Hello, Mr. Chips? Balto. County plan to lure ex-teachers may be a tough sell

February 27, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

MY FRIEND Gary Levin heard about the plan to make him a millionaire (of sorts) last week, and will opt to keep his sanity instead. Thirty-two years in the classroom was enough. Baltimore County will have to look elsewhere among its retired schoolteachers in its search for excellence where now there is uneasiness.

You heard about this, right? The thinkers in the Baltimore County Board of Education, checking the disheartening test scores and the low levels of teaching experience at 65 troubled schools, are now talking about luring retired teachers back from their leisure, back from their restabilized blood-pressure readings, and back from their evenings lolling by the television set instead of hunched like Quasimodo over test papers that have to be graded.

Under this plan, if these retirees return to work, the county would pay them their old salaries -- and continue paying them their full pensions. It sounds like a godsend, a financial windfall beyond previous imaginings of anyone who ever daydreamed through Elementary Ed 101. It's the equivalent (to historically underpaid, and under- appreciated, teachers) of hitting the jackpot on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

To which my friend Levin, the ex-schoolteacher, with a 32-year career behind him in which he instructed young scholars in each beautiful nuance of the English language, declared in the parlance of Shakespeare himself: "Yeah, right."

This is known as sarcasm. The public schools are hungry for teachers, particularly those with track records who can lift the academic standards at problem schools. And so Baltimore County is now thinking of stretching its budgetary restraints as far as possible in pursuit of those retired teachers who might miss their old jobs.

This is, in one sense, lovely to hear -- and, in another, pretty unsettling.

It is lovely to imagine school administrators so eager to reach youngsters, and so aware of the increased intellectual demands of the modern workplace, that they're willing to spend extra money to reach the neediest kids.

But it's unsettling when we ask ourselves a series of questions: How did the schools reach such a level of need?

How would current teachers react to retirees coming back -- at far greater pay?

Long before this, why wasn't money used to hire enough young teachers to make classroom sizes smaller -- thus enhancing learning and forestalling the burnout felt by so many teachers?

What makes anyone think teachers who had previously retired would return to the classroom with anything more than a desire to cash in?

It's a little reminiscent of Earl Weaver, the Orioles manager who retired after the 1982 baseball season with every instinct telling him, "Retire, or face the possibility of your body erupting in unhealthy ways."

Earl came back a few years later when Edward Bennett Williams offered him huge money -- but it wasn't the same Earl. True, he didn't have Frank and Boog and Brooksie around any more. But also, the game had passed him by -- and he no longer had the fire in the belly, and knew it, and quickly slipped back into retirement.

Which brings us back to my friend Levin. After 32 years of teaching -- at Hamilton Junior High, and then at Northern, Catonsville, Lansdowne, Woodlawn and Towson high schools -- he retired two years ago, exhausted and no longer wanting to spend five evenings a week slogging through his students' handwritten essays, to a bliss he hadn't anticipated.

He takes piano lessons. He reads voraciously, and hits the Internet every day, and takes care of the house while his wife goes to work. To make some extra money, he's begun a little private tutoring.

Maybe a little too much.

"My wife told me the other day, `Your stress level is back up,' " he said. "She told me, `You're pacing the way you used to.'

"You know, when I retired, I walked out of my last class with a sense of relief. You just come to a point where you know it's time. Things change. There are so many problems in the classroom now, and the administration calls everybody in and says, `Listen, we love you; you're so important.' And then they treat you like hell.

"You have experienced teachers being observed and then picked apart. The old collegial approach has now become corporate. You have administrators who left the classroom because they hated teaching, and don't know what good teaching is, and they're the ones judging teachers. And then everybody wonders why morale is so low."

It is all of this, and more. Across the state, educators are scrambling for ways to lift reading and math scores, to turn out young people capable of surviving once they leave the classroom behind.

There is increased pressure everywhere. Bringing back Baltimore County's retired teachers is one reach for a fix, which has a sweet, Mr. Chips sound to it. But it might be a tougher sell than anyone imagines.

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