They Finally Retired!

For the past decade, I have been privileged to speak at retirement dinners of over a dozen teachers that I had in Union. While it’s always been nerve-racking to speak in front of former teachers, this was one of my favorite teachers, and she wasn’t even my teacher! She was a club adviser.

The party was more like a comedy roast–full of imbibing and crude humor.  The room had a special energy in it. I was home with a room full of progressive educators from an affluent district that understands, and more importantly, embrace where schools are going.  The jokes made sense, the stories couldn’t be made up if you tried, and there was real bread being served at the table (sorry, it’s a North Jersey thing).

The honoree, who had consumed quite a few beverages, took center stage.  We all know alcohol is the social lubricator, but holy cow. She did not hold back. Red faces. Awkward laughs. Truth. More laughter. Explosive laughter!

What really stood out? A couple weeks ago, the honoree started talking about the honoree’s career and other retiree’s careers in the staff lounge and overheard some younger teachers say, “they finally retired” and how hurtful that comment was. She was angry, and she had every right to be. I know that I’ve been in education for only 16 years, but with the technology revolution that has turned education upside down in terms of how to teach and what traditional pedagogy is, some have had such a hard time keeping up. Some are frustrated because they learned the latest and greatest technology, only to be replaced months later with something else. I empathize with that.

The teacher then went on with a slew of memorable quotes from the evening; I believe it was a combination of wit and inspiration from Jack Daniels. Quotes included:

“When it came to technology, I was useless in the end. Why? Because nobody came to show or help me how to use this Chromebooks thing or tablet thing or whatever other bell and whistle came was dropped off in my room. If the administration wasn’t going to take the time to invest in me, why should I?”

“____ was a master of doing nothing other than being a lapdog for ____ and rallying people up. I’d be too if I had no schedule and was allowed to roam at will for 20 years. Talk about a master of nothing!  Of course, {the teacher} looked sharp and always looked impressive. ____ was like a like a sharp pencil tip; sharp looking because it was never used!”

“___ was placed as far away from kids because they wanted to be. ____ had no class management, couldn’t teach if they tried, and was only kept around because we all know the spouse goes by  ‘Captain Lawsuit’.”

“Everyone thought ____ was bad because half the time he couldn’t even spell his name let alone sign in on a computer. Then the new gal comes along and the do-nothing’ clique finally realizes that they are going to be called out for not doing anything.”

While these were all clearly the result of a combination of some beverages and pent up frustration, this is the one that struck me to the core:

“You can’t be mad at me for not knowing what I don’t know. I’ve seen fads, I’ve seen the cool kids come and go, and I’ve seen our town for what it is. If a community is satisfied with what they have, why try to change it? I understand we have to make updates and upgrades and all of the other #%^*+ over the years, but it’s not because we don’t care or we don’t want to change. It’s because of the way it was said and how things were handled. I’m proud of what I’ve done and wouldn’t have changed a thing. And if you don’t like that, then why the hell are you here?”

After a thunderous ovation, we said our goodbyes and thank you’s.

The closing remarks were bone-shaking to me and close to home. Most of my career has been spent in large, affluent, progressive school districts. My last two weren’t even heard of by most and those that live there like it just that way. They didn’t want grandeur or spectacle, just change and upgrades to get to today’s times and meet the requirements. In some areas I tried doing that:  just meet the modicum so the boat doesn’t rock. Other things didn’t happen that way, and, when they didn’t, I was the first to scratch my head asking why people would not want recognition and higher standards like all of the other places I’ve been. I was always under the impression that I was hired for my accolades and my proof of change. I was… but…. all of the extras (social media, modern-day pedagogy, format changes, streamlining, etc) was not and instead was met with fear and strong resistance. I think many were also scared that I was looking to expose those that weren’t doing their job or show the public that certain ways and programs were not applicable to today’s times. Some translate that as weakness, and employees being seen as not what folks thought them to be over the years. I get that, too. If someone is “just okay,” but everyone thinks the individual is amazing, it can cause discomfort.

I took away many lessons from this legendary speech; honesty, reality checks, politics, frustration, and how powerful a speech can be when it’s from the heart (and booze).

Before people think this was a booze-fest, it wasn’t. It’s the culture of embracing and having a good time.  A handful had a really good time.  Some places are like that; other cultures will live it up with apple juice at a church hall so they don’t offend anyone. That’s the nature of the beast; not every school district is the same.  It never will be. It’s not a bad thing, but many have tried (including myself) to model it to something they’ve had before that worked. Things work in different areas because the culture accepts it and people want it.  If the culture does not want the change, there is nothing that you alone can do to change it.  Culture takes a ton trust and support; if you have one or none of these qualities, don’t burn yourself out trying to.

To the retirees that attended Friday, all the best in your retirement. To everyone else that is retiring this year: thank you for your service. No matter how anyone feels about you, I truly believe that you know that you were in it for the right reasons and you can recall instances where you helped a student move onward. Enjoy whatever the next chapter brings you.


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