The Retirement Speech I Never Gave


Retiring teachers are allowed to say some closing words to their colleagues on the last day of their teaching careers at the last faculty meeting of the year. This was the speech I wrote the night before, had folded in my pocket, but decided at the last moment not to give. I felt people were tired of my constant negativity and oft-expressed frustration at administrative policy. Truth is, I was just as frustrated with my own colleagues who seemed to shrug instead of organizing and fighting for their profession. I look at the sad regression in just the three years since I retired and I now wish I had given the speech.

“Sage on the Stage” is a term that galls me. It’s supposed to be a denigrating reference to teachers who do nothing more than stand behind their podiums and lecture. The user of this phrase has “moved past outdated pedagogy” which is educator speak favoring the latest educational fad: assessment literacy, which emphasizes a teacher’s classroom methodology, not their mastery of their subject. Student opinion is valued as highly as anything a teacher could possibly say. Fail a test? Take it again! The burden for student success is all on the teacher – none on the student. How long does it take students to understand this and exploit it? Maybe five minutes. Pathetic.

Terry Cox was a colleague who retired five or six years before I did. He was amazing.

Andy Klamm was a brilliant young AP Chem teacher at our school whose contract was not renewed after his second year due siimply to the fact that his department chair didn’t like him. Students, parents and colleagues rallied around him to no avail. There were an unprecedented two public forums held by the Board for the purpose of allowing community input after the uproar caused by his announced departure. For over two hours, eloquent, impassioned testimonials poured forth from the community’s best parents and students without one single negative comment against him. The Board voted the next week to release him upon the recommendation of his department chair and our principal. He was quickly hired at Niles West HS where he will benefit their community for probably the rest of his teaching career. Most boneheaded move I’ve ever witnessed by our Board of Education. It spoke to a larger issue I felt for most of my years at DGN: that teachers were seen as an interchangeable commodity, having the same value as a desk. No concept of the “gift” of teaching. The department chair who urged his release? She’s now the principal of one of the Chicago area’s more prestigious Catholic high schools. The principal who backed her decision? She’s retired. And three years later our community already has forgotten the vacuum created by his absence. So it goes in an above-average school district that should be so much better than it is. (Come to think of it, isn’t this what teaching and coaching is? A recognition of possibilities and inspiring students to reach above what they might otherwise settle for? I feel that I achieved that a number of times with students, but was never able to break through the heavy barrier of mediocrity our district seems to think is just fine. We’re an above-average district without even trying. Think how good we could be.)

Retirement Speech – Clarence Johnson Auditorium – Downers Grove North High School – June, 2010

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m tired of listening to one “sage on the sage” after another drone on today about THEIR observations and feelings. This, after all, is a day that really belongs to YOU. After all, it’s YOUR last day, too.

So I thought it would be much better if we got into groups and had YOU speculate on what YOU might all be feeling on the day YOU retire. Wouldn’t that be more instructive than listening to actual retirees? Unfortunately, we’re not in the cafeteria whose natural “pods” would be so conducive to real learning, so I guess you’ll just have to bear with a podium pounder this one last time. I apologize in advance.

Ok, the truth is that as I have spent my career here rejecting the next educational wunder-fad that was foisted on us every three years, I probably rejected some things that were good for my students, but in doing so I was rejecting what I saw as a larger evil:  a growing assumption that somehow those fads are more important than the knowledge and personality I brought to my classroom. We’re told that’s not true, but if it’s not, then how come we never in my twenty years here were given a district inservice day to develop our content; to instruct each other in areas of our individual expertise which could be so helpful to our students? Why was that kind of inservice never pushed from the top? Does anybody remember the wonderful Curriculum Day instituted by Terry Cox and others? Does anybody wonder why it died?

The over-emphasis on method and the de-emphasis on content appears to draw on several assumptions: 1. That we either must not have been taught how to teach in college or figured out how to in our first years of teaching, and 2. more insidious, that how we arrange our chairs is somehow of greater importance than what we know in our field and more important than our developing our own personality in our own classroom. It results in an across-the-board robotic teaching methodology that might work for some, but certainly not for all, and which we should be rejecting but can’t because of our fear of being fired or getting letters in our file. Either because of the job market today or because today’s young teachers didn’t live the 60s where some brave souls actually stood up for what they believed and damned the consequences, the culture of fear in our building now is unlike anything I’ve seen in my years here. And this was before Andy Klamm was unhired.

Speaking of Andy, District 99 has now defined what a good teacher isn’t. I hope for all of your untenured sakes that they quickly define what they feel a good teacher is. And if it’s the definition I fear it is, I just hope they advertise it loudly to the community so the parents can determine if this is the brave new world of education they want for their children.

We’re having the message foisted on us by perhaps well-meaning people that if we can just find the magic bullet for reaching our students, then they’ll surely learn.

The not-so-subtle message is that it’s WE who are responsible for students who refuse to learn; that it’s WE who are responsible for the academic success of students who are texting each other all night long. That’s certainly the drum the politicians and press are beating. And of course, the courts have mandated that we educate every student.

So what’s the responsibility of the student? What’s the penalty for a student who fails? Re-take the test until you pass. How are students penalized for scoring low on the PSAE? They’re not… WE are.

And of course, we dare not hold parents responsible for any part of their child’s education. After all, they might sue us. And win. Or worse yet, vote against us in November.

So we watch the emperor parade past in his new clothes, and we praise him loudly for his wardrobe. And, as in the fable, the kids aren’t fooled. They are as clever as ever at gaming whatever system they can.

I have watched the morale of teachers in my district ebb in serious ways over the past twenty years. Our morale got so bad that at one point Lois and I left the district. Was it this way everywhere, we wondered? Our answer from the two different schools we taught at in that year: a resounding “NO”, and we came back knowing it wasn’t US that was nuts.

Somehow, we’re no longer “faculty”; we’re staff. Which is ok, but then aren’t the administrators also staff? Or is there a reason for the Great Divide?

We asked for help with our mounting debt of precious time. What did we get? PLCs. It was a cruel trick. Every minute of PLC time is carefully groomed and mostly geared toward assessment literacy and curriculum revision. Growing up in San Diego, a navy town, during the Vietnam war, I came to associate military-type acronyms with not only increased inefficiency, but with a dying cause.

We bow to the Golden Calf of the almighty standardized test.

We grovel at the feet of No Child Left Behind or whatever its being called this year, in my opinion, not because we believe in it, but for the funding necessary to run our schools. And we have faculty members who say, “Well, there you go.”

We’re scared for our jobs in an economy that sees failed business people flocking to our “easy” profession and lining up by the thousand for every job opening.

We arrive at 7:40 and the halls echo at 3:41.

We don’t attend school activities to see students who fail in our classrooms shine in the extracurricular area in which they do excel.

We scrabble to get as many cheap, fast grad hours as possible toward our Masters plus 60.

We no longer eat together and we have watched the quality of the food in our faculty cafeteria mirror its quality of life.

We go through our day not communicating with any faculty member outside our own department. We have no idea what other departments are doing, and we see no effort on the part of administrators to bring us together.

Can anybody remember the last REAL faculty meeting? That would be one where faculty are all together in one place and allowed to freely question and discuss the merits of the slick powerpoint that’s just been presented. A faculty whose opinion mattered.

When DGEA attempts to create a community, the attempts are now uniformly rejected – by the membership! Non-tenured teachers dare not be seen at a DGEA event, and as you can see by the numbers of us up here today there will be a lot more untenured teachers next year.

We’re no longer a community.

To my colleagues who years ago would tell me, “There’s nothing I can do about it, so I just shut my door and teach to my room,” I say to you, look what’s happened to our profession with that philosophy.

It’s not too late. We’re better than this. We are teachers. We are the most important profession on earth. We are the ones who will be in the building long after the administrators have taken their golden parachutes and been hired again in another state. We the Teachers are the only ones who can stand up to what’s happening. If we want to. If we see it.

And when we are allowed to express our own personalities and display our own knowledge, and to hold students and their parents accountable for their failures, and to be rewarded, not punished or fired, for doing so, then watch what happens to our morale. And not coincidentally, our test scores.

Having said that, it has been a privilege to serve the parents and children of this community and district, and my country, as a FACULTY member at Downers Grove North High School. I spent fifteen years as a college soccer coach before figuring out that I was born to be a high school teacher. My father was a Scots-Irish Presbyterian minister with a temper. I vowed never to be like him. One of my uncles was a pastor; the other was the math department chair at Garden City High School in NY. Two of my three siblings are teachers.

The list of people to whom I want to express my thanks and appreciation is long. I would be remiss in not mentioning a few, starting with Mr. John Rindone, my high school Civics teacher, who loved telling stories. We loved listening.

My sister, Virginia, for encouraging me to get my teaching certificate along with my history degree because who knew – someday I might want to become a teacher.

Dave Jacobs, my first department chair, who governed us paternally, chastising when necessary, but always in a loving spirit.

Gary Mitchell, my current department chair, who did his level best over the years to allow his teachers to just simply teach and who respected those who did.

The too many of you to mention with whom I have laughed, cried, raved out upon, talked politics with, collaborated with, shared beer with, but mostly just been with in the beehive of what we all do every day.

Alaine Wenzler, our REAL department chair, whose sweet spirit and gentle laugh will never be forgotten.

Adam Basile and his horrifyingly lousy jokes which made me laugh ALMOST every time at the end of a long day. And Sasi and Ed and Chick and Tony and Al and Jackie and all the rest who make this building really run. Even good old Roy and his betting pool which drove Fritz nuts.

Sharie Linsner – where would I have been without her unfailingly violating her own posted deadlines time and again on behalf of one who was always running five minutes behind schedule. Never once in twenty years did I hear a rebuke from her lips.

I’m proud to have known both Chris Tomek and Joel Kapitaniuk, for years prior to their coming to DGN, and hope that my recommendation helped them more than hurt them get jobs here. And it was Matt Formato and Barry Jacobsen at South who were instrumental in convincing the district that a college soccer coach really might care about teaching history.

Finally, how grateful must I be to a school district that has given me not only a career but a wife. I’m not the only one in the room who can say this. From the time I first realized I was attracted to Lois and passed her that note in the hallway, to this present moment, I can only poorly express my feelings for her and our enjoyment of every minute together. We will celebrate sixteen years of married life next month, and many of you here shared that wonderful day in 1994 when colleague Chuck Gosling presided over our wedding. There will be a hole in both our lives come September. I don’t think there’s a time I didn’t walk past her room without looking in. Jack Nicholson said it best to Helen Hunt in As Good as It Gets: “You make me want to be a better man.”

I would like to share several quotes upon leaving:

The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be the beginning.  ~Ivy Baker Priest

Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.  ~Kahlil Gibran

Don’t cry because it’s over.  Smile because it happened.  ~Theodor Seuss Geisel, attributed

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.” – Charles Dickens

“The man who had received the five talents brought the other five.  ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more. His lord said, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’ Matthew 25: 20-21


About robertwallacegraham

Retired high school teacher, curmudgeon, soccer coach, bicyclist, etc. etc.
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