For 32 years, Michael Elder worked for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD), starting out as a patrolman and rising to the rank of captain. He did everything from narcotics and vice squad to community policing.
But he’d always dreamed of becoming a teacher. In fact, it was his original career choice.
When he graduated high school during the boom of computers in the early 1980s, his parents suggested he study computers instead of education at Indiana University. He listened, but quickly realized he’d chosen the wrong major and switched to criminal justice (with a math minor).
The teaching bug persisted. Elder tried to fulfill it by becoming an instructor while on the force, teaching narcotics and implicit bias to officers. It wasn’t enough.
Then he saw a billboard that would change the course of his career.
“I was driving around one night and saw this billboard about the need for teachers. It was Transition to Teaching through Indiana Teachers of Tomorrow,” said Elder.
He was looking for a change at the time, as decades of working nights on the force — logging 120 miles a night on his car — was starting to wear him down. “It’s not a negative, but I was getting older and having some health issues and wanted to move from working nights to the dayshift, but it didn’t work out, and I was down,” said Elder.
In January 2019, he retired from the force and enrolled in the same teaching program he saw on the billboard. After receiving his certifications, Elder interviewed for teaching jobs and landed one at Ralph Waldo Emerson School 58, but there was a catch: it wasn’t available until the next school year. In the meantime, he volunteered at the school, working in the Reset Room and observing classroom teachers.
Then a sixth-grade teaching spot opened during the last six weeks of school. Principal Jean Ely asked Elder to fill in. “It was just right place, right time, and everything just kind of happened,” said Elder.
“When I interviewed Mr. Elder, I knew immediately that this Idea to have a second career in teaching was well thought out,” said Ely. “(As a volunteer), Mr. Elder reported every day, supporting our teachers and building relationships with scholars. Many of the scholars on his roster asked specifically to be in his class.”
On Monday, August 5, Elder started full time as a sixth-grade teacher at Ralph Waldo Emerson, teaching math, reading, English, social studies and science. The school, at the corner of New York Street and Linwood Avenue on the city’s eastside, is the same neighborhood he once patrolled as an officer.
Now, instead of leading men in uniform fighting crime throughout the city, Elder is helping to teach and mold today’s youth.
He’s developing lesson plans for research papers on planets, countries and presidents, and choosing books like “The Outsider,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Animal Farm” for his students to read. But he’s also talking to students about having high character and setting goals.
“I have high expectations. I expected a lot from my guys in uniform and I’m going to expect a lot from my students,” said Elder.
However, he knows he can’t lead the same way in the classroom that he did on the force.
“When I showed up on things in uniform, I had to be loud and take charge. When you’re teaching, loud is not good because you lose control. I’ve had to learn to quiet my demeanor while still taking charge.”
Principal Ely believes Elder’s background and experience is a win for the school and its students.
“Mr. Elder brings with him a wealth of resources that will ultimately support the work that we are doing here at Ralph Waldo Emerson to address the social and emotional needs of our scholars,” she said. “His experience alone adds value to our effort to teach our scholars to be respectful, responsible, productive citizens. … Building relations is one of the most critical components in education for our scholars. Given Mr. Elder’s background in working with our community, he understands family dynamics and possible challenges that our scholars face that will hamper learning.”
As for Elder, he’s trying to guide the future. His goal is simple: “I just want my students to be ready for seventh grade, wherever they choose to go. But he’s doing that by building life lessons into academics.
“I want to make a difference and create a positive change,” said Elder, who for a first-year teacher seems to be completely comfortable and calm.