By Peggy Wuenstel
Joni Mitchell’s iconic song Big Yellow Taxi holds special meaning for me, especially this year. In addition to being that rarity, a song that has an excellent remake courtesy Counting Crows, it is a reminder to take stock of all those things we value. Contrary to the famous line, I do know what I’ve got before it’s gone. The beauty of planning ahead for retirement, promotion, or a job change is that the “going” is far enough away that you can reflect on what you have. This is it, the last 189.5 days of my full-time teaching life. (And 40 of them are already behind me at this posting.) It is the countdown of “last experiences,” back-to-school open house, Christmas program, report cards, snow day, etc. The vast majority of those things are not the ones I will happy to see go, but the things I am so grateful to have been a part of.
In this last year of blogging for the Marquette Educator, something else I will deeply miss, I plan to visit all of those treasures I know I have today. Some I’ll leave behind. Some I’ll pass on to others. Some I will never be able to part with and some are so much a part of me that I wouldn’t be able to extricate them if I tried. My teaching team, the memories I will take with me as I leave the classroom, the daily positivity that surrounds a successful elementary school all made the list. I have made a promise to myself not to let remembering the past or planning for the future diminish my pleasure or purpose in completing this last year.
I’ve already begun tossing the old, the dated worksheets, the books that don’t inspire, the programs and materials that do not align with the research or contribute to best practices. This process is actually long overdue. In this digital age we teach differently than we have in the past, keeping things in computer files rather than hard copy. This winnowing requires examining the reasons why we are holding on to our” treasures.” Someone put in a lot of time and effort to make these materials. We had such fun when we taught this unit. We have always done it this way; it’s tradition.
I am also mindful and grateful that I have the opportunity to retire. Many of my students’ families may never have that opportunity. Company loyalty, hiring and firing practices, maximizing profits and shareholder dividends all limit an employee’s options in remaining in an organization or career. Relocation for the job of a spouse, need to return to care for an ailing or aging parent or support a child for whom economic opportunity has not yet arrived also limit our chances for stability and advancement.
Longevity at a job is not always considered a plus on a résumé. My job has allowed me the freedom to grow, change settings, and feel that I make a difference in the same place and with the same extraordinary team (more about that next month). Many people in our society have no such opportunities. Isn’t this the primary role of education: creating in our students the set of skills and attitudes that prepare them for a successful future. That has been harder to envision in recent years. Even in these times when our teacher benefits and compensation are both reduced and uncertain, I am grateful that my situation allows for retirement.
I am working under a new superintendent this year, part of the revolving door status quo in Wisconsin schools as school leaders relocate every few years as their jobs are less stable or satisfying than in my first years in education. These conditions make educators uncertain of district commitment to teacher benefits and alter labor relations. This will be the 5th administrator I have worked under in my 15-year tenure in my district.
I have remained in Whitewater twice as long as anywhere else I have worked in my 34-year career because this district allowed me the opportunity for continual growth and reinvention. I worked part-time in between full-time bookends at the beginning and end of my career here. I explored opportunities with UW-Whitewater,Wisconsin’s DPI, and the Whitewater community. I had many chances and myriad encouragements to lead at the program, school, district, and state level. I always had the personal sense of moving forward, while many aspects of education (funding, public support, legislative decisions) seemed to be moving backward.
On my bulletin board (another future post) there is a reminder: “If you don’t like the direction of the wind, you can always adjust the sails.” I have been distressed about many of the directions that education has taken in Wisconsin in recent years, and it’s time to let someone else take the tack so that I can sail in calmer waters, enjoy the scenery, and slow the pace. Let the adventure begin, my big yellow taxi is waiting at the dock.