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We Are NEA Retired

After 25 years of advocacy, mentoring, and fellowship, what's next for NEA's retired educators?

By Kristen Loschert

After 30 years as an elementary school teacher and reading specialist, Jean Savidge wasn’t about to turn her back on her profession simply because she had retired.

So in 1983 she attended a conference in Philadelphia to learn more about a new NEA program created specifically for retired educators like her. 

She joined on the spot.     

“I joined NEA-Retired because I felt there was a great need to continue to be involved in the association that I had worked with for so many years,” says Savidge. “It was a continuation of the profession that I grew up in and I wanted to continue to support my fellow educators.” 

For 25 years, retirees like Savidge have supported their active colleagues by joining NEA-Retired.  What started as an effort to reconnect retirees with the Association has become an integral part of NEA’s mission to support students and public education.

Whether they are reading books to school children, mentoring new teachers, or lobbying for education funding, retirees work hand-in-hand with active educators, influencing public education at the local, state, and national levels. 

“Being a member of NEA-Retired…gave me all kinds of insights into the things retirees could do and how we could help the active teachers,” says Savidge, who helped organize the Washington Education Association-Retired in 1986.  “Even though we were not active [educators] anymore, we still had the ability to impact what was going on in education.”

For Marie Theerman, a retired elementary school teacher in Missouri, having a retired teachers association keeps her and her colleagues connected to their profession and to each other.

“We missed being involved,” says Theerman, co-founder of Missouri NEA-Retired.  “We didn’t want to miss out on all the great things that were happening in education—all the political activity and all the things we had been doing before we retired.  We wanted to keep contributing.”

Mary Bishop, a retired primary and secondary education teacher in Arizona, agrees.  “I’ve always been active in my local, and after I retired I still wanted to know what was going on in my organization,” says Bishop, who joined NEA-R at the 1983 convention. “Keeping the Association going, that’s what it’s all about.”

In the past 10 years alone, membership in NEA-R has more than doubled, growing from 110,000 members in 1998 to 282,000 retired and pre-retired members today. But that growth came with a few growing pains.

“In the early stages of the organization, we were a mom-and-pop store. People joined but didn’t know what their national organization was doing,” explains Todd Crenshaw, organizational specialist for NEA-R.  “There was little connection between the local member and what was happening at the national level.”

Since then, NEA-R has formed a governance committee to oversee the program’s operation, and it organizes two regional conferences and a national conference annually to help local members connect with the national organization.  Retired members also hold voting seats on the NEA Board of Directors, the Representative Assembly, and NEA’s various committees.

“We are much more included in all areas of NEA than we were at the beginning of our organization,” says Barbara Matteson, NEA-R president. “Everyone sees the value of having all members—students, ESP, retired, higher education, and the active members—working together for the same goal.”

Retired members have given back to the Association as well.  NEA-R members have participated in NEA’s Read Across America since it began in 1999. Jack Kinnaman, a former NEA-R vice president, even served as the program’s official mascot, the Cat in the Hat, at national RAA events until his death in 2002. Many retired members coordinate their state’s RAA programs as well, says Crenshaw.

In 2003, NEA-R launched its Intergenerational Teacher Mentoring Project to pair retired educators with junior and senior college students studying to become teachers. The mentor-student pairs work together for three years, during which the retired teachers take the aspiring educators through their student teaching and first years in the classroom—critical times for a novice educator.   

Members of NEA-R also brought attention to the plight of educators impacted by the Government Pension Offset and Windfall Elimination Provision (GPO/WEP), which penalize some public employees by cutting or taking away Social Security benefits they or their spouses have earned. 

Retired members urged the Association to support the repeal of GPO/WEP, says Crenshaw; now NEA has a member task force dedicated to the issue. As a result of the Association’s efforts, 352 members of the House of Representatives and 37 senators have endorsed legislation to repeal the GPO/WEP.

“Here you have retirees playing a significant role in changing legislation that will affect retirees for years to come,” says Crenshaw. “You’re talking about millions of dollars in retirement benefits that could be available to future retirees because of the advocacy and work of NEA-Retired.”

Through the years, retirees have had an equally significant impact at the state and local levels too.  In 1987, members of the newly affiliated Missouri NEA-Retired successfully lobbied for legislation that let retired educators buy into their local school district’s health insurance plans. 

In Washington, Savidge and her fellow retirees have walked the picket line with striking teachers and distributed union leaflets during school conferences. And in Arizona, Bishop and other retired teachers volunteered as substitutes for a teacher who had exhausted all of her paid sick leave during cancer treatment.

“Collective action is a cornerstone of NEA’s mission,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “Nothing in this country was ever accomplished without the collective action of individuals who believed in something strongly enough to band together. As a collective force, members of NEA-Retired can achieve anything they set their sights on achieving.  Nothing stands in their way.”

What do the next 25 years hold for NEA-Retired?

Program officials would like to expand the pre-retirement workshops many state programs offer to help active members prepare for retirement.  While NEA-R offers some pre-retirement resources online, most of the workshops come from state-based efforts, Crenshaw says. 

Crenshaw would like to develop a training manual and system to support the existing workshops and to provide materials to states interested in starting similar programs. 

NEA-R is also developing ways to help active members transition seamlessly to retired status at the end of their careers.

Currently, eight states are piloting the Continuous Membership Program, which lets active members prepay their dues for NEA-R and their state retired associations while they still are in the classroom, says Crenshaw. Active members can continue to join NEA-R as pre-retired members as well.  

“The growth in membership potential is huge,” says NEA-R President Barbara Matteson. “The potential for NEA is we can be a really powerful voice in support of public education. Our issues are not just senior issues.  We, as retirees, are concerned about healthcare for the active teachers, wages for teachers, and class sizes—all those things are important to us, too, even though we aren’t in the classroom anymore.”

Lester Mason Jr., a retired science teacher and counselor in Alabama, says he shares that message with as many educators as he can.

“A lot of people retire, and they don’t come back to support the organization; but I tell them ‘you should join the retired teachers association’,” he says. “We’re very important people—we’re educators—and we can still teach.  We are still leaders, and we can still be active in our community.”

Retired educators agree that their membership in NEA-R provides countless benefits. 

For some, it offers an opportunity to build their leadership skills. For others, it connects them to the students they once taught. For still others, it gives them the chance to speak out about the issues confronting their schools and communities and to advocate for change. But more than anything, NEA-R links retired educators together, and some say that is the greatest benefit of all.

“I would miss it if I weren’t involved. I would miss the people.  I would miss trying to promote education and trying to keep education in the forefront with the legislators,” says Theerman in Missouri. “I’m just glad we started [the retired program]. I think it’s been a boon to everyone who has joined.”

Collecting for a Lifetime

If you’ve ever attended an NEA Representative Assembly, then you probably have seen Fred Stark.

In his 46 years as an NEA member, Stark has attended 37 RAs—and he has the collection to prove it. Stark, a retired band instructor from Iowa, has, most likely, the largest collection of NEA memorabilia in the country.

“It shows my life, in a way,” Stark says of his collection.

“NEA has meant a lot to me because [being involved with it] has developed my ability to be a parliamentarian. It’s given me leadership training. It’s given me people skills. But the most important thing is I’ve developed friendships that will last a lifetime.

“I thought there was a need for someone within the NEA or ISEA to remind people where we came from.”     

Stark’s collection, which fills several display cases in his home and a shed in his yard, includes pins and badges from every RA he has attended. He also collects pins and buttons from candidates running for NEA office, as well as posters, booklets, commemorative items, and anything else he finds interesting. Friends, colleagues, and fellow members of the Pin Traders Caucus, which Stark organized, also contribute to his collection. 

 Stark displays many of his items each year at the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) Delegate Assembly and at the ISEA-Retired conferences. He hopes one day to display some of his collection at an NEA RA.

His most treasured collectibles include an original poster announcing NEA’s endorsement of Jimmy Carter for president (NEA’s first political endorsement); an Iowa state badge from the 1891 RA in Toronto (the only RA held outside of the United States); pins from the 1905 RA in New Jersey and the 1921 RA in Iowa; and a ribbon from the 1887 ISEA convention.

“To know where we came from is important. We learn from our mistakes and our successes,” says Stark.  “The new generations a lot of times don’t realize what has happened, and it’s important to show them we have had some struggles along the way so they won’t become complacent.”

Stark began documenting the Association’s history partly because he became an involved member early in his career, he says. In 1962, he joined as a student member.  Three years later he attended his first RA, where he heard President Lyndon Johnson speak.

Then, in 1969, he became secretary of ISEA. Later, he served on NEA’s resolutions and elections committees. He currently serves on the ISEA Retired Standing Committee.

  “I’ve always had a passion for collecting things I think are important,” Stark says. “As long as I keep on going to the NEA RAs and stay active, I will keep on collecting.”

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