How We Got to Here

In February of 2017, my wife Teresa and I decided to retire from the classroom. She had been teaching music for nearly forty years, and I English for a little more than that, and though we  still loved what we were doing with our students, still looked each day for new ways to make a difference for those young people, we were tired. Physically tired. Emotionally worn out. Professionally pooped. We talked about toughing it out for another year or two, and we convinced ourselves that we could find a way to do that, but one day after school she looked across the living room at me, sighed, and said, “It’s time.” I agreed without hesitation. Now, you might think that we immediately felt a certain amount of relief at finally making that difficult call, but we both knew that there was a lot of work ahead of us. There was the matter of letting everyone involved with us at our schools know of our decision. Not an easy task. There was the matter of continuing to teach at a high level, perhaps the highest we’d ever delivered in our careers. Finally, there was the matter of saying goodbye.

When we closed our classroom doors for the last time, we each had, as you might expect, a bittersweet feeling. Of course, we were sad to be leaving our students, our colleagues, ultimately our vocations, but at the same time, we felt a deep sense of accomplishment. We had run the good race, and it was time to rest. That’s what summer had always about all those years, relaxing, recharging our batteries so that we could be ready when new classes came in the fall. The summer of 2017 felt pretty much the same as all the others that we had enjoyed as teachers, but friends from the profession who had retired before us said, “Just wait till school starts. That’s when you’ll know.”

You know what? They were right.

When our district opened its doors again in the fall, Teresa and I found ourselves not only free from the pressures and responsibilities that the early part of the school year had always brought, but remarkably fresh as well. Sure, we missed the excitement of another beginning, of meeting a new batch of youngsters, but there was something that felt quite different from what we had always experienced during those first few days of school. We weren’t weary! We had energy, and we used it to travel and to stay up late and to simply enjoy being with each other in the daylight as well as the dusk. That’s when we decided that retirement really wasn’t the right term for what we were feeling. We had to come up with a new word to identify that next stage in our lives, and one morning it hit me.

Untirement.

I mean, think about it. It’s one thing to become tired. As teachers and parents, the two of us had endured fatigue throughout our careers. Re-tired? Why would we want to be tired again? On the contrary, we were now delighted to come to the end of the day and not feel exhaustion. Untirement felt better and better as those first fall weeks went by.

OK, let’s take a quick time out before we go any further. I can’t escape the feeling that there are some of you reading this who are word-checking me already, and as an untired English teacher, I totally appreciate your diligence. Yes, yes, the root of retire has to do with “drawing back” and not wearing out. Noted. Back to story.

In the early days of our untirement, what I enjoyed most was being able to sleep in as long as I wanted during the week, just as I had on Saturdays during the school year. It wasn’t as if I stayed in bed till noon—I got up around 8:00 most days—but that was far from the six o’clock alarm I had risen to for so long. In short order, however, I discovered that one of the great boons to being untired was the time I now had to read what I wanted, to write what I wanted, to consume without feeling the need to comment or evaluate. I was liberated to create and to recreate on my own schedule, not a bell to be heard throughout the day. I also had the freedom to do absolutely nothing if that’s what I felt like. I got lost on YouTube more than once and felt zero guilt for “wasting” time that I could have been using to be productive in some way.

Two years out now from my teaching days, I’ve been reflecting lately on how my life has changed since I left my practice. I’ve come to realize that my life in education was a lot like the workings of a pocket watch. Each day’s duties and expectations would wind my stem, coiling up my mainspring so that I could run efficiently all day at school and even nights at home when I graded papers and planned lessons. Now a graduate of the teaching profession, that tension now released, I have the energy and the excitement to enter the arena once more. Oh, I’m not talking about signing a contract to return to my old high school or to start subbing around the district. My dream now is to develop a much, much larger classroom where those who enter can share ideas about teaching and learning, about creating nurturing yet challenging environments, maybe even about our observations of life beyond school. I invite you to join me in making this site a place where we can explore all of those things together. Welcome to a vitally important conversation. 

Welcome to Stem Unwinding.

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9 thoughts on “How We Got to Here

  1. I would say the question about classroom set up is perhaps arduous to answer, and that is because it seems to me that there really is not a pattern or formula but instead a plethora of ways. It seems like the old adage of there are many ways to get to seven is probably true. But in terms of getting a class engaged I would say is a little bit about orientation for sure, and of course it is also about the professor too. If the professor has a dry lecture style or subject matter is very dry well then the overall energy in the room is going to quite reasonably take a dump. Plus, also I would say different strokes for different folks in terms of what works vs what doesn’t. EVERY professor and student is different. You just have to determine what your style is I think. Though on the whole spectrum of teachers and TAs I suppose I am a bit nascent. Additionally, I also think that when building a syllabus not only should there be an analysis of our own mental spoons we should also consider the student’s too. For example, if we are teaching a freshman level course then it should be taught as such. If we are TAs, we might consider partial credit for answers that are not completely right or wrong but land in the middle. It can also be important to assess our own methods too. For example, if a bad quiz comes along and a significant number didn’t do that well then the TA, professor, teacher, etc. , should go okay let’s go over it. This isn’t worth putting in, because the goal is to learn together and not start knocking down people’s grades or taking a very callus approach. Nobody learns that way. But something else too, would be to have the proper nexus of availability, support, a great learning environment (a tiny bit set up but not entirely), and also sharing ideas. Plus, flexibility and also the ability to learn and grow with one’s class. the journey is never over. Also, being approachable is mixed in there too. If students feel like they cannot ever talk approach the teacher than they won’t ever ask their questions or if they do it might prove to be too late. But sometimes you do get a shy kid that doesn’t know how to fully express what is happening in their cranium and just really need a nudge/poke to get going. I’d say work with the class and get to know them as well as what makes them tick too. Maybe the shy kid does great work but never talks that happens too.

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    1. This is the importance of viewing a class over its entire course, Sarah. There will be shy students and students who take a while to develop a trust of their teacher and their classmates. As you suggest, it’s a matter of the teacher’s sensitivity and flexibility. Bringing everyone along isn’t easy, but when it happens, it is oh so rewarding.

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  2. A couple more memorable team building thing were in third grade and then in fourth grade. My third grade teacher was the teacher everyone feared throughout the whole school. She and I butted heads a bit because I was a bit of a strong willed kid, determined to prove I wasn’t scared. I remember distictly being given the assignment of buddying up with just one or two other kids when we were learning about dinosaurs. We were expected to do research on them and then present our findings. I was the only girl partnered with a boy, and he wasn’t only a boy, he was the boy that everyone else avoided. Definitely learned some lasting life lessons about treating all people with respect and kindness and I am eternally grateful she saw what she saw in me to have had that experience, although at the time I was embarrassed and mortified and absolutely sure she was punishing me.
    In fourth grade I was lucky enough to get the teacher everyone coveted… and I struggled so much in her class! Especially with history. None of it made and sense to me and I had the attitude that if its not happening now, its completely irrelevant so I don’t really need to learn it. I had that attitude about it almost the full year until our trip to Fort Bridger. Even wandering around the fort I acted bored until she took us to stand on the Oregon Trail and there was a trail marker I could see. That’s when history came to the present for me and it just clicked. After I jumped around practically hysterical about being able to stand in such a sacred place, history became my favorite subject.
    That teacher really understood the importance of group as well as she changed up how we stood in lunes and regularly read books to us on a carpet when we got our work done on time. We would play games like Mind Trap or word solving problems in timed sessions and racing the clock was a pivotal part of it. The excitement and adventure. At least to me. Great insight today Eric!

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    1. How we stood in lines… as well as… ugh, with the typos! I may have been over zealous….

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    2. Your story reminds me of a similar experience except mine was learning to write a capitol letter “B”. Also learning to cut paper because I struggled with the fine motor skills to do so because I broke my hands at an early age in a daycare climbing. I felt so embarrassed too and I also saw what classmates were dong and I wanted to do it too. I eventually figured it and I also managed to cut paper my own way. Using the thumb hole on the scissors, and also putting my other fingers over the he other hole. The instructor I had for Kindergarten gave me a chart. If I held scissors correctly instead of my own way I got a sticker, and if I didn’t I got a sad face or an X. Well fast forward to senior year of high school, I developed a new appreciation for stickers. Mr. Stemle had this system where you would not loose ground but instead gain ground. We had a chart in our journals for his class, and everytime you achieved full mastery of an area you got to put a sticker in that area on the chart. I like stickers now, and if a quiz is awesome it gets a sticker. The commas felt like an enemy but I noticed other areas of an essay that I did well on. So, the comma struggle I had didn’t seem that bad. I eventually figured out the comma thing mostly, and I didn’t feel bad about it. Just thought it was a First attempt in Learning vs. feeling like the comma thing was a failure on my part. Mr.Stemle, thank you so much for teaching me and continuing to teach me. Also, for showing me ways to be a better TA.

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      1. You’re welcome, Sarah. As a left-hander, I had my own struggles with scissors. We learn to either adapt or accept what we can’t change. As for stickers, isn’t it amazing how a little sparkle on a chart adds to our enjoyment in our learning?

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      2. Yes, stickers definitely add to learning experiences, and that is because you taught me that stickers don’t have to be terrible. I also used to get in trouble for being ambidextrous, and I’m sure you can imagine I figured out how to use both hands due to injury. But my kindergarten instructor did not particularly like that. During conferences my mom would be told, “Sarah works well with the other kids, but she can’t quite figure out scissors, and struggles with the letter B.” Also a critique centered around the fact that I figured out how to write with both hands, and how she was going to see to it that I write with only one hand. That is why I stuck with my right hand, and although I can use my left, in a classroom setting I don’t usually show that. (I try to keep that hidden.) Getting back to senior year, I enjoyed watching my chart fill up with stickers, and it meant so much more to me than having straight A’s. I think it was a psychological thing perhaps. Also, Mr. Stemle, you bring out the best in your students. Those you blessed by mentoring them with their senior project, and those you had in class. Also, when students of yours struggled on something we knew we could ask for your help and advice. We also knew that while yes we had to write our papers, we could say I am not certain how to fix this. You made us want to achieve more, because you knew when we needed nudging and encouragement. I also enjoyed getting your comments in my journal, and it was apparent to me that you put a similar amount of effort that we all did if not more. That journal also has shown me that you were learning about each of us too.( Just like as you put it, we had to figure out whom this Mr. Stemle guy was. ) I hope the comments on their quizzes is helpful, and not hindering. I also hope that when they get a sticker on a quiz that they enjoy it just as much as I did putting it on. I know that for me I always wanted to master another area of my paper, and I always wanted to make you proud that I was learning how to do different things. As for the Senior project, I wanted to make you proud with that too. Everyday, when I am sitting in the courtroom fighting for kids it will because you helped ignite my passion.

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      3. Sarah, I know that you will build strong relationship with your students as a TA, and you will be a tremendous advocate in the courtroom! You definitely gave the passion necessary to fight the good fight!

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    3. What wise teachers you had, Anj. Your third grade one saw something in your character that you didn’t at the time, and your fourth grade one knew the power of place. Taking you to Fort Bridger was a great way to help you understand how history endures, and I’m sure she helped you open your mind in all sorts of ways that year. By the way, Mind Trap was one of my favorite tools to use to focus my kids’ thinking, either as a transition to the next activity or to use a few minutes we had left at the end of class period. Thanks for adding some paints to our palettes!

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