Golden years for teaching

Experience: As the state battles a severe teacher shortage, retired educators are lured back to the classroom.

September 22, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

For a recent retiree, Hereford High School choral music teacher Gerald M. Smith spends a lot of time in the classroom, running his students through voice drills and teasing them when they miss a high note.

Smith, who retired in May after 41 years at the chalkboard, is back in front of the class as part of a new program in Baltimore County that aims to retain master teachers and fill vacant posts amid a severe teacher shortage.

Statewide, 537 retired educators - most of them with 25 or more years experience - are back on the job this fall, thanks in part to legislation passed by the General Assembly last year that loosened income restrictions for returning teachers. The law was designed to provide relief to desperate school systems.

"I'm almost 62 years old, and there comes a point when you say that's enough. But if you're still good at what you are doing and you still have the energy to do it, then why not?" Smith said. "Teaching has always been a real joy for me. Right now, it's a great feeling."

In Baltimore County, retired teachers who return to the classroom are earning big money. Some could bank close to $80,000 this year - a combination of salary and pension payments. Retirees who choose to teach in the most challenging schools earn the most.

Principals who did the re-hiring are bragging about the perks - knowledgeable professionals who know how to lay down the law and take care of paperwork pronto.

"We see it as a huge benefit," said Hereford Assistant Principal Barbara Dorsey, referring to Smith and business teacher James Heffner, who also returned to school in September. "They are good teachers, they are master teachers, and they are a wonderful resource."

Even students seem to buy into the idea.

"He's more experienced than other teachers, and I don't think I'd have as much fun if he didn't come back," said Hereford Chamber Choir member Kristin Kernan, 16, of Parkton.

Smith's enthusiasm shows in the way he calls out encouragement and advice. "Very nice!" "Whisper!" "Where's the F?" "There's the vowel I want!"

It's that kind of expertise - Smith's way with words, his way with children - that school systems nationwide are eager to secure, especially when finding and hiring qualified teachers is tougher than ever.

Programs to rehire older, wiser educators have existed in various forms in school systems across the state for years - Baltimore's Retired Educators Advocating Change Today program has provided part-time work to retired educators for three years.

However, a change in state law last year that allowed retirees - teachers and principals - to collect a full-time salary without jeopardizing their pensions, has sparked a wildfire of interest. (The program will expire in 2004, at which time lawmakers could decide to extend it.)

Records kept by the State Retirement Agency show that 35 retired educators have returned to work in Baltimore; 51 in Baltimore County; five in Howard County; 18 in Anne Arundel County, and one in Carroll County.

But the county with the most rehired retirees is Prince George's, with 396.

"I think we're at 400 now, but that's pretty close," said Judith A. Miller, Prince George's Associate Superintendent for Human Resources. "We've been very, very fortunate."

"They have been very aggressive," said Lawrence E. Leak, assistant state superintendent, Division of Certification and Accreditation, referring to the large number of retirees who returned in Prince George's. "They made it very clear. They advertised it."

Still, the decision to return to the classroom is not for everyone.

In Baltimore County, retired educators must renew their teaching contracts every year, said Dave Evans, a school system personnel officer. There is no guarantee that they will get the same job at the same school.

Unlike other teachers, retirees may not bank sick days. They are permitted 10 sick days a year.

"Before you do this, you must consider your health," said Willie Wade, 61, a science teacher at Old Court Middle School who retired after 29 years. He returned to the classroom as a way to stash extra retirement money. "A major illness could wipe out your sick leave days."

But for Wade and Smith, the experience has been rewarding.

"At this point, I'm a little elated at what has transpired, and I think it is going to be a very good year," said Wade, who is working with a few old friends at Old Court.

For Smith, the reward is the music that fills his classroom five days a week.

"I have a very nice and good rapport with the kids, and they have worked well for me," Smith said. "The kids looked forward to coming back as much as I looked forward to coming back."

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