“I quit while I was ahead” – retired principal pens emotional reflection

Steve Peck,  a retired principal from Willow Landing Elementary School, recently had an editorial featured in The Globe And Mail. Titled “I quit while I was ahead”, Peck writes about his emotions as a newly retired teacher and principal as staff and students start returning to school. For the first time in 30 years, he won’t be.

I quit while I was ahead

The birds are singing this morning. Perhaps they sing every morning and I don’t notice, too distracted by the day which stretches out before me, stretched out long before it occurs. This Sunday morning, this first Sunday morning of my retirement, I’m sure this ad hoc concert coming from the birds hidden in the leaves and limbs of trees is solely for me: This is my avian choir of congratulations.

Two days ago, I was employed by a public school board and had been in such employ for 30 years. I taught little people, little in stature or little in maturity or little in what we teachers call “content knowledge.” These little people, shuffling along through the grades and grouped by age, were climbing the uneven rungs to high school. Through no choice of their own and often requiring a boost, 25 or 30 of them would stop for about 10 months in my classroom. With the greatest of irony, they taught me more than I ever taught them.

They came to me year after year in shapes and sizes as varied as skipping stones on the edge of the sea. Some were child-movie-star beautiful, others displayed beauty of character; the luckiest were both. They skipped across the tight surface of the water like the flattest and roundest of stones. Others were scarred and broken by senseless but well-meaning parents. They did not skip. I and those with whom I worked regularly waded out, reached down into the water and did our best to find them and bring them back to shore; if they could not skip, maybe we could build them little paper boats. This skipping and building I did for 30 years. For 12 of those 30 years, I was an elementary-school principal, a leader of schools, teachers and their students.

The birds have stopped singing for some reason. The window is still open, but I hear only the rustle of leaves and the occasional caw of a crow who most definitely seems annoyed by something. Like the birds, I too stopped what I was doing, stopped being a principal. My stopping will likely be more permanent than theirs. But I neither know nor can know for certain, as the future has not yet been released on DVD.

I loved most of my principal work for most of those 12 years. But, as a beginning teacher, I soon learned a lesson that too many teachers, preachers and politicians have not learned: stop the lesson (or the sermon, or the career) when it’s going well. It’s both difficult and counterintuitive to say, while the students are engaged and the lesson is rolling along straight and true, “All right boys and girls, time to pack up.” But when one does, the students are sad to see a good thing end and long for more.

I may still long for a little more myself, but just a little; I hope those I leave behind do, too.

If I stretched out those 30 years on a labelled number line across a blackboard, I could point out some sections I would be happy to erase. Tiny sections and short sections to be sure, but seriously, pass me the eraser. Let the horizontal blue-red-blue pattern of felt fibres trap the chalk molecules and whisk them away.

This we know, above all, is neither the nature of a teaching career nor the nature of life. Erasing the past or controlling the present is not a choice open to the teacher, or the songbird or the crow. Our continuous lines stretch from start to finish without interruption. Looking back, it is most likely those sections I would have liked to erase which strengthened me and fit me to make it to the end of my career. It was Nietzsche who said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Well, I’m still here. Does that make him right?

So, I took my own advice and quit while things were going well, while I was stronger, or at least strong enough. I did not wait until I hated my job. I did not even wait until I started the countdown to retirement, which inevitably and inexorably leads to days of quiet and not-so-quiet desperation.

Did I teach and lead in schools for too long? Ask my students, teachers, colleagues and parents. Did I stop too soon? After all, there’s much left to do, many more things to change for the better and some planted ideas I would have liked to see sprout, grow and mature. I leave the picking of the fruit, or the uprooting of the tree (as the case may be), for those who follow behind.

No one asked me any questions on my last day at school, at least not any questions about the next school year, which already looms on the horizon.

I have always spent Labour Day weekend trying to suck the last sweetness from the bottom of summer’s cup; to spend time at school preparing for what sometimes seems like an upcoming invasion by a foreign power; to spend time wrestling with two competing, angst-creating queries: Where did my precious summer go? And, is everything in place for a perfect start on Tuesday morning?

That will not be my lot for this year’s idolized Canadian long weekend.
The first day of school will record the happy and exciting sounds of tens of thousands of elementary students in all manner of new footwear pattering across school-yard tarmacs. The sound around my home may be different. If I open my window on that Tuesday, the birds may hear me singing.

-Steve Peck

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