Long-time teachers on the verge of retirement share their thoughts on what they’ve learned and life after the classroom
By Philip Moscovitch
Tobias Beale sits at his kitchen table sipping coffee, eating a bowl of cereal, and looking out the window at the fishing boats moored in Boutilier’s Cove. Among the papers spread out over the table there is a slim folder marked “Retirement.” I ask what’s in it.
“All the bits of paper you’re not supposed to lose,” he says.
Beale is a friend and neighbour, and he taught music to all three of my children. When he was a young jazz musician in Ottawa, he never imagined he’d one day find himself at the tail end of a teaching career. Heck, he didn’t even go to university until he was 27. His first teaching job was in Labrador and he got hired despite not having a teaching degree. Since then, he’s taught French, math, health, fine arts, and English. But for the last decade or so he’s focused on his first love: teaching students junior high band.
One of the lessons he’s learned—he says it took him a while—is the value of being organized.
“On the whole, kids respond better when their teachers are really organized in their own thoughts about what they want to teach and how to get there,” Beale says.
The other key lesson? Being honest and genuine.
“Basically, if you go in there and you’re not completely genuine they’ll call you on it. Or they start shutting down… Not that many people [have jobs where they] have to stand close to the fire every day and figure out whether they’re being truthful or not.”
Yvette d’Entremont, who retired a year ago, agrees. She worries that younger teachers are overloaded with administrative work and have a harder time developing their own classroom identities.
“Put a lot of yourself into your teaching. Nobody else can be you,” she advises. “The students need to know who you are.”
Being Attuned Emotionally
Theresa George is retiring at the end of this year, after 31 years at North River Elementary, near Truro.
But she says some of the most important lessons she learned came at her first job, during the early 1980s. Fresh out of university, she got hired to teach on the Poplar River First Nation in Manitoba. The experience stayed with her for the rest of her career.
“I am probably a more understanding and accepting teacher because I lived in a community where I was a minority, and I felt welcomed,” George says of that first experience. “It’s always made me grateful and somewhat humble, and that’s a lesson I’ve taken with me to my classroom.”
George, who spent the last five years of her career juggling teaching and being vice-principal, says one of the biggest changes she’s seen is a recognition of the many ways kids learn, and of the challenges they face.
“One day, I was working with a little boy and he was struggling with something. And he said, ‘You know what? If you just give me a little more time, I’m going to get it.’ We’re teaching kids to be more of their own personal advocates and inclusive education has brought about a lot of that change,” she says.
Beale says he’s also learned to pay more attention to the emotional needs of students, especially those who may be struggling quietly, like he did when he was in school.
“There’s an awful lot of stress with the students. Some of my teaching shifted to emotional content, and I found often I would end up with a student breaking down, usually stressed from something happening at home. What they really needed was to be told they’re doing all right, things are difficult, but it will be OK. So I started watching for that. What are they coming in with emotionally?”
For Karen Johnston-Hutchins, that’s a key question. She started her career back in 1987, and since then has worked in more than six schools, teaching elementary, junior-high drama and English, and working as a principal. Since 2011 she’s been the guidance counsellor at Sackville High.
Asked about the biggest changes she’s seen, she talks more about commonalities: the recurring social challenges that hinder children and have for decades.
“Schools are just a reflection of what goes on in society. And so poverty and inequality are huge problems,” she says. “I think our society needs to do a lot more in supporting parents and young families. People can only work with what they have and what they know. If they didn’t grow up with a lot of great parenting strategies, they’re not going to naturally know how to do that. And you know, nobody really teaches them.”
Beale says students with support learn better. “They’re more likely to be engaged if they feel comfortable and happy than if they feel criticized and pressured.”
Johnston-Hutchins takes a similar approach, one that applies equally well outside the classroom. She says, “I really believe in treating everyone with kindness. They say people will forget what you’ve said to them, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel. That’s paramount in life. If you’re kind to people and you smile at them and you do your best to try to help them out, even if you’re not giving them the best news or they might not like your answer, I think that really helps. But families need so much more than what we are able to give them. I don’t blame the education system. I look at society and say this is bigger than education.”
The Social Side
Every teacher interviewed for this story has thought about how to maintain a level of social contact after they retire.
Schools are a lot more sociable than many workplaces. Teachers are with other people all day long. And unlike most other workplaces, many of those people are children and teens.
“One of the things I’m very aware of is that a lot of my contact with the world is with 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15-year-olds, so much so that speaking with an adult is kind of a novelty,” Beale says. “It is very social. Am I worried about that? Yeah. That’s one of the things that causes me anxiety about retirement.”
George is expecting her first grandchild this summer, so that should keep her busy, but she is also planning to volunteer or maybe take on a non-teaching part-time job.
Beale is still a working musician, so he hopes to devote more time to playing, an activity he says is “sometimes” social.
A year after her retirement, d’Entremont says she found she missed “sharing a piece of myself with the students.” So, she became a dramatic-arts consultant, teaching workshops that pass on her knowledge of producing large-scale school dramas.
And as for Johnston-Hutchins, she’s had her retirement plan in place for a few years. She has set up a part-time private counselling practice and plans “to be moving into that pretty much full-time once I retire.” That will allow her to continue doing the same kind of work, but she still worries a bit about the social side. She says her practice “will help me ease out of the public system, but I will really miss the social part of my job: being around students and families and the staff. So that’ll be a big change for me.”
Regardless of post-retirement plans, none of the teachers Our Children spoke to were slowing down in their final months. But the awareness of that final bell coming can still feel a bit surreal. George says, “It’s getting a little bit more like crunch time. And I really and truly am not sure how I’m going to put one foot in front of the other to walk out the door.”
In more than three decades of teaching, the biggest change Yvette d’Entremont saw in her classroom was the most disheartening one: a decline in speaking French.
d’Entremont, who retired last year, taught elementary and high school for the CSAP, the province’s French-language school board, in Southwest Nova Scotia. But despite the board’s growing enrollment, she’s worried about the future.
While she says she was “lucky to have worked with so many wonderful students who always gave me 100 per cent,” she is concerned about a trend she saw in her last few years: fewer students actually speaking French.
“There is less of a population that speaks French because of all the amalgamation and assimilation. We’re a minority anyway in Nova Scotia, but the world of social media and access to it has become more and more anglicized,” she says. “There is less of a population of young people proud of their background. They associate it with something old. So we’re speaking less and less French at home, and it’s reflected in the schools. When you have kids who can’t think in French it becomes really hard to get them to write and speak in French.”
Last year, she came back to substitute teach a Grade 10 French class, but was disheartened with all the English she heard. She hasn’t been back. Instead, she’s drawing on her passion and experience as a drama teacher, freelancing as a dramatic arts consultant for schools, helping them encourage French expression through theatrical productions.