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.
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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All text © Eric Stemle 2019