One teacher’s fulfilling solution

If you retired today, would you volunteer to work for free at the same place?

Meet Cornelius Lopez.

Cornelius is retired from Teachers’ Retirement System Plan 1. He taught math for 60 years; Forty-eight of those years were at McMurray Middle School on Vashon Island. After his retirement in June 2023, he began volunteering at the same school.

“Well, I haven’t really retired,” says Cornelius. “I mean, officially I have. My hours are every bit as long as they ever were. I’m the first one there and the last one to leave. The only retirement is — I’m no longer paid for what I do.”

Why would someone retire and then volunteer to do the same job without pay?

Cornelius says he didn’t plan it. “I’m 84 years old and I’ve been teaching for a long time, and the district was kind of in a budget crunch and part of the reason I retired was I didn’t want to see the building lose a couple of new, young, high-quality teachers.”

The self-effacing former teacher says his hearing and vision aren’t what they used to be. “I had to keep asking the kids to repeat themselves. And I have distance glasses so I can read the board from the back of the room and reading glasses to help the kids up close. I saw it was time to try and cut back somehow.” He pauses and adds, “I haven’t really done that!”

The thing is, he was doing what he loved at a place he loved with the people he loved. He found it difficult to take off his teaching hat and put away his slide rule; the job is just too rewarding.

It might seem like a subtle difference from the outside looking in, but volunteering is a way for him to work with students and faculty without all the responsibilities as an employed teacher. In that sense, he’s definitely cut back. As a volunteer, he no longer has the concerns he once had — attendance, contacting parents, grades, administrative observations and evaluations, meetings, hall duty or discipline.

Mr. Lopez, as he’s known at school, enjoys helping teachers and students as a volunteer and he particularly enjoys working with kids who need extra support. Now that he’s retired, he’s able to help teachers too. He scores test papers when he’s done volunteering for the day and keeps an eye on any wayward middle school kids who might cause a distraction or wander off.

“I’ve been asked to escort students who need to leave the classroom. This is middle school we’re talking about here. They tend to ‘get lost.’” Cornelius’s laugh is playful and contagious. It’s not hard to see why the kids and teachers love him. (For a glimpse of Mr. Lopez and the effect he has had on the lives of educators and children alike, view this KOMO News 4 “Eric’s Heroes” video segment taken on the day he retired.)

He believes one small assist can reduce the teacher’s need for disciplining a student. As a volunteer he says he can “soften whatever issues that may come up” between a student and the teacher. He pauses and laughs again, professing he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do. “I remind people you only get what you pay for!”

Math is still his favorite subject and a lifelong passion. But it wasn’t always his best subject. “I struggled with it when I was a young kid in elementary school; never was at the top of the class.” But one thing Cornelius had was a strong work ethic handed down to him by his mother and father, and a lot of determination.

He quotes Albert Einstein: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer,” adding, “if Einstein felt that way, it could be the same for all of us!”

Cornelius wanted mastery over math and after a while it became fun for him. He started seeing math puzzles not problems, and that got him hooked. It was his minor in college and since math teachers are always sought after, it was a great choice for a secure future. “My major was geography, but the need for math teachers is always greater, so math became my specialty, my expertise and my passion,” he says.

Cornelius has some teacherly advice for those who are getting ready to retire.

  1. Contact the Department of Retirement Systems EARLY. They are wonderful and they simplify everything for us!
  2. Check with a financial advisor; we all need a secure financial future!
  3. Check out the Health Care Authority insurance retirement options and cost. This is huge!
  4. Think hard about what you are going to do with all your extra free time; you don’t want to be left staring at the ceiling!

His optimism has served him well throughout his career as a teacher and in his current role as a retired volunteer. So, what’s his secret?

“We are lucky if we are enjoying our day,” he says. “There are so many people on earth who aren’t having a good day. I am having a GREAT day!”

Thank you, Mr. Lopez.

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