The Retirement Dinner
His name was William Thomson, known as Bill. He was a teacher of French in a small secondary school in the Highlands of Scotland. This was a job which, over the course of some thirty-five years, had gradually but quite relentlessly taken over his life (in common with most teachers) as he devoted his time to organising lessons, events and trips, produced materials, reports and test papers, considered and developed teaching strategies and techniques, even performed at charity concerts, and of course lost countless hours of sleep due to anxiety and an obsessive desire to do right by his pupils.
Now, somewhat to his astonishment, he was about to stand up before his colleagues to deliver his retirement speech.
He had looked forward to “escaping” for the last couple of years as the constant flow of dubious changes, questionable initiatives, pressure to justify just about every action he took, and the general daily grind seemed ever more intense, while the prospect of retirement offered a chink of light at the end of the tunnel and the thought of just saying “no more” was ever more appealing.
He had, of course, joked about the prospect of retirement for many years – if a pupil took an inordinate length of time to answer a question, he would remind them that he was due to retire in nineteen, then fifteen, then ten years and so on.
Now, at his own retiral “do”, as he was about to say his farewells to his colleagues, it was all of a sudden real, imminent and somewhat disconcerting.
Naturally, in the run-up to “the end”, many people had asked him about his plans for the future and he always jokingly answered that he was so preoccupied by thoughts of all the things he wanted to see come to a halt that he had never actually considered what he would do with his time and energy in the (now very near) future.
Joking though he was, it was actually the truth – immediate issues such as finding strategies to deal with that potentially difficult third year class, coaxing some senior pupils through their dreaded speaking assessments, adapting an exercise to make French grammar amusing and engaging at least to some extent, and dealing with a few poor wee souls whose difficult home circumstances were affecting their school work – all these things had indeed diverted his attention from the more personal and increasingly pressing matter of just what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
Discussion of this issue consisted largely of inane platitudes such as vague talk of travel, increased correspondence with friends and family, and regular trips to the cinema. The truth was he had given scant consideration to his future as he was too preoccupied dealing with issues in his present.
Then there was the small matter of his speech.
He had attended numerous retiral events and, in search of inspiration, he recalled the variety of tones and content of the speeches he heard at them. One or two were virtually scathing in their indictment of the direction in which they thought education was going (goodness only knows what they’d make of the present system!). Another colleague was remarkable in his brevity and conciseness - after hearing a couple of speeches in which his praises were loudly sung, and in the presence of many admiring colleagues, the retiree stood, said “Thank you”, and promptly sat down again! Then there was the colleague who stood, announced his year of birth and went on to provide a year by year account of his personal development and career. He took twenty minutes to arrive at the end of the Second World War!
So, these approaches had been done and Bill didn’t want to repeat others’ style – he wanted something that suited him, and then he remembered a quote from actor James Stewart who reportedly said that the best films were made up of “moments”. Bill thought that this notion applied equally to careers and indeed life itself, so he decided to recount some of his most memorable and cherished memories of his time at the school before simply thanking his colleagues for their support, camaraderie and friendship over the years.
Preparing the speech brought back many memories that had been buried in time and the process lent a focus and clarity to events, feelings and reflections. Bill had always been so immersed in the moment and his immediate concerns that he failed to perceive the bigger picture, but now, on reflection, he perceived patterns which perhaps only existed in his own mind, but which it pleased him to think might attest to some kind of overall purpose and even a modicum of success.
Bill’s working life for the last thirty-five years had been dominated by routine, duty, preparation, caring, supporting pupils and colleagues, but also camaraderie, mutual support and ceaseless humour in the face of adversity (on the part of both staff and pupils), all of which helped Bill get through some difficult times both professionally and personally. But all of this was within the context of his working environment, and within the next few days that entire framework would be gone. If the truth be told, Bill was somewhat unsure of the future largely because he was shortly going to gain that for which he had so long pined – his freedom, and he was none too sure of how he was going to handle it.
At one point, Bill even wondered if he was doing the right thing by retiring. However, he quickly disabused himself of that notion by recalling a few of the negative features of his working life:
Waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.
Anxiety over the content and delivery of lessons.
Further (and perhaps more profound) anxiety over exam results.
The unpredictability of behaviour (pupils and staff!).
The feeling that whatever you do is not enough or good enough.
The constant accountability, justification, analysis and demands.
Actually, however daunting the prospect might have been, freedom suddenly looked mighty attractive!
Applause from his colleagues upon his introduction stirred Bill from his reflection and he stood up to embark on the speech that was to sum up the last thirty-five years of his life.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is difficult to sum up in a few words the thoughts, feelings and experiences of some 35 years. The obvious thing is to discuss the changes I’ve seen in the education system in that time, but don’t worry – I’ll spare you that rant. However, I will tell you about my first observation.
Bear in mind what is involved in an observation today – a double-sided evaluation sheet incorporating at least 20 if not 30 elements. At the end of my first observed lesson the Assistant Head Ken Carlisle (who was responsible for probationers) approached and gave me his purely verbal feedback – “That was fine, Bill, but you might want to move the tables away from the wall”, and that was it. How things have changed ….. .
When starting out in teaching, it is essential to find your own style – you have to work out what works for you and your pupils, and you have to learn from your mistakes.
I would like to think I did learn from my mistakes, but sadly I have to confess I continue to make mistakes from which to learn.
For example, I learned that it is best to prepare in advance and not have to leave a class to collect some photocopying you’ve forgotten, giving the class time to set up a waste-paper bin filled with water above the classroom door which has been left ajar. This is particularly true if the depute rector decides to pop in to your room just ahead of you.
It’s best not to assume that parents will be able (or willing) to exercise control over their offspring. At one parents’ evening, a pupil and his father sat in front of me and the pupil held a polystyrene cup filled with tea. While I was speaking to this pupil, he bit a chunk out of the lip of the cup and proceeded to eat it. A little taken aback, I pointed out to the pupil, quite slowly and deliberately, and with something of an air of disbelief, “You’re eating the cup”, whereupon he took another bite. I looked at the father and again pointed out quite slowly and deliberately, still with an air of disbelief, “He’s eating the cup”, at which he looked at me and smiled, making a bizarre high-pitched sound while shrugging his shoulders which indicated agreement, amusement and a recognition of his complete inability to influence events.
It’s probably best not to physically remove a pen from a pupil’s mouth – even if he has arrived late, is under the influence of magic mushrooms and refuses to remove his pen when speaking to you. Physically removing the pen is particularly ill-advised if you consequently discover it is ridged and causes a distinct rattle of teeth while being removed.
It’s probably best not to inadvertently lock a pupil in your cupboard and leave him there during morning interval – even if that attention-seeking little devil had crawled his way across the room and sneaked in to the cupboard to try to access some exam papers and amuse his classmates.
There are many, many happy memories from the classroom, charity concerts, school trips and the staffroom, car sharing to get to work, even meetings – far too many to be able to share with you here tonight, but memories which I will cherish and may well go on to write about in my memoirs. Be afraid!
Although there are many happy memories, I have to say it hasn’t always been great.
There have been difficult and frustrating times both professionally and personally, and I think in teaching it is often difficult to separate the two, and it is during the more difficult times that I learned to appreciate and value the wisdom and camaraderie of my colleagues. At the risk of sounding like the theme song to “Neighbours”, it’s at those times you discover that good colleagues become good friends. Clearly, I worked most closely with my fellow languages teachers Liz and Clive over the years, but I would like to thank you ALL for your camaraderie, friendship and support.
I have frequently said that I have no luck – I rarely win anything, have no luck in cards and the only time I put a bet on the Grand National, my horse actually ran away before the start of the race.
However, I have come to rethink my position concerning luck. I met my wife Anne (aside to Anne - “that is what you wrote, isn’t it?), and I was lucky enough to find a job at Shiel Academy and have some of the best colleagues and pupils I could hope for, and I am now lucky enough to have been made redundant!
It has frequently been said there is something special about Shiel, and actually I don’t think it’s hard to define – it’s just not that common.
It’s about caring. Putting pupils first and wanting what’s best for them, but extending that attitude to colleagues. It’s about professionalism with humanity and I know that I have benefited greatly from that environment and I thank you most sincerely, past and present colleagues.
My experiences have not been restricted to the school itself - I have also participated in several trips and I’ve been to France, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Belgium, Italy, London and Edinburgh.
I’ve met many interesting people along the way – not just colleagues and pupils, but people like Alastair Burnett (news journalist), Tom Weir (TV presenter), Rudi Oppenheimer (Belsen survivor), Jon Lee (former member of S-Club 7), John Owen-Jones (Valjean in Les Misérables), and I scared the living daylights out of Gareth Gates!
I have sung, danced and presented events.
I did a year-long exchange with a teacher from France and taught English in Rennes.
I was a union rep for many years and delivered milk, tea and coffee for 17 years.
As a result of one trip I developed an interest in “Les Misérables”, and wrote a study guide which led to the creation of a website, which in turn led to making several hundred acquaintances on the internet.
The point is that working in a school is a two-way process and if it is felt that I have made a contribution to the life of the school, it is equally true that my life has been a product of Shiel Academy, and I thank you all for the contributions you have made to my life.
I wish you all the best for the future, but whatever that holds, please remember you are already getting it right.