(Photo source: Lesly Juarez on Unsplash)
After 40 years, 35 of them overseas, I decided my time in schools was up. I walked out the door on my final workday and, as I had done each June since 1986, I hopped on a plane.
Airport arrivals and departures provide familiar markers in the overseas careers of my wife and me. I vividly remember our 2:00 AM arrival in New Delhi, our first international school job. We exited the chaotic airport with suitcases stacked high on overloaded carts and entered the mid-July 1985 nighttime, swallowed by the monsoon humidity, an oppressive blanket of stifling air. My senses were on high alert. Thirty-four summers later, in 2019, we exited our last school in Johannesburg, South Africa and our three decades of work in international schools came to a close. Distinctly etched in memory, both our arrival in New Delhi and our departure from Johannesburg stand as bookends to decades of memories. At one end, we entered as a wide-eyed and newly married couple ready to embrace experiences, wherever they would lead. On the other end, we exited as a “mature” and reflective couple preparing to be baptized into the world of retirement. Between those airport bookends exists a bookcase of shelves full of chapters, stories of a career, moments of family, and a collection of experiences from around the globe. It was rich and joyful and rewarding and, now, it was over.
When I exited the American International School of Johannesburg (AISJ) campus in June 2019 with a casual wave to the security guards at the gate, after the usual intense sprint to the finish of the school year, my career arrived at a dead stop. No commitments remained, responsibilities finished, intense work one day, done the next. It was abrupt and odd. The unknown path of retirement loomed ahead. It was a temporarily numbing experience, an emotional void, and trepidation of the unknowns. We were officially unemployed and inexperienced with the unfamiliar world of retirement. We knew we needed one step at a time toward building new chapters.
In the 40 months since that moment, my wife and I, two re-patriated, Medicare-subscribing former educators, have been busy. I am grateful and humbled by my very privileged life and the gift of time
But, what of the world of work I left behind? I find myself surprised at how easy it has been to disengage from my previous life, one that brought extraordinary pleasure and challenge but is now relegated to a collection of memories resting upon my shelves. A large part of my personal foundation and identity was my work as an educator.
To say I “loved” my work as a teacher and principal sounds cliché. I experienced immeasurable satisfaction from the hundreds of teachers and administrative colleagues with whom I worked over the years. I felt joy from student contact while seeking to impact their world as a role model and constructing positive learning environments. While the day-to-day leadership challenges as a school principal were sometimes frustrating and challenging, I never lost faith in the educators with whom I worked.
I gave of myself for 40 years as an educator, and I see retirement as a time to step back from giving and giving and giving of myself. But all that giving, all that work with people, helped define me. How, without it, do I now define myself? There is much to consider about gracefully stepping into retirement.
When I was a graduate student in the late 80s, in my “Perspectives on the Principalship” seminar, I was drawn to readings and a discussion about the stages of adult development. As an educator, I understood the stages of child development but the idea that adults continue evolving was interesting to consider. At various stages of one’s life cycle, the openness to learning and the personal needs of adults can vary. This makes great sense to me at present. I think my ego is in a better place today than a decade or two ago. The need to define my relevance is less necessary. As I build a set of shelves for my retirement experiences, I am in a different “space.” Same bookcase but with distinct shelves, a section unto itself for my 65 and over years!
Many retirees find satisfaction and relevance through building, making, and fixing stuff. They love do-it-yourself (DIY) house projects. This is not me, but I admire their skills. Despite minimal household DIY projects, I find myself busy, active, and involved. My transition to retirement has been a positive journey. It’s been a journey into a world in which I’ve created experiences. I’ve made deliberate decisions to build upon those experiences. As I think about the past 40 months, and I think about my decisions and actions, a few themes come to mind which guide and impact my retirement decisions: Acceptance
Accepting that the pace of life will change as will sources of joy and inspiration. During a lifetime of work, my scheduled life began at schools early in the morning each and every day. As a principal, I was the first in the building and the last to leave. I rarely missed a day. My loosely scheduled life at present is both a privileged joy but also a challenge as my capacity for procrastination has not diminished in retirement. A major source of satisfaction in my life came from my work. Satisfaction is now drawn from other sources. Intentionality
Making decisions with intentionality and purpose. My wife and I were very deliberate in choosing the mountains of North Carolina, U.S.A. as our landing spot. We sought a location that ticked important boxes for us. We’ve been intentional in pursuing experiences and new relationships in the region, even when it required stepping out of our comfort zone. Openness
Living with an openness to what arises in your path. This includes allowing opportunities for new people to enter your life. Moving to a new city has allowed my wife and me to make new friends. This particular city of Asheville has a large number of older (mature) citizens, many of whom have recently moved here. Friendships take time and shared experiences. Over the past 40 months, I have found myself in a men’s book group, a writing group, a weekly golf partnership, a biking group, and regular tennis matches. Interests
Nurturing interests and revisiting dormant interests that need a “jump start.” I’ve rediscovered my guitar and pursued lessons, initiated a family history writing project, enrolled in writing workshops, and volunteered in a mentoring program at the university in Asheville. We all have personal interests that, with the gift of time, are possible to pursue. For me, they nurture important needs around creativity and curiosity.
I accept that my career is over and the joys it brought me are merely memories stacked on shelves. My baskets fill differently through new friendships, physical activities, creative endeavors, and a loving partnership with my wife. The gift of time allows opportunities to chase new experiences. I admit that I miss both the ability to impact an organization and the opportunities provided by aspects of my overseas educator life. Thirty-five years between five international schools and five rich and diverse countries experiencing rice paddies and beaches of Bali, dusty safaris and sunsets on Southern Africa plains, drumbeats and dancing in Ghana, thousands of years of history in Israel, and the incredible world that is India. What an amazing world it is out there. My bookshelves are full.
But ultimately, I’ll need new shelves for new experiences. I’ve had to dive into a new phase of life and I’m adjusting. I’ve had to make things happen for myself. With great satisfaction and a humbled spirit, my retirement months have brought smooth sailing and a high degree of happiness. I’ll need to find additional room in my bookcase for more remarkable, important, intimate, and personal memories as my life’s continuum and my personal development evolves. All I need to do is embrace it and, of course, I’ll need to find a DIY person to build those new shelves for my expanding bookcase.
Geoff Smith is a veteran of 35 years as an overseas educator in India, Israel, Indonesia, Ghana, and South Africa. He spent three years as a tech coordinator at the American Embassy School, Delhi, four years as a vice principal at the American International School, Israel, 17 years as a tech coordinator and vice principal/principal at Jakarta Intercultural School, Indonesia, five years at Lincoln Community School in Accra, Ghana, and four years as a high school principal at the American International School of Johannesburg, South Africa. He holds a B.S. from the University of Michigan and an Ed.M. from Harvard. He retired in 2019 and still considers his Principals' Training Center experiences of the early 90s as outstanding professional development!