Retired Professionals Improving Productivity in Education

It starts with a study hall. One, certainly like many throughout the country, exists today in Rochester, Minnesota's UCR (University Center Rochester). This study hall – called the UCR Math Learning Center – has the usual hardware: tables, white boards, books, calculators and computers. Key to this paper, though, it is also staffed with subject-expert volunteers, all also being retired professionals. These happen to be the go-to subject experts available to those using the study hall. I happen to be one of them. Our education and long experience assures that we also know our stuff, and most of us use the opportunity to teach ourselves more. We will, if asked, tell you that being part of this is a joy and are very willing to help, but, yes, it is also about being valued for what we know and very much still want to share.

As you might expect, the subjects covered here span Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, multiple levels of Calculus, but also Statistics, Physics, and Computer Science and computer-based tools. Partly, simply because we are there, we also help with writing. Other study rooms are available for other subjects like biology (nursing) and reading.

The students also come from very diverse backgrounds, both culturally and skill-wise. We have students ranging from those wanting just a warm-fuzzy that they will likely be getting an “A” all the way to those needing the help necessary to allow them to merely pass. Help is freely given to all; we do not grade and certainly do not judge. Along with the tutoring, we offer simple encouragement. Occasionally, upon parting, we might add with a smile “You didn't really need me did you?” I will add that occasionally we just chat with the students, often, though, with a purpose. “Why are you here?” “What is your major?” “Where do you plan on using this education?” Having lived a productive life, we've been there. We offer perspective. We suggest alternatives and perhaps even a plan. I recall recently even discussing mortgages and investment strategies leading to retirement.

In the room, each table and each computer workstation also includes two cups, one red and the other green, one upon the other. If the green cup is up, the student(s) there are also saying “I/we are doing fine here”. A red cup tells the volunteers that the student(s) need some assistance. A volunteer normally reacts immediately, often simply because we hear the cups flip. A quick outline of the question or problem, typically followed by a quick determination of what the student knows and/or doesn't, is followed by some form of situation-appropriate assistance. The assistance might be as little as a quick review of the student's work or as much as a white-board tutorial of the underlying concepts.

The key point to observe here is that the student(s) is not stuck in their studies for long if at all. There is no waiting, certainly not for office hours or for the instructor to become available. We even find ourselves competing with each other to take each new call. Frustration remains minimal. Progress continues. This produces real self-esteem which breeds more success. More students succeed, see the benefit of the time and money they are spending, and so stay in school. Of course, the university sees the economic benefit of this last, but it is clear that so does society. We, the volunteers, are there for the students – each and every individual that we help – but we are also well aware of the broader implications of what we are doing. We have, again, lived a life and want to leave it having made it better.

Aside from describing here a nice, successful study hall, what is this really all about? It's about having a need and the means of filling it, of seeing an educational need – that of students needing assistance – and having an experienced resource available, and motivating and enabling that resource to fill that need. It's about realizing that, no matter how competent our education professionals – our professional teachers – may or may not be, they are not always available when needed to ensure students are making unfettered progress. It's about expanding this meeting of a need with a resource throughout education.

The resource? Our society's retired skilled professionals. We have a lot of them throughout our communities, many wanting to do a lot more than just “be retired”. Many have used what we have learned, well over and above what is being taught, for a lot of years. A significant potential pool of available truly skilled people exists. Stating the obvious question, is our society using this resource or in any way enabling it for purposes like this? More on this fact shortly. This little study hall is a microcosm of something potentially much bigger. It is an education resource waiting to be matched with a real need throughout our countries educational systems.

Observe first, though, that clearly the student's teachers – the professional full-time educators – exist and have been teaching well for, well, forever. Many of us have dear memories of some of them from our own past. Clearly, the institutions and the entire teaching institution exists to serve these same students. Similarly, for many of us, being an alumnus of our own institutions remains a big deal for us. They have served us well. Still, I for one – and I suspect most of us – would have wanted to do better and even more successfully learned more. Why didn't we? And what of those that did not successfully graduate. Some will not in any case, but for the remainder, why didn't they succeed or even do as well as they later determine they would have liked? I will accept that there are often better or perhaps just alternative ways for the true teaching professionals to teach, but wouldn't we all have been well served by having non-judgmental mentors available, and available just when we needed them? (And, maybe, some of us really did.)

So, in the following sections, I am going to attempt to outline some thoughts on enabling this meeting of subject professionals – mentors/tutors if you like, people quite distinct from our also needed education professionals – with the students who need them.

Definition of Terms

Before going on, allow me to clarify a few points.

I am going to use the term teaching professional. These are your trained professional instructors. In a university environment, these would also include professors, some not trained in the same way as other public-school professionals for actually teaching. In any case, these are the people who define what needs to be taught, who do the actual teaching, and define assignments and tests. They are education professionals. These are also people for which education is a full-time – and often extra-time – career.

I am going to also use the term subject expert. Subject experts are the experienced tutors. They are not teaching professionals. They do what I had outlined in the study hall, but perhaps more. Strictly speaking, they are also not necessarily substitute teachers. They, though, have used professionally for many years what they had learned both in school, in their professional career, and in just living. They know their stuff, and want to share it, and are willing to learn more. (I will add that they should also be able to prove that they are indeed subject experts.)

Further, picture today's typical class room. After the teaching professional's “teach”, the students take time to work on associated assignments. When needed, the teaching professional typically spend time – often one-on-one – with the students in their class. Typically, there is one such teacher, so one student helped at a time. The intent of the in-class assignment is to ensure that the students grasp the concept. More on this shortly.

The Motivation

Clearly, we all desire our students to succeed given today's requirements. We also want our students to learn more, to be more successful at what they should learn. But we all know that the finances for doing so are – let us just say – constrained. In business, some would refer cynically to this as insisting that we do more with less. In short, though, we want our educational environment to be more productive. In teaching, that might mean learning more – and assuring that it was learned – in less time and with more students per teacher.

So how do we increase productivity? Most teachers will argue that they could teach more if they had fewer students to teach. True. But why is that said? It is partly because of where they are now required to spend their time. They are required to spend their time in ways that can not be scaled up as the number of students increase. (Well, they could, but educational results would degrade.) They are required to spend time one-on-one with their students. Given no further assistance, this is exactly where they should be spending their time. But practically every teacher would tell you that they could use help with this task. There may well be value to that, but such in-room assistance does not scale up well either. Such assistance becomes useful only during those periods when students are working on assignments.

The Traditional Study Hall

At Rochester's UCR, the study halls are generally available and staffed. Given the typical college experience, students take classes throughout the day; these, though, occur whenever the classes they need just happen to be available. In between, and, of course, before and after such classes, they can use the study halls at their discretion. For the previously mentioned math subjects, they may use – individually or as study groups – the UCR's Math Learning Center. It is worth noting that this study hall does also get used because, at those times which students have available for studying, their preferred teaching professional might not be available to assist. But the need for assistance then exists nonetheless.

Of course, this notion of available time for studying is not limited to UCR, nor to colleges in general. At the university level, it is clear enough that each college would or could have its own subject's study halls. As with UCR, they would be staffed with subject professionals. For universities with graduate schools, graduate students are often motivated financially with teaching assistantships to help staff such facilities. Even at smaller institutions, advanced students – also then considered subject experts – can often be similarly motivated. But, notice that UCR still considers it important to include subject professionals with significant life-long experience.

So, what of high schools and middle schools? There are study halls, certainly, but here with less flexibility for the students. “Study hall” is managed as a class like any other. It is a limited-time resource for the students, time during which to maximize the completion of their assignments while in school. Assistance to break past frustrating concepts and into success may or may not be available in a timely fashion.

But now picture a study hall, or multiple of such, equipped as needed for a class of study, but also now staffed with multiple subject experts. How would/should the school day be altered to make this often one-on-one assistance available to the students?

The Knowledge Base

I had introduced this notion as being associated with various levels of mathematics. Some may expand this to being appropriate for all of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects. I am sure that this could be the case. Picture mentored assistance with programming in computer science or the opportunity to discuss concepts again with physics, chemistry, or biology labs. Picture cross-subject teams of subject experts available for hands-on robotics all as part of normal science classes.

There is, however, no real reason to stop there. Even students desiring a STEM-like background are best served if they can also write clearly, collect their thoughts, and present well. Skill in the softer or related subjects is just as important. Consider the importance of understanding financial, social, and historical issues as well, and having mentors available for discussing and succeeding with such. All of these, too, have a need for scalable sets of subject experts to provide the assistance when needed.

The point is, the experienced subject professionals being sought here clearly include those from the STEM backgrounds, but skilled people from practically every other background are needed as well.

Electronic Education

I happen to be a fan of on-line education resources and am a frequent user. I especially like the opportunity to repeatedly review some concept until I’ve got it. I find, though, that it can take me hours of searching to find the kernel of knowledge, that underlying concept that finally clearly explains just what it is that I am missing. Partly due to my maturity and professionalism, I am motivated to do so. But sometimes you just need to know something in order to even ask the question about it. You want someone available to help find the missing context to allow a student to break through to understanding.

Or picture a student having been provided an on-line application as an exercise assignment. Often these include some additional assistance to further explain the concept. Good start. Even so, the student finds that they are failing in producing the correct answer, even after multiple attempts. Frustration ensues, when in fact the problem causing the failures is separate from that of the concept being taught. The on-line help was misdirected as it did not address the student's mental block. Again, a quick one-on-one review of the students thought process leads to the needed success. The otherwise wasted time is now converted into periods making additional progress understanding the concepts previously taught. Success breeds success. (And, yes, this is a typical scenario even in the UCR.)

I am also intrigued by teacher-assisted on-line education, otherwise known at the Flipped classroom. Picture also here classrooms using iPads with educational applications. I will not here get into the discussions on its pros and cons, but I will observe that part of its intent is to ensure that the professional teachers have the time to provide one-on-one assistance in further explaining the concepts first provided by the on-line education. This is highly desirable and is, in essence, related to the reason for having subject professionals in a study hall. Notice, though, that this is at least partly an economic issue. A professional teacher's time is finite, and the number of them available is constrained largely by financial considerations. What I am writing on here provides at least an enhanced variation on this notion of a flipped classroom. The professional teachers are available to first teach the concepts that the students will see in the on-line education and are completely in charge of the process. They later provide one-on-one assistance as requested when and where they are needed, especially to that set of students who they know need more direct assistance. The subject experts are there to further speed and scale the process, having been potentially directed by the professional teacher.

Also for largely economic reasons, and partly to experiment with the new forms of electronic education, many institutions are investing in creating largely on-line-only classes. In some cases, this also implies the financial benefit to the student of strictly on-line written resources (i.e., no books) as well. But who is there to provide timely assistance when the student gets stuck? The only option remaining without such assistance is to soldier on, hoping the subsequent education will help identify the problem. Of course, that rarely works. Now picture a resource of subject professionals, whatever the subject(s). The student has already seen and been introduced to the needed concepts in various ways, perhaps once, perhaps multiple times. The student is doing exercises and is stuck. Ideally, the (or a) professional teacher, one who really knows the curriculum and the progression of the concepts, is available to assist. But, if not, a subject professional might also be available. Perhaps this is via a study hall, perhaps as needed in a flipped class, but it might also be as part of the actual electronic education as a truly on-line resource.

Motivating the Resource to Fill the Need

All good stuff and relatively obvious, right? But why has it not occurred, or at least occurred in a systemic fashion? A few subject thoughts on that matter.


The key is the infrastructure. Certainly, we skilled volunteers are out there, each of us wanting the best for our students, but even our little study hall at UCR would not exist without the vision of what is necessary for the students and a more than welcoming attitude toward the volunteers, subject expects, mentors, tutors (i.e., call us what you like). We offered and the administration there had the means of efficiently making the connection to those needing our assistance. We all win. Our entire country’s educational processes and hundreds of thousands of skilled volunteers throughout our country can as well.

As a post-script, each year KTTC Television and United Way of Olmsted County in our area ask the public and non-profit organizations to nominate an individual or a group who have made a difference in their community. A judging panel of community members review the nominations and selects 10 individuals and/or groups to receive this award. This they call the 10 Who Make A Difference Awards. It happens that our little team had been chosen for one of these for 2018. We volunteers just see this as a nice way of saying thank you for doing something that we all already love to do, but it sure is nice to be assured that society understands the need.