Sunday, August 9, 2020

To Teachers Contemplating Retirement

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.

This is unavoidable, because the work in schools is never done, ever. Every year some stories end, and some other stories begin, and most of the stories continue somewhere in the middle. There will never be a moment when you can brush your hands together and declare, "Okay, everything's wrapped up, so this is the perfect moment for me to peace out." Never going to happen.

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.


  1. I wish I could retire, I wouldn't feel guilty at all. I don't owe anything to my district or admin or parents or the kids. They will have someone to continue what I've taught them, I will take care of myself.

  2. Gotta say, although I do get the survivor syndrome part, retiring (four years now for me) was a lot easier considering the profession has become a shadow of what it was before it was turned into factory, assembly line work with teacher professionalism and autonomy decimated.

    Not that I don't miss the classroom magic. I do, every day.

    If I were still in the game today? I'd retire in fury. For years we'e experienced the dehumanization of the system. Opening schools right now shows the owners' callous disregard for the lives of students and staff.

    Hang in there my friends. Stay as safe as you can. Schools will close, even here in the NE, by the end of the first marking period.

  3. Maybe the hardest part about retiring this year was finishing up remotely. Leaving my class of Kindergarteners without the hugs, the symbolic hatching and release of chicks and butterflies, the reverent and formal dismantling of our classroom together. I am also leaving a Partners In Education program I was instrumental in steering for 23 years. Yes, the guilt is real and parents I know and have worked very closely with are desperately seeking a warm and trusted alternative to the all-remote and hybrid learning models. I have chosen not to hire myself out, but I will volunteer to teach a few children I know and enjoy working with. The rest of the time is for things I want to do someday.

  4. Are you inside my head or am I inside yours? I made the difficult decision to retire about three weeks ago. I am 64 and had planned on working one more year at SCUSD, but after finishing the 2019-20 school year on Distance Learning and going into the Summer with the intention of going back for my final year, I just could not do it. My guilt is gone, my concern for my colleagues continues. Thanks for your thoughts.