Always a Teacher

Always a Teacher

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reader's Choice 20th Anniversary Edition

Always a Teacher

Age is only a number, a cipher for the records. A man can’t retire his experience. He must use it.

~Bernard Baruch

My hands trembled as I handed my husband the sealed, addressed envelope. “Please take this to the post office and mail it immediately. If you don’t get it out of the house now, I’m apt to change my mind.”

After mulling it over for weeks, I had made a decision. I would accept the Independence, Iowa school district’s early-retirement offer and trudge off to that dismal world of blue-haired, early-bird-special retirees. To say I was less than enthusiastic about my pending “opportunity” would be an understatement. I was, in first grade terminology, one unhappy camper.

I taught squirming little six-year-old bundles of energy in five different school districts over a span of forty-two years, but it never felt like work. A teacher has a job; but a good teacher has a passion. I think most students, parents, colleagues and administrators regarded me as passionate. I loved the classroom and everything that went with it. Well, almost everything.

The pay was skimpy and the uncompensated overtime hours were endless. Much of the paperwork was state and/or federally mandated busywork, and staff development sessions fluctuated between boring and inane.

There were, however, many things that I would miss. I’d miss hearing the nervous little six-year-old read a five-word sentence for the first time. I wouldn’t get any more precious handcrafted pictures with “I luv u” notations scribbled at the bottom. There would be no more “World’s Best Teacher” ornaments for my Christmas tree. I’d never again hear the excitement in a little kid’s voice as he exclaimed, “Now I get it!” I’d miss the support of parents, the leadership of administrators, and the camaraderie of colleagues. And finally, I would forever lose the satisfaction that goes with belonging to a group of people working toward a common goal.

I replayed these positives, and countless more, over and over in my mind as I struggled to make a decision about retiring. But the process always ended with the same question. What would be best for the kids?

Finally, after weeks of soul searching and more than a few tears, I knew what I had to do. Little munchkins deserve a teacher who can run and jump and climb on the monkey bars and crawl on the floor, and maintain patience — at all times. I had fulfilled that role for more than four decades, but those days were behind me. It was time to move on.

Move on? Where would I go? Retirement was a place where old people went to brag about their grandkids and complain about their aches and pains. It wasn’t my idea of fun.

The following weeks evolved into a never-ending self-pity party, but without the gifts of sympathy or empathy. Parents, colleagues, friends and family members all seemed to think my elevator had gotten stuck on the way to the top. Earlier retirees told me in great detail about all the advantages they were privy to, and my younger friends whined about how much they envied my pending opportunity. Nothing helped. I was in a self-imposed funk. Fortunately, I didn’t stay there long.

On my sixty-second birthday, a former student gave me a copy of Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul. I lived vicariously through all of the stories, but John Wayne Schlatter’s “I Am a Teacher” was my wakeup call.

“Material wealth is not one of my goals,” he wrote, “but I am a full-time treasure seeker in my quest for new opportunities. . .”

A-ha! There was the solution to my problem. If I wanted my retirement to be as fulfilling as my teaching career had been, I had to stop wallowing in self-pity and start looking for new opportunities. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was an idea that had not occurred to me.

Shortly after the school year ended I began writing From the Teacher’s Desk, a help-your-child-succeed book for parents. My book didn’t come close to making the New York Times bestseller list, but it did open doors that I hadn’t known existed.

Two years later, I founded an interactive website for educators: www.theteachersdesk.com. I update the material on six of the site’s links on the first day of every month throughout the school year, and e-mail monthly newsletters to more than 1,100 subscribers. I have written countless articles for parenting magazines and academic journals, as well as single chapters for two reference texts: Visual Literacy and Reading in 2010 and Beyond. My most recent book, If They Don’t Learn the Way You Teach . . . Teach the Way They Learn, was released a couple of years ago.

When I’m not on the road I try to keep up with what’s new in the world of education by subbing in my local school district and picking the brains of exemplary teachers, many of whom are former colleagues. I serve on the public library board in Independence, and on the Upper Iowa University Press Advisory Council. I provide professional development training throughout the Midwest during the school year, and teach several literacy workshops each summer.

International Reading Association State Conferences are the fragrant flowers in my retirement pasture. To date I have been one of several featured speakers at seventy-two IRA conferences, with more on the docket. These stimulating and enjoyable venues have made it possible for my husband and me to visit nearly every state in the union, to participate in new activities, to try new foods and to make new friends. Ah yes, retirement is great. And no, my hair isn’t blue.

Alexander Graham Bell said, “When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

Teacher John Wayne Schlatter illuminated my open doors through his “I Am a Teacher” story, and the memory of 1,500 former students inspired me to walk through those doors. It was a powerful lesson that has served me well.

~Jacquie McTaggart

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