This fall marks the beginning of my third go round of starting the school year as a retiree. Thanks to the pandemic, it's in some ways the hardest year so far. I get that the pandemic is also giving many teachers pause to consider whether or not to go back. Here (expanded from a twitter thread) are my thoughts.
One of the hard parts of retirement is managing the guilt. You're leaving your friends and colleagues to continue the work. And it's important work, work you value. And they're going to keep doing it while you walk away.
So to retire, you have to shake the notion that you should really stick around and help (it took me months to shake the notion that I should run for school board). You know, intellectually, that you are not indispensable or irreplaceable. You moved into someone's spot, and someone will move into yours. In the meantime, your actual legacy is out in the world. You taught a bunch of students, and now someone else will teach another bunch of students, differently. You know all this. But you still get the guilt-flavored feels.
If you dig down deeper, you may even find a layer that doesn't want to see how easily you can be replaced. By the day your time has come around, you've seen the process. A teacher is a post sunk into the bed of a flowing river, important and influential while there, but once removed, leaving no new trace. It's a little humbling.
This year is, of course, different. I imagine that the guilt factor is now increased by a factor of 100. To retire must feel like leaving not just work, but a burning building just as your friends and colleagues (and, in my case, my wife) are being made to run into it. I know because three years out I can feel it myself (Maybe I should sign up to substitute. Maybe I should email my old colleagues and offer myself as some kind of supplemental aid.) But this set of extraordinary circumstances doesn't really change the calculus of retirement.
You retire when you think it's time. Sometimes that's the result of a thousand tiny things. That's how it was for me; at some point in my career I imagined I would teach forever, that they would eventually stuff and animatronically mount me in front of a classroom. But things happened, like children and boss changes and financial realities, and the grinding realization that instead of growing every year as a teacher, I was putting much of my energy into keeping my work from being worn away from all that outside-the-classroom crap. How much of your energy is going into fighting against the conditions that surround your teaching, as opposed to the work itself? That's a factor worth considering (and it's okay if Covid-19 is part of that factor.)
Plus--and only in retrospect am I realizing how much this weighed--realizing what teaching until I died would really look like. And that, of course, is the only alternative--you can either teach until you die, or you can retire sometime before then. If you have things you want to do someday, Teach Till I Die likely means that someday will never come.
So the question becomes, when do I go?
That has to be one of the most personal questions in the world. People will ask why, and you may want to come up with a simple answer for them, but the answer is probably not simple, and it will be yours. Most retirees I know just knew. It was time to go. They had other stuff to go and do.
But the guilt. The Covid. The students. Your colleagues. The huge mess.
There's no shame in walking away when you know it is your time. Know that the guilt, the pang of walking away from unfinished work--that's all normal in even the best of times. Know that you aren't doing anyone any favors by staying past your time--everyone has known that one teacher who stayed past when it was time for her to go, just kind of taking up space halfheartedly in her classroom.
If it's time, it's time. If you have other things to do, go ahead and tap out.
I won't pretend that it doesn't come with all the feels. Along with the twinges of guilt, you will never not miss being in a classroom with students. But when it's time, it's time.