? When I read the finished product, I have to admit they were right; the book is better than it was.

Q: What are you working on now?
A:  Right now, I’m on hiatus. My new book, Back to Bailey’s Chase is due out in two weeks. It is the sequel to The Secret of Bailey’s Chase, which just won first place in the young adult division of the Readers Favorite Book contest. I wrote my mysteries while I was teaching. When I retired, I really missed the kids, so I decided to write a set of middle-grade mystery/fantasy novels and visit schools with them. I can’t wait for them to read this sequel. I think it’s my best work.

Q: What’s next for you and Margo Brown?
A:  Part of me says five books is enough. I keep busy going to book fairs, library events, schools, reading conferences, etc. I have a husband, a home, five grandchildren who love to visit and swim in the lake and ride the horses. We love to travel. But then again, I have an outline made for another Margo Brown book, so who knows?


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