For the first time in 32 years, I am not feeling that emotional weight and stress, as I decided to retire last year, and search for what I like to call legacy work. For 50 years, I have been getting up to go to school in the morning and for the first time in my life, I am watching the school buses go by instead of riding one, greeting children off of one, or disciplining some kid on one. I wanted to share with the schoolbriefing learning community some tips on how to prepare yourself, your school, your successor, and your community for the transition, if you are considering opting for early retirement, semi-retirement or traditional retirement.
The Boy Scout motto always seems to apply to all parts of our life, “Be prepared!” If you are considering retirement the first thing to do, is be prepared. Our state retirement system has an excellent online document that provides information about what you should be doing some two years out from your decision. Financial advisors and others have provided a ton of information about how to financially prepare for retirement. As servant leaders, those who have changed the lives of others on a daily basis, preparation for retirement is certainly financial, but for us more of a true mental and emotional preparation.
A friend when she found out that I was leaving the principalship gave me a book that provides retirement wisdom that you won't get from your financial advisor, How to retire Happy, Wild, and Free! by Ernie J. Zelinski. Zelinski suggests that retirement is the wrong word and that we should call it disengagement from a full-time career, “self-actualization” or “self-realization” rather than “retirement” What I like to think of as re-creating, re-purposing, re-living!
Zelinski focuses on the social/emotional side of the decision to retire and provides excellent thoughtful insight and maintains that there are four fundamentals for attaining personal fulfillment during retirement:
- Finding who you truly are and being this person
- Recreating your life through personal interests and creative pursuits, possibly through a new part-time career
- Making optimum use of your extra leisure time
- Maintaining physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.
Once you make the decision to retire, some important details have to be taken care of to ensure a smooth transition for your school community, school staff, your successor, and yourself. William Bridges in his book Transitions, tells us that it is not the change that is hard, in this case the retirement, but the transitions- how will those routines that we engage in be affected,? how do we perceive our worth?, how will our social situation change?, who we will become now?
When I made the personal decision to retire, I didn't find a lot of advice for leaders in how to bring others through the transition, but I learned some things to do and some things not to do that I hope will be helpful to those listeners who are considering retirement or as one of my Grandparent's at Grandparent’s Day told me “You are not retiring, you are just re-treading!”
One of the first things to care for is your school community. How will you announce your retirement to the greater school community, inform your superintendent, so he or she can inform the school board? Be prepared for many comments from community members like “You are too young to retire!” What are you going to do now? It will never be the same!”
Our response is like it is with all situations that happen at school, we focus on our strengths and talk about the great teachers and staff, the wonderful leadership capacity that has been built and systems put in place to ensure a successful school in the first place. Community members will want to know if you get to be involved in the interview process and participate in the selection(I was not, which I liked and just had to show the candidates around school and get a brief “feeling” about the candidates demeanor as they walked through the school and met kids and staff. )The bottom line is that you don't have to know what you are doing next, because you don't. At church, a woman said to me, “You’re too young to retire!” And I told her that her husband did the same thing 15 years ago, he took a severance from a company that was bought out and opened his own very successful business and is still working today.” The idea of retirement for those not in the boomer generation is about putting people out to pasture and that your legacy is done. However, the movement with the boomer generation is one of finding out what is next, what will my encore work be? A great website called Encore.org provides good information and assists those choosing to disengage from a full-time career to “find passion, purpose, and a paycheck in the second-half of life.”
Obviously, one of the most important people to care for is your school staff or school family. These are people that you have hired, coached, lived with and breathed with and know just about everything about! You have led them through the death of loved ones, a beloved teacher, dealing with difficult students and parents, relationship difficulties with each other, budget cuts, higher class sizes, you name it and now they are looking to you with some jealousy and a feeling of being a traitor. How can a leader who has established a close culture and relationship with his or her school lead through this transition while still ensuring a successful learning environment for everyone? Well, the only answer I have is to demonstrate leadership. Like all situations you will display graciousness, continue to do “business as usual”, work hard to the end right along side everyone else. You must listen with understanding and allay concerns about the fear of the unknown. Mostly, you have to help those who are being “left behind” recognize their own leadership, the systems that are already established, and how they are going to ensure the mission and vision of the school continues with the new leader.
To begin addressing some of the worry and fears about my leaving, I scheduled meetings with all staff members for a half-hour and asked them to think about, What is one thing that you value that we have built at our school and must remain? What is one thing that is right, but needs some work? What is an aspiration that has not been fulfilled? I gathered this information and shared it with my successor and shared it with my staff so they could hear all of the important things that we had done together and how they were valued by everyone. Collaborative planning, team decision-making, a collegial and accountable culture, being treated as a professional, providing confidence to become a better teacher-leader were some of the top hits. For some support staff, concerns were about where they would be placed next year? Would I be part of that decision? Teachers wondered about grade placement worries and concerns? This helped me focus on the fears that people had and it allowed everyone to stay in the moment and focus on their students and the learning. One teacher told me later, “We are okay, because you are okay.”
Successfully transitioning your successor into a building where you have led for almost 20 years is another area of major focus . We prepared an entrance plan together and I scheduled visits to our school on several occasions with meet and greet time with parents and students at night, day visits to school, with schedules that ensured she observed in all grade level classrooms, kids eating at lunch, playing at recess, participating in gym, art, music, and media center learning, entry and dismissal procedures. Some visits were more formal where I would escort her and others- I just sent her off on her own to begin the building of relationships with children and staff members. I ensured that she had a campus tour and met the “important” central office staff and a tour of our community. These informal times to chat were invaluable to address her own thoughts and ideas and for me to begin my own grieving of leaving a place that I had poured my heart into.
I created a Google document called The ABC's of the principalship and every time I thought of something about the work of the principal I put it on the document-budget, professional learning community, fire drills, Grandparent's Day, etc. Then, at several meetings after school was out, we went through the list and she was able to take notes on each item leaving her with documented information about the many systems, activities, events, and essential management procedures already in place. I provided a year book, a staff list and my talented technology teacher created a humorous video introducing all staff members that we showed at a full staff meeting to welcome her as our new leader. Finally, I left information for her about the parameters regarding contacting me. I ensured that she knew that she could email and call anytime she had a question or wondered about how things were done before. I encouraged her to write an introduction plan that included meeting with staff before school started, outlining her expectations as a learner, not out to make big changes, but “learn along side everyone.” I prepared her the best I could for what she didn't know and would experience like every principal leader does when they take a new job. I made a nameplate for her and put it up on the office wall and wrote her a personal letter welcoming her to the job.
Finally, leading a school and dealing with the thought of leaving is exhausting and more emotionally draining as you are moving toward retirement. Remember Bridges in his book Transitions tells us that you have to “grieve your endings, before you can start new beginnings.” My best advice to care for yourself is to let people celebrate with you, relish every moment you are with kids, with staff members, being feted and honored at parties and gatherings. To be the leader that always lets everyone know that everything is going to be alright on the outside is hard when you are going through some very emotional dilemmas on the inside. It didn't truly emotionally hit me until I packed my office, put everything in my van, turned in my keys, and drove away from school for the last time. The tears came and I let them flow. This is a life changing event that leads one to now what? What is my purpose now? How will I feed my inner drive to be successful as a person after this body of work is over?
I learned quickly that what you need to do is to give yourself the whole summer to just relax. As one of my mentor's said, “Let the next stages of life reveal to you.” Instead of my usual brief vacation in July, I could take a late vacation with my wife a week before school started, I began working on opening a consulting business and learning about mentoring and coaching beginning principals as part of my legacy work. Time to just be and think about how I was going to recreate my life. I watched Dewitt Jones excellent video “Celebrate What is Right with The world.” and remembered the strong line “Stay open to the possibilities.”
How is life today at the end of September my first fall out of retirement? Well, I am learning about this new season of life. I love not having to rush in the morning and be a slave to an alarm clock, I love not having to solve other people's problems, just my own, I found out that summer goes on forever, I wonder about why so many cars are driving around and why people are not working? I enjoy going to the post office during the week and not having to wait in line on Saturday! I am more aware and look at everything with “fresh eyes.” I find out that Steak and Shake has Happy Hourl, every day from 2 to 4 pm and am and that everything is half-off! I am more mindful and “present” for my family and friends, my blood pressure and stress level is down significantly and I am slowly building my consulting business and “staying open to the possibilities.” I am choosing new pursuits carefully, volunteer work and other interests. Be careful, set boundaries for yourself as others will want you to take on leadership roles at church, in your community, and even at home! My wife and I met to discuss and outline what the new rules at home would be-who cooks on what days, who does the laundry, who is responsible for the vacumming, what jobs will get done around the house. My spouse is still working in a full-time career while I am “enjoying” a part-time career. We are learning together about this new stage of life.
Zelinski in his book says that “Retirement is the time to live your life in the manner you have dreamed of living. It is the time to get in touch with your inner life. It is the time to reflect upon your values and discover what is important to you. Above all, it is the time when you have more time to devote to yourself, to do what you want to do.
If you are considering dis-engaging from your full time career as a building leader, I hope that I have provided some helpful suggestions. Now get back to work and hug a kid, enjoy the lightbulb of learning going off, celebrate with a new teacher who learned a new teaching strategy. I miss those moments most of all!