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Why Are You Still Here?

Josh Harris • Commentary • February 3, 2011

Can you believe that there are high school band directors who are still teaching band long after they have retired? In fact, most of those who continue on are still teaching the very school bands from which they retired. How and why would they do this? Classroom teachers might find this surprising, even unheard of, but for music educators, it so happens that this is a fairly regular occurrence. Could it really be possible that some educators love what they are doing?Can you believe that there are high school band directors who are still teaching band long after they have retired? In fact, most of those who continue on are still teaching the very school bands from which they retired. How and why would they do this? Classroom teachers might find this surprising, even unheard of, but for music educators, it so happens that this is a fairly regular occurrence. Could it really be possible that some educators love what they are doing?

There is a phenomenon in public education that has been around a long time, but is now growing dramatically in many states: music educators, especially high school music teachers, are not fully retiring from the positions they have held for so many years. Instead, you might call it entering "semi-retirement." The idea is not new, but it is growing in popularity. In my state of California, there are many high school band directors all over the state who are continuing to teach band well beyond retirement. This may turn out to be the one of the few ways school districts feel they can hold on to their elective programs until the financial crises is over. Or it could be they really just don't want to let go of good teachers who are making a difference in the lives of kids.

The process is quite simple. When a teacher reaches retirement age, he or she approaches the school district to see if retirement is a possibility. At the same time, that director requests to continue part-time and hold on to classes and/or programs he or she loves, still has a unique passion for, and has worked so hard to build over time. In most states, school districts can allow these teachers to work around 1/3 time and still make between $30,000 and $35,000 per year without penalty. This is not an automatic process, because the school district must first want these teachers back, but it does enable school districts to hold on to important educators and the programs they don't want to lose at a far lower cost.

Some school districts are now offering Early Retirement Incentives. Teachers at the top of the pay scale can be offered an ERI and the school districts can hire a new teacher at half the price. However, because many school programs are so complex – especially large music programs –the loss or changing of the instructor may mean years of adjustment. This can take a huge toll on a program, especially in this difficult economic environment. Elective programs often suffer far more than academic courses at budget crunch time, sometimes because high school and middle schools have only one instructor in that area.

Another factor leading to the encouragement of semi-retired teachers sticking around is the new credential laws that have been enacted in many states. These stipulate that all teachers must be credentialed in all subject areas they teach. This has negatively impacted small schools, in particular: where are they going to find these multi-subject credentialed high school band directors who can teach a 150-piece band program and are credentialed to fill out their day teaching Health, Drivers Ed, PE, and so on? Also, what educators would be that excited about teaching music part-time as their full-time job?

The above problem is not just for music teachers; it also extends into other areas of specialized education, such as vocational subjects and technical arts. A principal finds this fantastic teacher to instruct an Auto Class, but only offers four classes. Now that same principal has to find something else for this person to teach to fill out the workday, but finds they cannot legally teach anything else. The answer might be bringing semi-retired teachers back to work, as they don't usually require all of the schedule-filler and related credentials.

Aside from the opportunity to keep some income for the director and demand for specialized educators in some school districts, there are other reasons why some retired teachers might keep on teaching. Could it be that they actually love teaching and are not ready to quit? Not only do they have the passion to keep teaching, but many of these educators truly believe that what they are teaching is good for kids. I know this because I'm one of them.

I had to slow down a couple of years ago for health reasons, but I didn't want to quit teaching band. Over the years, I had created a "band monster" that was beginning to overwhelm me, as I was also teaching a full day's schedule of classes. Perhaps that's a part of the competitiveness that we as band directors put on ourselves – we want to see our bands improve year after year. Once I retired and began teaching only my jazz band and the large band (marching band in the fall and wind ensemble in the spring), 2.5 hours a day (plus donated time), my enjoyment of teaching skyrocketed and my health improved. Now I can't wait to start teaching every morning. Whatever I give extra to the day is my decision. What I work on is what I want to work on: band and only band. I'm drawing retirement and making a small salary at the same time. Although, I have to admit that I give back many voluntary hours a day, but that's my decision. I can do what I enjoy doing the most, which is conduct music. When parents, students, teachers, or administrators let me know that they feel fortunate that I am still teaching their bands, I tell them how fortunate I feel I can keep conducting their band. I'm the one who truly feels fortunate to still be there working with the best kids in world.

I have noticed that there seem to be fewer college-bound students going into education. Unfortunately, I can't blame them. Everything they see and hear indicates this may not be a good profession to enter into right now. Hiring retired teachers may be the only choice some districts will have in the future, especially, if there is a need for a specialized instructor in an area where they have no one to fill it. Many districts have a huge investment in their music programs, and, let's face it, many bands are built around their directors, which means those shoes are often very hard to fill.

My dad retired as a band director at age 57, but immediately went back to work for a private high school. He continued to teach high school band until he was 72. I'm only 58, and he keeps jokingly reminding me I still have 14 years to go to keep up with him. That's a long time! However, teaching part-time, doing exactly what I want to do, may be just the plan to allow me to equal or beat his career – in terms of longevity. Of course, the school might not want me that long, but you can't always have everything.

So why do I continue to teach? I continue because teaching is my passion. I actually like my job. I guess this makes band both a hobby and a job. I love helping kids create music. The biggest high I get is when those same kids are able to perform at a level well beyond what they ever imagined. I have received many compliments about my passion and dedication for teaching throughout my career, and I just pray people will continue to say similar things in the future, as I continue to teach my "semi-retired" 2.5-hour school day. I'm one of those semi-retired band directors, and loving every minute I continue to be allowed on the podium. And, oh, by the way, I'm taking my bands back to China for their fourth concert tour next year. Apparently retirement doesn't mean you have to stop.

D.L Johnson is the director of Bands at North Monterey County High School in Castroville, Calif. He has taken school ensembles to perform in China, Italy, Canada, several states throughout the U.S., for the Dedication of the WWII Memorial in 2004, and for the Inaugural Parade for William Jefferson Clinton in 1997. Throughout his career, Mr. Johnson has served education in several capacities, including president of the California Association for Music Education. This is his 37th year in music education.

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