When you retire from your job, what will your co-workers say about you? What accomplishments will you be most proud of? What will you have given the world? Even as you leave the office tonight, do you feel happy and satisfied with the impact you made?
My mom is retiring after 21 years of teaching History at my old high school. Over this time, more than 2500 students have taken her classes. She taught AP courses and took the Model U.N. Club to national competitions. She helped chaperone kids on a trip to S. Africa and, along with 19 other teachers, was selected to visit schools in S. E. Asia as a part of Hawaii’s East-West Center program. She advised her students on college applications and essays. In 2009 she received the Teacher of the Year Award and, this past weekend, the senior class honored her by dedicating their yearbook to her and giving her a standing ovation.
The fact is she almost wasn’t a teacher at all.
25 years went by from the time she got her Masters in English to when she returned to teaching at Nauset in 1993. After college, she taught English only 1 year, then worked as a speech researcher in the president’s office at MIT, and, later, was Director of Alumni Relations at Emerson College. After marrying, she became as a rental agent at a real estate office on Cape Cod. Once she became a mom, she joined my father as a part-time bookkeeper at his boat business.
Career and life paths aren’t always linear. What you’re doing today may not be what you’re doing 5 years from now. We make both intentional and unintentional choices based on what life presents us. This is why I needed to hear mom’s story again, in full detail: What a legacy. What made her return to teaching?
JS: You decided to start a new career in your 40s. Why?
MB: I knew you girls would be going to college soon and didn’t need me at home as much. I was itching to do something besides bookkeeping. We were also in a recession and needed a source of income outside the boat business.
I started subbing for a teacher in the History department who was ill and out for long stretches of time. This meant I also had to do his lesson plans. When it became clear that this teacher was retiring, the department head observed my teaching and offered me the job.
I would’ve done anything to get into the school system. I was getting up at 6AM to study my lesson plans, teaching a full day, then bookkeeping for several hours at Bay Sails, cooking dinner, then grading and lesson planning until 11PM. It was the same time that Dad was working at ESSCO to bring in extra money, so he was traveling to Norway, Japan, Italy, etc. We didn’t really have time to think about the stress. It was just go.
JS: How did you know you made the right choice?
MB: The first 3 years were rough. I was trying to survive. I had some tough kids who were in trouble a lot. But after a while I was able to let go of some of the bookkeeping, and could stop working so hard to learn my subjects and create lesson plans. Then I could focus on getting to know the kids, and that’s when I really started to enjoy it.
At first, I missed teaching English, but I loved the History department and the other teachers. I felt like we were on the same wavelength. And the kids were appreciative. They’d come in and say, “This is my favorite class” or “I talk to my parents about what we’re learning.” They’d sign up for another one of my classes or recommend me to their friends.
And Nauset has a lot of heart. We support each other in difficult times. Often I was very happy to go to work. It was a hard decision to retire and give that up.
JS: What advice would you give to people at a crossroads, contemplating a career change?
MB: I think the biggest fear about career change is earning power. So it’s important to ask questions like: Can I afford to be unemployed or underemployed? How reliable is freelancing until I can break in? What’s the minimum salary I can live with?
If they’re truly miserable, they have to find a way to take the leap.
Things have become more flexible. Age matters less and people don’t stay in one job like they used to. When I graduated from high school, a classmate and I were voted most likely to succeed. He became a lawyer, then years later he went to nursing school. I’m far from the only one who’s traveled a circuitous route to doing what they love.
JS: You’ve seen a lot of kids over 20 years. How have they changed?
MB: Shorter attention spans, definitely. We’re constantly battling social media – meaning they’re always connected. It’s easier for them to cheat. They expect teachers to be entertaining. The positive side of this is that they’re more creative in other ways and quicker on the technical stuff, like visuals in papers and using multimedia to bring their work to life.
JS: Is teaching what you were meant to do?
MB: It’s in my comfort zone. I think I could’ve been a book editor as well. I’m constantly editing students’ papers. I keep telling kids: “Your total presentation counts. It’s a very competitive world. Don’t always go for the expected. Do something to stand out. You could be saying the best thing in the world, but if your grammar and writing style are horrible, nobody will pay attention.”