The Ins and Outs of Becoming a Teacher in Retirement

Despite low salaries, some baby boomers go back to school—as teachers.

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Many baby boomers feel that they have accumulated a lifetime of experiences they would like to pass on to the next generation. Heading back to the classroom as a teacher after a full career in a different field can get you out of the house, involved in the community, and earning a steady—albeit smaller—paycheck.

Here is how to decide if becoming a teacher in retirement is right for you.

Giving back. Michael Casey, 62, spent most of his career as an engineer and small-business owner. But once his kids were out of the house, he decided to take the job he always wanted: teaching. At age 55, Casey went back to school and then became a high school algebra and calculus teacher. "I had been interested in education for a long time," says Casey, who taught for five years in an inner-city Dallas school before landing his current gig in suburban Carrolton, Texas. "Right after 9/11, I decided I wanted to do something that would give something back." Roughly 42 percent of college-educated adults, age 60 and younger, say they would consider teaching in the future, according to a MetLife survey. Women, folks between ages 50 and 60, and those working in engineering, science, and information technology were the most likely to want to teach in the next five years.

Potential teachers said they were looking for a job that was personally rewarding (68 percent) and contributing something to society (54 percent), which they thought teaching could provide. Vickie Szarek, 50, a former project manager and software developer at IBM, recently began her second school year teaching high school biology. "Biology was my first love," says Szarek, who double-majored in animal science and computer science as an undergraduate. "I try to make my classes fun and interesting."

Test it out. Before making the jump to teaching, check it out with some first-person investigation. "You should go to a local school district and look for programs that allow you to volunteer, mentor, to get some direct experience working with young people even while still working," says Thomas Carroll, president of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. "That firsthand experience will put you on stronger footing when you go to teach."

Don't expect a modern classroom to be like one you experienced as a student. "Be prepared to work in an environment that comes with its challenges, including various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds," says Szarek. "It's very different than it was when I was in high school 30 years ago."

Pay cut. Low pay is the biggest concern that potential teachers voiced in the MetLife survey. Casey took "at least a 50 percent pay cut" when he became a teacher starting at approximately $40,000 annually. The average state teacher salary is $50,695 this year, according to the American Federation of Teachers, but starting salaries are far lower and vary considerably by state.

Taking classes. You may have to go back to school. Some programs are geared specifically for career changers who already have bachelor's degrees in a different subject. They are often short term and intensive, which allows career changers to move into the classroom quickly. "Get in touch with the local college or university or community college, and find out about alternative pathways into teaching," says Carroll.

You probably don't have to drain your retirement account to pay for all this. Federal financial aid is available. Also, many states offer loan forgiveness programs if you agree to teach in a high-needs area for a specified time. Your current employer may even foot some of the bill. IBM, for example, offers employees with 10 years at the company up to $15,000 for tuition reimbursement when they study to become teachers. The money can also be used as a living stipend if the employee takes a leave of absence to study or student teach. So far, about 100 employees have enrolled in the program.

Lesson plans. It can be tough to be engaging to your students every day while still covering the state's assigned curriculum. "You have to prepare presentations that are interesting every day," says Casey. "You tell your five best stories for five days, and then you have to come up with 182 more of those." A teacher is also no stranger to bringing work home like lesson plans, and tests, papers, and quizzes for grading. "The avalanche of paper is more than I expected," says Casey.