Were you forced to leave before you were ready?
More than two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote a piece, “Downsized and Out…” but since I still hear many teachers and administrators alike lamenting the fact that they either felt “pushed out” or they retired too early even though they had a lot more to offer to the profession, it seemed like a little “rehash” was in order. Sorry for any excessive repetition! Hope this helps anyone facing these common yet hard-to-cope “downers!” PKF
This issue is a lot more complicated than at a first glance. There are so many stories…
“I hate retirement…”
“I am so bored! I don’t know what do with myself.”
“Why would anyone want to leave education and lose their chance of working daily with children?”
“I found something I like doing – teaching – and now, at the age of 60, I’m tired of everything.”
“I wasn’t expecting to leave teaching. I feel I have so much more to give.”
At the peak of your career, you may be asked to consider early retirement, assume an unwanted job re-assignment, or choose to “bite the bullet” because of medical issues, changes in family status, or the sudden “piling on” of new (and sometimes scary) responsibilities for care-giving of an elderly relative or grandchildren. Fear of the unknown might creep into your decision. Perhaps the labor negotiations of your teachers’ contract are not going well, or you hear rumors of the likelihood of losing benefits as a result budgetary cutbacks. You could also be facing serious downsizing of the music program, declining enrollment, or pending music staff furloughs.
“The Good,” “The Very Good,” and “The Ugly!”
First, to gain a little perspective on this topic, I often share at my workshop sessions these three types of music teacher retirees. Which one best predicts/defines your future?
- Good: People who do not see themselves as retired, just leaving a full-time job of public school music teaching, and moving on to new goals, employment, and/or volunteer work.
- Very Good: People who know they are retired, and although relieved from the stress of day-to-day employment, now feel ready to complete new “bucket lists,” spend more time with family, travel, and hobbies, and perhaps even explore several new areas/levels/skills in music and education.
- Ugly: People who know they are retired, are happy to leave the profession, and want nothing to do with any part of music or music education, including their state’s professional music education association or NAfME. Basically, the not-subtle message is, “Leave me alone!”
Some Causes of Teacher Burnout and Early Retirement
Fifty-five percent of U.S. teachers report their morale was low and declining.
– National Union of Teachers, 2013
I like Keely Swartzer’s summary in the Learner’s Edge article, “The Causes of Teacher Burnout: What Everyone Should Know,” listing these stressors:
- An extreme number of responsibilities above and beyond instruction
- A lack of administrative support
- An over-emphasis on standardized testing
- Evaluation of teachers based on standardized testing scores
- Increasingly difficult student behavior with increases in frequency and severity
- Home lives of children that teachers cannot control
- A lack of personnel/proper staffing
- Forcing teachers to teach outside of area of expertise
- Inadequate prep time
- Extreme amounts of paperwork
- A lack of respect for the profession
- Challenging interactions with parents
- A lack of resources
- A lack of training for new initiatives and technology
I am a huge proponent of solutions-based thinking and building resilience in educators. That being said, I am well aware of the need to know and understand the causes of this growing problem. By having this information, we can keep an eye out and develop strategies to decrease or reverse teacher burnout and increase teacher resilience.
– Keely Swartzer
Other sources to read about teacher resignations due to feeling “burned out” or unappreciated:
Of course, depending on your public school employees retirement system, some states offer full retirement benefits to teachers with 30 years of service, regardless of age, or other early-bird programs. Often, this is motivated by the move to save money for the districts (more years of experience = higher salaries). These special “windows” for early retirements may exacerbate the problem of coming national teaching shortages… and, of course, allow the decline of keeping our most proficient/experienced “education experts” where they belong… in the classroom!
Here are several online links for further study on the factors influencing teacher supply, demand, and equity, including statistics from your geographical region:
Two Retirement Scenarios – This Could Be You?
Due to the sudden change in employment status, no longer satisfying your “life’s calling,” losing the feeling of being purposeful in a job, or missing the connections or “mattering” in the interactions with other colleagues, you cannot understand why you now feel left out, bored, unappreciated, discouraged, uninspired, or even angry? Perhaps in an attempt to model this phenomenon and providing a little real-life clarity, I will share two first-hand accounts of educators who, although they happily decided to retire, were “forced out” of the other things that they truly loved before they were ready to leave the profession entirely.
Several years ago, a local colleague retired from full-time music teaching, but wanted to continue serving as the assistant marching band director, a position she enjoyed for nearly 30 years. Unfortunately, this was during a very negative political climate in the community where she taught. A member on the school board was trying to de-hire the HS band director, making his job as difficult as possible (including not supporting his extra-curricular staffing requests). This resulted in the retired professional’s name being removed from the school board agenda at the last minute, and eliminating her chance for re-assignment, unless she filed a grievance with the teacher’s union or fought it with an age-discrimination lawsuit. She did neither… and was just left with the emotions of bitterness and being “depreciated.”
Enjoying the status of “the unofficial mayor” of a local school community, and having the chance to continue serving as a cheerleader in support of the students’ after-school activities while photographing and writing articles for press releases and district publications, one music teacher was looking forward to his post-employment niche as the superintendent’s PR assistant. For several years, his free time allowed him to attend numerous award ceremonies, art shows, drama productions, concerts, sports meets, etc. and to showcase the talents and accomplishments of the children in the media. However, the retirement of a central office secretary granted administration the opportunity to re-align the staff and hire a full-time communications director, a vastly more qualified full-time employee that instantly assumed all of the responsibilities formerly held by the music teacher retiree. The worst part, the superintendent himself never told the retired staff member of the change (nor did he even personally thank him for his 25+ years working in school publicity); he had to hear of his “firing” or job elimination from the superintendent’s secretary. “No, you will not have to take the photos of the National Honor Society members next week. From now on, all PR jobs will be handled by the new staffer.” In other words, “Please don’t go away mad, just go away?”
According to the now “phased out” teacher, it felt like being stabbed in the back.
Unhappy Pathways… Scenarios of “Downsized and Out!”
These are among the many “stories” of involuntary retirements…
- Music and/or staff are eliminated from the curriculum or building in which you teach.
- You feel unappreciated, unsupported, devalued, or ignored as a professional.
- You are exhausted and no longer want to continue solving the same problems over and over again.
- You conclude you must retire early to avoid losing existing contractual benefits (special bonuses, reimbursement for sick days, medical coverage, etc.).
- The new head coach of the sport (or club or activity) on which you have assisted for many years fires you to bring in his “cronies.”
- While agreeing to voluntarily retire from the full-time “day” job, you hope to continue serving in the capacity as assistant director (marching band, musical, etc.), club sponsor, or some other after-school position, but you are not considered for the re-assignment nor invited to return. In spite of the many years of loyal service to the school and community, you are told “your services are no longer required.”
Believe-it-or-not, if for any reason you feel “kicked to the curb,” you could be susceptible to PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You should look up the symptoms of PTSD, characteristics that can also mimic the stages of grief for losing a loved one or being fired from a job.
Anytime you compel someone to choose a pathway outside their own heartfelt core beliefs, values or goals, you add stress. Whether or not this rises to the level of true PTSD is very individual and up to a person’s mental make-up, maturity, emotional resilience, and/or personal crisis management “chops.”
Definitions of PTSD… What It Feels Like
The textbook definition of PTSD is “a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and to the outside world.”
For the most extreme cases, PTSD depression is palpable and may even be paralyzing (according to https://mindyourmind.ca/expression/blog/what-does-post-traumatic-stress-disorder-feel):
- It’s never ever feeling safe.
- It’s never taking a full breath of air in your lungs.
- It’s being afraid to close your eyes.
- It’s having your gut instincts scream at you to RUN every time someone looks at you.
- It’s spending most of your time alone because you are terrified of other human beings, sometimes even your friends.
- It’s feeling flawed, bad, marked, stained.
- It’s like being in prison.
The worst part? Most people cannot self-diagnose PTSD. Your spouse or other family members may be in a better position to advise you. A few hints? If you are suddenly having trouble sleeping, difficulty with relationships, or find yourself feeling significantly depressed or lethargic for a long period of time, visit your health care professional.
The Five Stages of Grief
It is appropriate to repeat that PTSD may bring on the same “stages of loss and grief” as a divorce or the death of a family member:
- Denial (disbelief, numbness, shock)
- Bargaining (preoccupation with “what could have been,” guilt, remorse)
- Depression (sadness, loneliness, emptiness, isolation, self-pity)
- Anger (feelings of helplessness, abandonment)
- Acceptance (emotional resolution, healing)
However, perhaps your feelings do not rise to the level of PTSD. (We hope not!) The normal “ups and downs” of this life-changing event is eliciting your mood swings. It is clear that the psychological process of retirement follows a pattern similar in nature to the emotional phases accompanying other phases of life. Surely you have read about the research-based stages of retirement, according to most gerontologists, that are a normal “bumpy journey” for everyone transitioning into their “golden years.”
The Six Phases of Retirement
- Pre-Retirement: Planning Time
- The Big Day: Smiles, Handshakes, Farewells
- Honeymoon Phase: I’m Free!
- Disenchantment: So This Is It?
- Reorientation: Building a New Identity
- Routine: Moving On
Take particular notice of #4 above.
So are the normal cycles of emotions often associated with the “passage to retirement,” according to Psychologist Dr. Yvette M. Guerrero, University of California: “Compelling and challenging, the retirement process involves transitioning to a new identity. This process can become self-empowering and lead to creative ways to self-reinvent and thrive.”
Why is this transformation so difficult?
Change: The mere mention of this word may cause some to feel uneasy. We often find ourselves resisting change, perhaps because of the perceived risk or fear associated with it. Behavioral change is rarely a discrete or single event; however, we tend to view it in such a way. More often than not, behavioral change occurs gradually, over time.
Steps to Take to Alleviate the Stress of Losing Your Job
Besides visiting the links within this blog-post and “talking it out” with your loved ones, seek medical advice if your depression is severe and you feel your emotions are disrupting your life and happiness. There’s “nothing ventured, nothing gained” if you are not really experiencing PTSD nor something that a doctor needs to address, such as a mental health disorder or a thyroid or blood sugar issue. It could be as simple as the addition of a little post-employment goal setting, change of venue, new hobbies, new diet, adoption of an exercise program, etc. As best-selling author Ernie Zelinski says in his book How to Retire, Happy, Wild and Free, “To be bored is to retire from life.”
“Tis easy to resign a toilsome place, But not to manage leisure with a grace; Absence of occupation is not rest, A mind quite vacant is a mind distress’d.” – William Cowper in Retirement
“Making the most out of retirement entails taking advantage of increased freedom to establish a lifestyle that is adventurous, exciting, and rewarding.” – Ernie Zelinski
Here are a few more reflections to hopefully “pull you out of your blue funk” and get you back on your feet.
- Reach out to stay strong. You have heard of the saying, “Misery loves company?” Yes, there is comfort in numbers, and you should consider sharing some of your feelings with recently retired colleagues and friends. “Your natural reaction at this difficult time may be to withdraw from friends and family out of shame or embarrassment. But don’t underestimate the importance of other people when you’re faced with the stress of job loss and unemployment [and retirement!]. Social contact is nature’s antidote to stress. Nothing works better at calming your nervous system than talking face to face with a good listener.” – https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/job-loss-and-unemployment-stress.htm
- Don’t continue allowing yourself to be “addicted to achievement,” wrapping up your entire personal identity with your former music position. “Sure, losing your job is a very personal experience, but don’t take it too personally. Who you are is not what you do. Never was. Never will be.” – https://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2012/06/12/bouncing-back-from-job-loss-the-7-habits-of-highly-effective-job-hunters/#755eec27b709
- Face your feelings and express your concerns. Put it on paper. “Writing about your feelings is especially important if the way you were terminated was emotionally painful. Recall the details and write about how you feel over and over and over again. Doing this helps you overcome emotional trauma, begin to heal, and stop feeling like a victim wounded for life.” – http://resiliencycenter.com/handle-the-emotional-side-of-job-loss-with-resiliency/
- Take a balanced view of your new situation and rethink your priorities. Look at “the whole picture.” It’s time to answer the question, what do you want to be when you grow up? “Psychologist and mindfulness expert Dr. Melanie Greenberg writes in Psychology Today that she recommends adopting a ‘mindful’ perspective during unemployment, refocusing on the positive aspects of your life. That includes self-reflecting and being honest with yourself about the causes behind your job loss [or feeling bored or depressed].” – https://lifehacker.com/nine-things-you-should-and-shouldnt-do-if-you-lose-you-509536697
- Focus on the future. Dream a little and think big. “It’s easy to get stuck in the past and what shoulda-woulda-coulda happened but didn’t. Doing so only perpetuates destructive emotions that fuel anger, self-pity and a sense of powerlessness.” – https://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2012/06/12/bouncing-back-from-job-loss-the-7-habits-of-highly-effective-job-hunters/#755eec27b709
- Find a new sense of purpose. The list is endless and very personalized: volunteer work, charity projects, or related “encore careers” like private teaching, church or community ensemble directing, music industry jobs, guest conducting, travel/tours, adjudicating groups, higher education teaching or supervising student teachers, etc. Do you still feel you have a lot more to offer children? Then, sign-up to coach, advise, assist, or teach in new arenas. “Finding a new way to provide meaning for your life will restore the sense of purpose that you once found through work.” – https://www.verywellmind.com/depression-after-retirement-1067239
- Get off the couch! Build a busy schedule and get active again. Now that you have the freedom, it’s time to “fill up your dance card” and self-reinvent! “If you have a lot of spare time with no agenda, you can quickly become a very unhappy person. A lot of the relationship trouble we see among retirees comes from either the husband or wife not knowing what they want. They become unhappy, and that unhappiness bleeds out into all areas of their life.” – https://www.thestreet.com/story/13101438/1/5-hardest-things-about-retirement-that-you-arent-expecting.html
- Revisit your music roots and rekindle your self-expression. Finally, music teachers have one distinct advantage that many other retirees cannot appreciate… our art. To dramatize this and generate a little self-direction, all you have to do is poll yourself, “points to ponder” often shared in other articles on this website: (https://paulkfoxusc.wordpress.com/for-retirees/)
- Why did you go into music and education in the first place?
- What have you always wanted to explore… play… sing… compose… record… conduct… create?
- When will you finish your own “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and have it performed and recorded?
- When are you going to publish your next song, article, book, warm-ups, instrumental method, essays on pedagogy, musical, drumline feature or halftime show… or write your personal memoirs?
- When do you plan to join a community band, orchestra, chorus or theater group?
Last piece of advice? Take some time to read all about retirement, managing your time and money, planning your personal goals and objectives, and sharing your thoughts and hopes with your partner. Retain membership in your professional associations and attend meetings and conferences. Finally, take a gander at this comprehensive website: https://paulkfoxusc.wordpress.com/for-retirees/.
As always, “Happy Trails,” retirees!
© 2018 Paul K. Fox
Photo credits (in order) from Pixabay.com: “despair” and “man” by geralt, “good vs. bad” by techexpert, “burnout” by darkmoon1968, “sleepwalker” by Engin_Akyurt, “depression” by johnhain, “alone” by geralt, “desperate” by Anemone123, “counseling” by tiyowprasetyo, and “old-couple” by andreahamilton264.