Retirees share their knowledge, experience with high schoolers

Retirees share their knowledge, experience with high schoolers

CHAMPAIGN – Teacher Barbara Lyon liked the idea of having another adult in her child development lab at Centennial High School, helping with her two dozen high school students and the preschool children they care for.

Volunteer Wanda Giddings was hoping to share her knowledge of teaching children and learn about the young people going to high school in her neighborhood.

Giddings volunteered in the child development lab twice a week for a couple of months beginning in mid-October. She and Lyon were among several teacher-volunteer teams this fall in Champaign's two high schools, part of a pilot project to pair retirees with a teacher looking for someone with expertise in a particular area. The idea is to have students learn from someone with real-life experience in a subject and to have seniors get to know young people and become involved in the schools.

Lyon appreciated Giddings' instincts in working with young children, and Giddings felt she became more a part of her neighborhood near the school.

"I told the kids, 'You know why I did this? All my friends are dying, so I have to get newer, younger friends.' They thought it was funny," she said.

Giddings attended a high school play and sat in the student section at a football game. She asked to listen to one of the students' iPods, and learned about rap music.

"I still can't understand it, but they told me I don't need to know the lyrics," she said.

"The thing I think I was most surprised about, and very pleased, was the students treated me very respectfully," Giddings continued. "I had an image of young people that was completely inaccurate. I thought they would be really a handful. I thought of them as blase. I find there are an awful lot of real good, real special people there with a lot of promise."

At Central High School, Henry Gerlach, a retired University of Illinois professor and department chairman of Germanic Languages and Literatures, helped teach grammar in Heidi Harris' German classes.

"It's fun. I like teaching," he said, noting he's a little less serious in the high school classroom than he was in teaching at the UI. "I have to crack a joke every so often," he said.

Cody Robinson, a junior in one of the German classes, enjoyed having Gerlach teach.

"He's cool to have around. He's got a great sense of humor," Robinson said, adding, "His German is awesome."

"I told the kids how lucky we are to have him, because he has so much experience," Harris said, adding that she's learned from him too, such as how to teach a particular grammar point.

Art students at Centennial were learning about linear perspective and drawing interiors of homes when retired architect Robert Porter talked with them about how design influences the social interaction that goes on in a space. It's rewarding if he can get a few people to make a change at home because of what they've learned, he said.

"That ability to utilize what I've learned ... and be able to share that is tremendously rewarding," Porter said. "I know I got more out of it than they did."

Art teacher Shannon Percoco said Porter's contributions tied in nicely with what she was teaching.

"He was very interested in their viewpoints and their drawings, and they could sense that," she said.

Sometimes the lessons taught by the volunteers happened outside the classroom, such as when Giddings got into a fender bender with a student in Centennial's parking lot.

"If you can keep your cool at a time like that, you're teaching the young person, 'OK, we've had a problem but it can be solved.' You're teaching them they are competent to solve problems," she said. "We worked it out, and I think we worked it out with mutual respect.

"There's a lot of learning that goes on in any environment," Giddings continued. "I don't want that youngster, the next time he has an accident, to go all to pieces. It was no big thing."

To volunteer

Senior citizens who have an interest in sharing their knowledge with high school students in the Champaign school district may contact Lauren Smith, the community outreach coordinator for the district, at 351-3722 or by e-mail at


Sections (2):News, Local
Topics (2):Education, People
Categories (3):News, Education, People