retirement in the rear-view mirror

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Some of you who are my Facebook friends will have seen this memory from eight years ago which I reposted earlier this week.

Just wanted the friends from so many different stages of my life to know that I’m a few weeks away from “retiring” from my current job with the Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago after 18 years. I’m really not retiring at all because I’ve already got a full dance card of education-related activities that will keep me busier than I should be. There’s too much left to do.

I have had an extraordinarily fortunate work life – meaningful work, exceptional colleagues, great students, opportunities to participate in building new institutions. Hope I’m granted the privilege of continuing down that path a while longer.

It happens that my daughter and granddaughter were visiting from Maryland when this eight-year memory appeared. One of the privileges of retirement is that I could clear my already thin summer schedule and spend as much of the week as the weather permitted playing on our nearby Lake Michigan beach, going to the Field Museum and watching In the Heights.

 But it also allowed time for some powerful dinner conversations. Dalia, who at age ten is already clear that she wants to be a graphic designer, wanted to know what I wanted to be when I was her age and how I wound up being a teacher. I told her that I had no idea what I wanted to be when I was her age. I knew my parents wanted me to be an engineer which they saw as a secure, moderately lucrative profession. I followed their path all the way through my freshman year of college before I wound up working all the way through a Ph. D in clinical psychology. But even then, the story wasn’t over. With many twists and turns along the way I wound up becoming a teacher. It was a happy enough choice to keep me doing work related to it even this many years beyond retirement. I hoped she would choose work that was so engaging and important that it didn’t feel like work at all. I’ve often reminded young people in the process of making professional decisions that they needed to remember that we have only one shot at this life, so we needed to be careful not to squander that shot on an unfulfilling path, no matter how lucrative – a heavy message for a ten-year old who, sophisticated as she is at 10, isn’t ready to think much beyond the next session with her magic markers.

But, to return my yellowing retirement announcement, I am grateful to report to Dalia and to the world that much of this time has worked out as I had hoped. Pandemic year aside, I’ve continued to spend my time among teachers and kids, the world I know best and have the most to contribute to, based on 50+ years of experience. I’m attuned to the rhythm of the school day and the school year and to the constant flow of activity so different from the office world where there are often substantial chunks of dead space when time moves in a crawl. Time never crawls in a classroom. My wife is fond of saying that I only retired from my paycheck and that’s a pretty accurate representation of the situation I graduated into.

Things could have worked out very differently. The husband of a friend retired from his medical career and was killed a week later when his bike was hit by a drunken truck driver. I’m sure many of you are familiar with situations where people’s grand retirement plans have been foiled by health issues, economic setbacks. I’ve done relatively well on both those fronts. I don’t know how much longer this run of good fortune will continue but for these past eight years I’ve been able to write my own ticket – which teachers to remain in contact with, which schools to focus my attention on, what to read and write about, when to step away temporarily for travel or to spend time with my granddaughter and her parents.

I’ve written before about the fact that retirement never had the allure it possessed for others who couldn’t wait to close their office or classroom door for the last time. Many dream of the travel that awaits them the other side of retirement, but my life has been full of travel interspersed among my work years. Many are eager to build a boat, assemble a harpsichord or study Italian, but I have no compelling hobbies or undeveloped talents. I’ve always loved my work and the chance to continue it in retirement has been a gift.

There have been times during these post-retirement years when I’ve wondered whether what I was doing was actually adding value for the teachers whose classrooms I’ve visited and with whom I’ve corresponded. For the solid trio of Alex in Los Angeles, Roxana in New York and Kimberly in the Chicago suburbs, our work together has been ongoing and rooted in the kind of relationship that brought me the greatest rewards throughout my professional life. For the more occasional visits with many other teachers that were a fixture in my weekly schedules, I think the primary value was in maintaining a network of like-minded professionals, most of whom were graduates of the Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) at the University of Chicago which I called home for my last 11 years before retirement. I’m not sure what my visits did for them, but for me they were a source of nourishment. They were bringing to their Chicago classrooms the kind of teaching and learning that the children of the city deserve and whose presence is rarely visible to a population that is quick to write off public education in general and the teaching profession in particular. I hope my occasional presence offered these teachers some sense that they were connected to a larger vision of what good education should look like and that their work was valued.

Through most of these years of retirement, I have been nourished by an amazing group of older educators who have not lost their passion for making schools more humane, caring and stimulating places. We call ourselves the Valois group, after the legendary Hyde Park cafeteria where we gathered regularly for breakfast before Covid drove us apart. The hundreds of years of collective experience in and around schools, teachers and kids has not left us jaded or cynical. On the contrary, it has inspired us to seek out ways to put that experience to use. Ageism is real in education as in so many other aspects of our lives, so it hasn’t always been easy to make our voices heard, but at the very least this valiant group has been part of what has kept me engaged in recent years.

Now the challenge is to pick up the pieces after this bizarre and dislocating year and go on with the work for as long as our bodies and brains allow. There is so much that remains undone. Although folks like me and many of my Valois colleagues are not on the playing field anymore, there’s a lot of cheer-leading we can do once things open up again.

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Marv Hoffman

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