Note: Somewhere along the way, this entry turned into a commencement address or ‘what I would have said at a retirement soirée’ if there was one. I wrote it over the course of the last few months, which explains why it rambles a bit.
I was not one of those kids who knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. For the first couple years of college, my major was officially “Undecided” and at one point it was “Undecided – Economics.” My cousin, Laurie, was the only practicing teacher in my extended family; she and I never really discussed her job, but knowing she made that choice opened the profession as an option (even if only subconsciously).
And now after 25 years in the profession, I am retiring. A year ago, I pondered retirement in a blog post. I mentioned that, though I had taught all those years, it felt like many jobs. In a blog post entitled “When I Retire,” I noted all my different teaching positions:
* Years 1-3, teaching high school English
* Year 4, teaching middle school English and Social Studies
* 1 1/2 year break to go back to M.S.U. and get my Masters Degree in Special Education
* Years 5-7, teaching middle school Special Education in a self-contained classroom and some co-teaching
* Year 8, teaching high school Special Education
* Years 9-10, teaching high school Special Education at a different high school (more of a Resource Room)
* Years 11-14, teaching high school Special Education at a different high school (back to a self-contained classroom)
* Years 15-17, teaching 8th grade English
* Years 18-23, teaching 7th grade English
* Year 24 (and now, Year 25), teaching 7th and 8th grade English
Moving between four school districts and back-and-forth between English and Special Education has helped the “quarter century” fly by. I realized in my mid-20’s that I could combine a love of reading and writing with a passion for working with young adults — I sincerely appreciate all four school districts (Rochester, Charlotte, Okemos, and East Lansing), all my colleagues over the years, and all of my students and their parents for the opportunity to be a teacher and to learn from each of them. It takes a village to raise a teacher and I was blest by teacher friends and by family who supported me in numerous ways. Two that come to mind right away are Joanne Hubbard and Troy Hicks. They both renewed my love of the profession when it was waning and I sincerely thank them both.
I’m leaving with some pretty good company: Calvin Johnson of the Lions, Kobe Bryant of the Lakers, Peyton Manning of the Broncos, Barack Obama, Garrison Keillor…John Brandenburg (of East Lansing High School), Sue Hulteen (of MacDonald Middle School). We didn’t all get together and decide, but I feel like we’ll always have a special bond. We knew when we could afford to turn down the millions of dollars a year and find some other — more relaxing — thing to help us pass the time (though I suppose Obama didn’t have a choice).
Some things have helped me with this transition year. Having third hour planning has helped in an odd way. Third hour is the hour that teachers read the announcements and have the students say the Pledge of Allegiance. While those are good and necessary, I have not missed them a bit. I will occasionally read the announcements myself so I know what’s going on around the school; frankly, however, I think not knowing every single thing has helped me disconnect a bit. I get plenty of e-mails with information. I know enough about what’s happening. And the pledge? It’s patriotic to recite it daily…for a few days. By the sixth month of school, it’s difficult to keep it fresh. I love this country. But I don’t miss saying the pledge everyday.
Through a scheduling fluke, I ended up eating lunch with mostly 8th grade teachers. They are wonderful folks, but they aren’t my usual eating companions; I miss eating lunch with my 7th grade teacher buddies, but it did require me to take another step back and away.
We had a snow day in February. One of the many things I did was write a countdown of school days in my planner. It was 85 days as February started and that seemed like it would take forever. As I write these words, though, we are in the teens (14 1/2) already. I had a very astute 7th grader comment that “the years fly by, but the the days sometimes last forever.” So true.
In some ways, the changes in being a teacher have sped my departure from the profession. The over-reliance on evidence-based decision-making has made us into test administrators. We spend much more time talking about testing among ourselves (reading about them, planning schedules around them, commiserating about them…) and with our students (preparing them for taking a test online, explaining new schedules, debriefing how the test went…) and it stinks. It takes away time from what we would rather be doing. It also sets an impersonal mood and takes the focus off relationships, creativity, and curiosity. I recently watched Michael Moore’s latest movie, Where to Invade Next, and part of it dealt with Finland’s amazing public school system. Finnish teachers were imploring the U.S. to stop using standardized testing and Finnish students were talking about how their no homework, shorter school day helped them learn. Finland, and other countries like France, put the curricular emphasis on nurturing healthy, happy young people and on developing critical thinkers who know how to play and make time for it — things we are straying away from, unfortunately. (I highly recommend the movie. For more information about it, read this review.)
The nice thing about being in a transition year is that I say what’s on my mind (mostly). I take a deep breath, then tell my students something to the effect of “I’m not sure why you didn’t read it off the handout or off the board or hear me say it several times, but the answer to your question is…” or “Ask someone else.” I offer several lectures a week (at no additional cost or obligation) about common sense. And about thinking before you speak or act. I’ve been the point person for several staff members, too, who have needed an honest person with nothing to lose to say something to the administration. Though I’m not always proud of it, one thing that has helped me this year is lowering my expectations…for myself and for the students; together with that extra deep breath, there’s something about cutting myself some slack and not worrying when students don’t quite reach the bar that has kept me moving along with a smile.
They do do cool stuff now and then. Zoie walks up with a smile on her face and says she signed up for my summer camp on creative writing (as did two other awesome students). Elisabeth stays after to clean up the mess left by another student. William helps also. I will miss Julia’s mature, sensitive writing style. Many make me laugh. And they don’t bug me (much) about my messy desk.
How I know it’s time…
– when I give a male student the choice of researching anyone’s life that he’s interested in learning more about and he chooses a male porn star (it didn’t happen)
– I find myself muttering under my breath too often
– my ocular migranes are increasing in frequency
– on the grumpy vs. silly scale, I’m leaning more toward the Dark Side
– students don’t listen. Don’t pay attention. Are incredibly distracted. Most students. Not all. I can say something, write it on the board, say it again, they have it on a handout in front of them…almost every time, someone will ask about it
– that book is not going to write itself; I need more time for such things
People give me ideas of what to do with my retirement. Recently, I was told that home-school organizations are always looking for teachers. Many districts need substitute teachers I’m told (not going to happen). And tutors make good money from what I hear. I’ve been told to travel a bunch. Many people predict my “honey do” list will get increasingly longer and longer. They say I’ll be more busy after retirement than when I was working full-time (though this last list of folks probably just has trouble saying ‘no’). I may try one of those ideas, but I’ve really enjoyed looking at all the possibilities; this next stage of my life feels akin to the high school and college graduates I know as they embark toward whatever’s next. Students I taught in middle school reminded me (in the ELHS commencement addresses) to “pursue my dreams” and “be innovative.” I’ve appreciated these events with a fresh, personal perspective and I’ve felt quite inspired by them.
It’s also been an emotional year for me. I tear up often, over crazy stuff: that last time, 6th hour, when I closed The Giver for the last time in front of my students; unexpectedly seeing Thia and her smile on my walk home; seeing Alex return after being gone for a long time for personal issues…and our hug; seeing Berkley’s name in a Literature book and thinking about the several, unique girls I have known with that name over the years. I’ve been on the verge daily. As joyous and giddy as I feel at times, I also get pretty choked up. Not a regretful feeling — I just know I’ll miss this great profession. I may need to do some of that tutoring after all. And I’m sure I will be writing about the next steps I take, whatever they are.