End of Career Narratives

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the stories we tell about our careers, particularly the end of our careers. Narratives carry the meaning of the events in our lives — birth narratives courtship narratives…. family narratives. I have spent a good part of my career fashioning teaching narratives — stories that I tell about my teaching that convey messages and meaning for others who hear or read them. But most importantly, these narratives provide meaning for me.

So it’s not surprising then that in the early days of my retirement, my attention has turned to “end of career narratives.” I have known many many women — too many — who ended their careers feeling defeated, mistreated, and the victim of people out to hurt them. I have known women who have faced terrible accusations in their final year — false accusations by students which became impossible for them to defend — accusations of incompetence by principals who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand their pedagogy.

I have been telling two very different stories about the end of my career. In one, I was pushed out of teaching by an apathetic principal who turned the rostering of her staff over to unprincipled and misogynistic men who enjoyed wielding their power by giving the post menopausal women in the building the worst schedules with 3-4 room changes a day, ten different rooms a week on five different floors, all without air-conditioning. This despite or perhaps because of the the recognition I’d received throughout my career for hard work and excellent teaching ( I was Teacher of the Year in Philadelphia twice — in 1988 and 2005) – a bit of “Let’s put this old bitch in her place,” or “She’s getting a little too big for herself — let’s knock her down to size.” In this story, I am the victim – with no agency. They drove me out of teaching. They — being the subject of the sentence.. me the object acted upon. This narrative feels good sometimes when I tell it. I can really give lots of detail about the evil things the roster guys did — go down list after list of grievances, point out how all of the rooms were rostered to men, how they rostered a women in a wheel chair into six different rooms a day. Yea, I could really get myself going telling that narrative — which finishes up with a giant “And I showed them!” I retired.

Of course that’s only partly true. I do believe that the roster practices are unfair and that the teaching load and floating load is not shared equitably among staff members. But the part where I’m the victim being pushed out of my job at the end of my career is absolutely false.

I began thinking about my retirement three years ago when I was 52, knowing that 55 was the age at which I could retire with minimal penalty and also knowing that I would never retire in the middle of a school year leaving kids to substitute teachers and upheaval. So I hatched my plan… I would take a sabbatical in 2006-07 and during that time see what kind of work I could do and if I enjoyed that work. I would return to teach the following year 2007-2008 for one more year. I would tuned 55 during November of that year and I would have to teach the entire year because I would owe the state the time from my sabbatical.

That is exactly what I did. During my sabbatical year, I taught graduate classes in the evening at Penn in the Masters program for Teach for America teachers. http://www.gse.upenn.edu/degrees_programs/tfa.php I taught evening undergraduate courses at Bryn Mawr Haverford in their education program. http://www.brynmawr.edu/education/ I developed a writing project for student researchers with Research for Action, http://www.researchforaction.org/index.html I attended a women writers conference in New Mexico http://www.aroomofherownfoundation.org/ and created a scholarship fund for other women to attend and I took several writing courses at University of the Arts. I started a book group with old friends and colleagues, became part of a monthly women’s research group and had several reunions with students from Crossroads. I returned to Masterman in 2007-08 with the intention of leaving teaching at the end of the year, knowing that there was exciting and meaningful work that I could do in education ( my sabbatical year had shown me that.) Additionally, I decided that I would take no work for six months after I retired so I would have the time to figure our what I wanted to do next.

This is where I am right now — at the very beginning of those six months. And as I tell people my end of career narrative, I have to be careful not to be seduced by the familiarity and comfort of the victim narrative. Yes — all those things I said were true about my final year, and they weren’t pleasant — but they are not why I left teaching. I left because I felt that after 34 years — 34 wonderful years — very generative and fulfilling years, it was time for me to move on to other challenges. I planned my exit. And I lived out my plan. And as I am feeling the pangs of not going back to school, as I am dealing with the malaise of not having an imposed schedule, I must take responsibility for my own decision and not get mired in the anger and resentment of the victim’s narrative.

This was my choice. And I will take responsibility for what comes next. That’s an end of career narrative in which I am the subject and author.

What stories have you told about the end of your career? Are their different versions? In which are you the subject? It would be great to hear some of those stories here.

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