Sometimes people share a meme online where they ask, “What would you be doing if you’d fulfilled your childhood dream for when you grew up?” Mine is the most boring answer: exactly this. I never wanted to (or was qualified to, really) do anything but teach and write. I decided in about Grade 2 or 3 that I wanted to be a teacher, and it’s not a decision I’ve ever questioned or doubted. I’ve had a couple of rough years teaching and a lot of really, really great ones. I’ve liked every job I ever had and absolutely loved the one I was in the longest. But all good things come to an end.
My first day of teaching was, I think, September 2 or 3, 1986. I don’t remember anything about that day, although I know I was terrified at facing several classrooms full of high school students. I was a few days shy of my 21st birthday, teaching in Ontario where they still had Grade 13; several students were my age and two were older. I had no fear of public speaking, but a tremendous terror that I would open my mouth to “teach” and absolutely nobody would listen or pay attention — because, really, why should they?
My last day of teaching was, I guess, technically June 24, 2021. I probably saw one or two students — somebody dropping by to return a textbook, no doubt. I saw a few graduating students who came in to pick up their grad gift and get a photo op, since we still couldn’t do our usual big event for our grads this year. I definitely chatted with a few students online, people getting last minute assignments in, or people who wanted to know their grade on that final quiz.
In the 35 years since I started teaching at Kingsway College in Oshawa that fall of 1986, I’ve spent 27 of those years in front of a classroom of one kind or another. The last 16 years have been spent in the best teaching job (for my particular skill set) imaginable: teaching high school-level English and Social Studies to adult learners at The Murphy Centre.
I’ve loved teaching, but never intended to be one of those people (like at least two of my former co-workers) to work until I literally dropped. I always knew someday I’d have a “last day” as a teacher. I just thought it would be more … more of a milestone; I guess.
I’ve posted here on the blog twice before about leaving my classroom. In 2019, I took a semester off to focus on some writing projects, which was a fun and valuable thing to do, but I came away from it knowing I wasn’t ready (either personally or financially) to give up teaching just yet. So I went back in Fall 2019 fully intending to put in a few more good years of teaching before retirement. Then in March 2020, like teachers everywhere, I packed up my classroom on a day’s notice and moved to online learning as we adjusted to a world where “pandemic” and “lockdown” were parts of our everyday vocabulary.
Since then, we’ve never really gone back to “normal.” We’ve done part-time hybrid learning, with students in class some days and online others, and then we had another lockdown in February-April 2021, and when the high schools went back to full-time in-class learning in April (but the college whose property we’re located on stayed mostly online) we decided to continue with online learning, with an added option for students to come in individually or in small groups for one-on-one learning with their instructors as needed.
So, long story short, I’ve been teaching every school day since mid-March 2020, but I’ve never had another “normal” school day with a full group of students in the classroom. My last normal day in the classroom was March 13, 2020, and I had no idea there was anything special or important about it.
Late last fall, I learned that a colleague in a non-teaching part-time position was retiring. I’ve always thought her job was a pretty cool one, so I applied for it and, eventually, got it. This wasn’t all decided until the very end of school in June, and, as I said, I wasn’t having normal classes with students at that point anyway, just online contact and drop-in meetings. So I packed up my classroom pretty much in solitude, got rid of a LOT of paper accumulated over the last 16 years, and moved my stuff down the hall where I am, for the first time in my adult life, 1) working during July and August, and 2) working in an actual office.
I’m excited about the new job. My title is “intake co-ordinator,” which involves interviewing the people who apply to come to the Murphy Centre and following them through the process (which can involve seeking funding to go back to school, requiring additional assessment, getting referred to or working with other agencies — there’s a lot of pieces to this puzzle and I’m here to help applicants navigate them). It’s kind of a combo of both a counselling and an admin-type role, and really fits my skills well. It’s part-time, and although I don’t have all of July and August off, I do have something a teaching job has never offered me — flexibility about when I can take my holidays, so I can travel at other times of the year (you know, when I can travel again at all). There’s no course planning and no homework to grade, so it’ll be a job that starts when I walk into the office and ends when I walk out — another thing I’ve never had in 27 years of teaching.
All in all, the new job feels like it will be a really good fit, and a great transition between teaching and eventual retirement: I’ll still be working at the place I love with the people I like working with, still having a lot of one-on-one contact with students, but with a different set of responsibilities. This feels like the right time in my life to make this transition, and I have always thought it’s a good idea to quit doing things while you’re still enjoying them.
Yes, there are courses I’d like the chance to teach again — I’m continually refining curriculum as I think of better ways to do it — but I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m passing on that torch to someone younger and equally capable. At an age when most teachers here in NL have already retired thanks to our 30-and-out pension scheme for public school teachers (which I can’t avail of because I’m not in the public school system), it feels right to be making this move.
All that assurance, that gut feeling that I’m making a good career move for me, doesn’t, of course, erase that slightly empty feeling when I pass my now-empty classroom (soon to be my coworker Lisa’s classroom — another thing that makes the transition easier is knowing that someone great is taking my teaching position). And end of an era, even when it ends well, is still an ending, and there’s a weight of feeling that comes with it.
My biggest regret is that I never had a proper “last day.” I always assumed that when my teaching career ended, there’d be a day I could walk into my classroom knowing it was my last day. I’d tell my students how much I’ve enjoyed teaching them, both them as individuals and them as representatives of the hundreds of teenagers and young adults I’d taught over 27 classroom years. I’d tell them that I was moving on to other things, and thank them for all I’d learned from them (which has probably always been greater than anything they’ve learned from me). Particularly in this adult-education environment where I’ve taught for the last 16 years, I would tell my students how I’m constantly amazed at their courage and persistence, at how hard they work to overcome the barriers that kept them from getting an education, at their determination to move forward despite all obstacles. I would tell them how they’ve inspired me. I might shed a few tears, and although I’m not a hugger, I might even have made exceptions for a few hugs.
The COVID changes of the last year robbed me of that last day, as the pandemic and its changes have robbed so many of us of the milestones we expected to mark our lives by. Compared to people who couldn’t sit at a loved one’s deathbed or watch a family member’s wedding, my loss has been pretty small — but it’s a real one, and it’s mine. I wanted my last day, and I felt cheated by not having it.
Rituals, milestones, first and last days — these things matter. They’re the mile markers of our lives, and perhaps writing this blog post is my replacement for a “real” last day milestone. I’m moving on, but not without a backward glance.