Guest Column

Going Back to School … at Age 62

by DENNIS W. KELLISON

I started thinking seriously about retirement about three years ago, even though I had just renewed my contract to be superintendent for another four years and the board was supportive of our efforts.

Something was pulling at me that it was time to move on to something else. It was an undefined something else.

I had been a public educator for 40 years, the last 20 as a superintendent in three different school divisions in Virginia. It had been a fantastic career with many more highs than lows, but as many people told me, you will know when "it is time," and I began to realize I was at that point -- ready to retire from K-12 education.

I wanted to do something different, in or out of education, but wasn't sure what that endeavor might look or feel like. As I talked with my wife about retiring and what the afterlife would bring, she said, "You have some unfinished business, don't you?" I knew immediately she was referencing my deepest personal regret -- my failure to complete a doctoral program. I had made a couple of false starts earlier but abandoned them for various reasons.

Could she be serious? Here I am, 62 years old, and she's suggesting I go back to school to get a degree I no longer need for career advancement. I would likely be 65 before completing a doctorate. What could she be thinking -- perhaps plotting a way to get me out of the house? I had begun compiling a to-do list for basement and garage cleaning, and since we also have a vacation house, I could do those tasks twice. But what else should be on my list? I was sure there were other ways I could "help her."

Intimidating Remark
The idea of going back to school floated around in my mind. I had done some adjunct teaching in a couple of master's programs and enjoyed it. Maybe returning to school as a student would sharpen my skills and knowledge for future teaching. For 40 years I had espoused the notion of all adults being lifelong learners. Why not me too?

Shenandoah University, located in Winchester, Va., where I live, had a well-designed doctoral program in organizational leadership that some of our administrative staff in the school district had completed with favorable experiences. I decided to give it a try.

In spring 2009 I announced my retirement and told the school board and local press I was going back to school! With it now public, I had no choice. The pressure was on, and I had to enroll. Reactions differed widely among friends, family and colleagues, ranging from "Are you crazy?" to well wishes. The most intimidating and challenging comment came from a fellow superintendent: "So now you can learn how you were supposed to do the job."

This remark was meant, I think, to be a joke, but it instilled the most fear in me. The realization hit me that I was going to be challenged to learn, reflect on past experiences, and recognize my weaknesses and mistakes. What was it going to be like to be in a classroom with other students who were 20 to 40 years younger?

I harbored many doubts but jumped in full force in fall 2009 with my first two courses, organizational theory and behavior, and multivariate statistics. The adventure was just beginning.

By the end of this spring, I will have finished all required course work and be working on a dissertation. The experience has been fantastic. I read things I never would have encountered. I have to write about what I am reading or hearing discussed. The writing is analyzed, and I am forced to be coherent in my thoughts and arguments. I have learned to listen to others in a different way, a process that has challenged my own thinking about past and current issues in education.

Personally Renewed
With the age gap in the classroom came an experience gap that was not always to my advantage. I have the extensive experience, but the other students bring a fresh look to new and old problems to which I was blinded. Some students possess a positive naivete that leads them to attack problems in a novel way. In addition, they bring their own experiences in a context other than mine.

The faculty at Shenandoah have been outstanding in both the delivery of their course content and directing our learning. On one hand, they have recognized my experience and workplace knowledge, yet they made certain I was exposed to new learning and challenged to reflect upon my past experiences with a critical eye. I have become a learner instead of a know-it-all.

While most of us earn a doctoral degree early in our careers and use the knowledge to perform our jobs and advance up the ladder, I have it backward. I do not necessarily recommend the backward approach, but, if offered the opportunity, I say take it.

It may sound trite to say the work has been challenging, but it has been. More accurately, it has been stimulating. I am truly beginning to feel refreshed and renewed as an educator and as a person. I no longer feel I am at the end of my career but rather just at another stage, and I have more to offer my chosen profession.

Dennis Kellison, a retired superintendent, is a doctoral student in organizational leadership at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va. E-mail: dwkellison@gmail.com