By Peggy Wuenstel
You often read about an athlete, a performer, or a politician wanting to go out on top, at the height of their power, or the peak of their performance. I just don’t think that is how it works for teachers deciding to retire. We wait to leave the classroom until we feel that is time to go because we cannot perform as well as we have in the past. The knees give out, the memory fades a bit, the patience is shorter, and the reaction time is longer. This is a completely different feeling than leaving the profession because we are angry, frustrated or burned out. There is far too much of that going on in the profession now, and it is one direction I sincerely hope can be reversed.
I read somewhere that burnout comes, not from hard work or facing a daunting task, but from the lack of control that keeps us from doing our best work, the right thing, the best thing. There is plenty of that kind of angst in education today. Along with the financial insecurities that come with changing contracts, vanishing benefit packages and uncertain political realities. We leave before we are truly ready to protect pension earnings and insurance benefits. Some districts are happy to see their experienced teachers go, replacing them with younger teachers at lower salaries and without retirement programs that are being phased out at the district level.
Sometimes the universe sends you a sign. I attended the same school district from Kindergarten through high school graduation. That elementary school is being razed this year. I came to Marquette in the mid-seventies, greeted by the strains of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run blaring from the windows of multiple floors of McCormick Hall. That venerable building is also being replaced this year. My school is also one of eight nominated by Dr. Tony Evers for this year’s Blue Ribbon designation. I got to play a large part in the writing of that application, a virtual love letter to my school, a chance to go out on top.
One of the things I realized in writing this profile of the school I am so proud of is the commitment to a “Mission Possible” makes us who we are and drives what we do for kids. Borrowing from TV producer Shonda Rimes’s “Yes to Play” philosophy, which turns the things we are in love with into the things we are good at, our school strives to love our students into being learners. It doesn’t diminish our desire for our students to do well academically. It multiplies it into knowing they can do well socially, physically, and emotionally as well.
That mission has taken some interesting turns for me this year. Wisconsin educators use new terminology in the educator effectiveness system to change to conversation about improving practice. We have professional progress goals, and this changing of the language we use gives us opportunity to focus on the way we interact vs. on the work that must be done. My practice goal was to increase the frequency and quality of my conversations about and around books. This is true with both colleagues and students. When learning about the word artifacts, students were asked to write about an artifact in their homes. One student discovered for the first time that her mother collected carnival glass, and another brought a preserved puffer fish to class, spikes carefully wrapped in several layers of old t-shirts. We’ve asked questions like, “What makes you special?” or “How did you step up for someone?” as a result of a shared reading experience. We address students’ emotional needs and development as well as their academic ones because we read together and talk about what we read. When our children – at home and at school- ask us to read with them, what they are really making is a request to come, sit, and be present with me, and help me understand the world. I’m still grateful when someone takes the time to do that with me, as my book club buddies will attest.
These are the things that must be learned but can’t be taught. They are not part of the Common Core or any curriculum, but essential for students for students to see demonstrated in their school experiences. It is the way that we become wise vs. remaining merely informed. It is our chance to weigh in on what matters and what does not. It is also learning in action, what I have seen described as both “the knowing and the going.” It is also the mission that public education makes itself absolutely indispensable to the kind of society that most of us want to live in, one where we not only profess concern for each other but put it into action.
I’ve also been cultivating the skill of “observant stillness” as a teacher. Now as I am preparing to leave, I am becoming aware of how much I have missed because I was talking instead of listening, doing instead of being, and teaching instead of learning. It seems to be true that kids who feel loved and safe at home come to school to learn. Those kids that don’t feel that way come to school to be loved. That is the ultimate mission possible and one I am so grateful to have accepted.