Last spring my former employer, a certain school district found a new and different way to make itself worse. For reasons I can only attribute to a deadly mixture of pride and stupidity, my district found itself on the edge of financial collapse, and a charming custom called a “RIF” came out of the closet. A “RIF” (reduction in force) is a process in which a district is made weaker because teachers are eliminated that should not really be eliminated while other positions of dubious value are saved. The process is done by rules that seem reasonable until manipulated by the same incompetent people who caused the problems that necessitated the reduction. There is truth in the dictum that “the fish rots from the head”. Sadly, expecting professionalism, competence, and compassion in a crisis from those who do not demonstrate it in calmer times is a sure route to disappointment.
In a very depressed state of mind my last post described how I had lost hope that I could make much of a difference. But I found a way to make a difference at last: I left.
Sidney Carton is described as ‘brilliant, and self-pitying’, and I have been described as half of that. It was said of Carton that the most impressive thing he did in his life was in how he left it. Perhaps the same could be said of how I left my professional life.
Early on, I spoke to the wife. (The fact that she is my wife is proof that “God is in all things” as my Jesuit teacher would insist.) We determined that we could, if necessary, live on one salary. In fact, we remembered that we had for many years and we seemed to have survived. I decided that I would resign my job in order to save those of younger, better teachers who were building families and buying houses; those who made our district and community a better place. In the long run, some teachers were offered buyouts if they would ‘retire’ early. The powers-that-be offered me a buyout although I could not claim my pension for another year. I took the buyout anyway. Most people think I walked away with a nice ‘golden parachute’ but in truth the buyout represents a reduced salary spread out over the months until I can claim my retirement. I wavered at one point but I was told that my ‘retirement’ was saving the jobs of 1-2 teachers and, later, I was indiscreetly told the name of one I had ‘saved’.
By coincidence, I was reading “Bring Up the Bodies” during this time, and i was struck by the similarities between Tudor England, and a certain school district. Hilary Mantel has written brilliantly of the political machinations of Thomas Cromwell and her next volume will describe how his ‘politically expedient’ approach resulted in his own demise for the same reasons he dispatched others. In this case, the superintendent left our district and a much larger paycheck. A teacher with two graduate degrees in social studies is teaching remedial reading. A math teacher, art teacher and elementary counselor left in search of greener pastures. One of them expressed the opinion that she could no longer live with how “we do things here” and that she did not want her children going to school here. Several people were emotionally blackmailed into retirement, including the only endorsed librarian. We have continued a tradition of hiring unqualified people in the absence of qualified applicants. A Pyrrhic financial victory at best.
Nevertheless, none of the best young teachers in my areas left, and that is a victory.
And so, I am ‘retired’, and the best thing I did for my district might have been leaving it. A young teacher, or two, might be at school today, the first of the year, who would have been gone. Perhaps they are making a difference I could not, or did not.
My family all told me ‘you should write more’ although I suspect all of them could write much better than me. I deliberately held off writing because I knew I would not feel ‘retired’ until the first day of school. I sat down today with a different essay in mind, but my fingers protested and wrote this ‘final vent’ instead. As years go by experience has taught me I will develop a more balanced view of my teaching career. It took many years for me to find similar balance in looking back at the Marine Corps, fatherhood, and other important things that occurred in my life, so I can let this particular past ‘go’ easier than when I was younger.
I am a person who is not too sure of much in life, but I am sure that every day I taught, I cared. I am sure I did the best I could to make life better for my students, (who danced with me on my last day), and my colleagues. Through my work on regional and state levels, I worked very hard to improve education for all students in the state, and that work was valued and respected. I will leave the determination of my successes and failures to the judgment of others. I am certain that retiring was a ‘far, far better thing’ to do, and that knowledge gives me a peace and certainty of ‘rightness’ I never knew while working as a teacher.