Retirement is a strange and foreign thing, at least for me. I am not a new teacher, but I do have a couple of decades left in me. So whenever we approach the end of a school year, and retirement announcements circulate, I am mystified by the idea that some of my colleagues are, in fact, old enough to retire. This must be scary. What does one do after they retire? I also wonder how these people see their careers now that they are coming to a close. Often we send these retirees off with one of those clocks with the whirly balls, a slice of lemon cake and a “good luck” wish. But do we really understand what’s happening? I’m not sure we do. To get a little look inside the thoughts and emotions surrounding retirement, I sat down with two head teachers—Lidia Wozniak and Edith Coleman—facing their “final” exam week.
Michael Sweet: When did you begin teaching?
Lidia Wozniak: 1977.
Edith Coleman: John Grant. (Although John Grant is a Montreal area school, I’m not sure if Edith didn’t get the question, or if she meant to reference Ulysses S. Grant. I moved on.)
Michael Sweet: Both of you have pretty much spent your entire careers in the alternative school system; you must have faced a lot of challenges?
Lidia Wozniak: The challenge for me was when I was offered the position of Head Teacher. I felt I was not ready to accept the challenges but, with the encouragement of the principal, I quickly learned the ropes.
Edith Coleman: The challenges for me have been with teachers, not the students.
Michael Sweet: What worries you most about education and schools as you prepare to walk away?
Lidia Wozniak: Mostly the lack of respect for the teaching profession and the “laissez- faire” attitude of the parents. Also, the emphasis on high marks rather than on learning, I feel, creates false expectations in the students and parents.
Edith Coleman: That I won’t have any input.
Michael Sweet: Was it really easier or better when you first began teaching?
Lidia Wozniak: It was actually more difficult mostly due to my lack of experience. “Practice makes better.”
Edith Coleman: No, it was always fun.
Michael Sweet: If you could change one thing about our public schools before leaving what would it be?
Lidia Wozniak: I would reduce class size.
Edith Coleman: Make them [schools] smaller.
Michael Sweet: Tell me about one of the best memories you have from your career.
Lidia Wozniak: Some years ago, a young boy came to us and from what I read in his file it seemed that there was little chance of him ever finishing high school. He was the oldest in a family of eight headed by a single mother who herself dropped out of school in grade nine. None of this boy’s immediate relatives had graduated high school. We set a goal for him to finish and get his diploma. He learned to “dare to dream” in our small environment and he not only got his high school diploma, but he earned a B.A. in history as well. Whenever I feel defeated or worried that I haven’t “made a difference” I think back to this young man for whom so many people had so little hope.
Edith Coleman: There are too many. It would be easier for me to talk about the worst teaching moments, as there really are only a few.
Michael Sweet: Are you worried about retiring? (They look at each other and laugh.)
Lidia Wozniak: No, Why?
Edith Coleman: (Without hesitation) Yes, a little. Let’s face it.
Michael Sweet: What are you going to do in retirement?
Lidia Wozniak: Absolutely nothing. Whatever comes!
Edith Coleman: You know they say go play bridge or join a club or something. That’s why I went to work in the first place. (She looks up at the ceiling.) I think I’d like to teach teachers how to teach.
Michael Sweet: Leave us with one piece of advice.
Lidia Wozniak: Be Patient. Put the child’s needs first.
Edith Coleman: The students are more important than the subject.
What we need to remember this spring as we say one final goodbye to some of our colleagues is that we are not just waving goodnight to Aunty Barb after a pot luck. We are saying goodbye to people who have affected thousands of students; we are saying goodbye to people who have changed lives. If we take a moment to really digest this, then hopefully we can also take a moment to really honour our departing colleagues. Let’s make this the year that we decide to do something truly exceptional for our retirees. No more whirly ball clocks, please!
Michael Sweet: Edith, one more question, what year did you begin teaching? (I ask this as if for the very first time.)
Edith Coleman: Look, I don’t even know, you’ll have to ask the union.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Ernest Sweet
Michael Ernest Sweet is a writer, photographer and award-winning educator. He divides his time between Montreal and New York City.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s May/June 2012 issue.