The Gift Package of Retirement

Unwrapping and sorting the sundry choices once the career in school leadership concludes by Donald R. Draayer

Poet Robert Browning captures the best retirement mindset in the opening verse of “Rabbi Ben Ezra:”

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith, “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all,
Nor be afraid.

The hunger for significance in life never ends. What changes in our retirement is how we fill that need. My research into stories of retirees, included in my book Retirement Straight Talk: Stories and Wisdom of Educators, reveals that deeply held values do find new venues for release, service and immense satisfaction.

For most school administrators, introspection and investigation into possibilities for post-retirement years begin prior to one’s resignation; however, the intensity of thought, feeling, and deliberation moves to a much higher plane once life after the superintendency becomes reality.

Colleagues, friends and family ask probing questions such as: “What are you going to do now?” or “What are you up to these days?” Short answers usually suffice, but the underlying, a-priori questions for the retiree remain. “How do I wish to spend my remaining years on earth? How do I make a positive difference in the world now that I am retired?”

Every retiree provides answers — by design or default.

Distinct Options

Decision making for some superintendents is delayed by the glorious relief from heavy responsibilities. For others, there is discomfort with the unknown and the probing inquiries from self and by others. And almost always, retirees express surprise by the host of issues related to this transition because retirement is not a singular decision. It reshapes the whole landscape.

Early in my own retirement I listened to stories from retired educators, both long and short, to better prepare me for my own journey. Interviews with hundreds of retired superintendents, principals and educators have pointed to four distinct alternatives to the use of retirement time — although the choices are not mutually exclusive. These alternatives are:

  • pursuing personal interests;
  • continuing in the education field in a more limited capacity;
  • responding to opportunities in the private sector; and
  • hearkening to the call to community service.

Personal Pursuits

Personal interests that often are set aside or truncated by work ethic, office demands or political realities during one’s career become fully open to exploration, in-depth pursuit and enjoyment in retirement. No single pathway emerges because individual desires, vagaries of choice and personal imagination follow us into retirement.

More physical activity is common. Unrestricted by time and knowing the health benefits of exercise, many retirees enjoy more physical activity.

Hobbies come into full bloom for many in retirement because retirees face fewer time constraints. Also, school administrators usually have sufficient financial resources to follow through on their interests as long as good financial wisdom developed during career years is ongoing.

Retirees commonly report more travel. Many superintendents while under contract are reluctant to be gone for extended periods and some do not use all their vacation days. Retirement completely changes this picture, unless health concerns arise. Even then, travel options that are closer at hand or for shorter duration remain available.

No other personal interest in retirement is pursued with greater passion than additional time with grandchildren. Most retirees with families move these stories to the top of their interest list.

Educator Capacity

Retirement brings a new season in life, but severing the cord to the educational community need not be complete, at least for a time. Indeed, frequent career moves among multiple states or time off for child-rearing may preclude maximum retirement benefits so that some additional income during retirement years becomes more than welcome.

Superintendents and other school administrators have marketable skills, attitudes and experiences that are honed within educational settings. Educators make superb candidates for many education-related vacancies.

Teaching school leadership classes at a college or university on a full- or part-time basis is an excellent way to apply the practical knowledge gained from being on the front line for many years. These experiences can be put to good use in the preparation programs for aspiring school administrators, many of which seek current and retired superintendents to teach specialized classes as adjunct professors.

Consulting has many manifestations. The term consultant has broad meaning and many applications for retired school leaders. Depending on reputation and length of history as a superintendent, some consultant opportunities simply knock, unbidden, on the retiree’s door. These are more the exception than the rule.

Most retired superintendents who desire consultant work must take personal initiative, letting others know of their availability, areas of expertise and whether they wish to work alone or in group situations. Making contact with existing consultant groups, producing and distributing flyers that describe one’s services or responding to requests for proposals are inroads to consultant work.

The rule of thumb is that organizations will pay to make pain go away, so consultants market their ability to stop or reduce such hurts. In due time, word spreads, the list of clients grows, and the work bucket of a consultant fills.

Common consultant services include executive searches for vacant school positions and problematic issues such as negotiations, policy updates, organizational re-alignment, dysfunctional working relationships and staff development. Other examples are community surveys often associated with referenda, marketing plans to broaden community support, assistance in district consolidations and service as the owner’s representative on major building construction.

Also, many retired superintendents align themselves with school-related businesses that desire an insider’s perspective on how to get through the school door, improve client relationships, better meet client needs or assess new research and development strategies. At AASA national conferences, you realize the array of firms that employ retired school leaders as consultants: architectural agencies, curriculum software producers, financial services companies, investment groups and manufacturers of school equipment to name the most common.

Another common pursuit of the newly retired is filling an interim administrative position. Because finding the right person for an important vacancy in a principalship or a superintendency can take considerable time, school boards commonly need experienced educators for short-term appointments lasting anywhere from a few weeks to several months or even a full year.

Accepting lower-paying educational positions is an available option to administrators who do not let false pride stand in the way. Scores of posted positions in school districts are available in almost any community.

Of course, returning to a full-time superintendency remains an option in a field where demand tends to outstrip supply. Not every superintendent who retires early stays that way. The call to serve once again can be too strong to resist. It further suggests that due caution be taken about retiring prematurely.

Private Sector

Leadership in the nonprofit, public education sector has much overlap with the for-profit private sector, as well as major differences. Various skills and much knowledge gained in the former can be transferred easily to the latter.

Success in challenging and well-rewarded positions requires significant investment of time to learn the ropes, prove dependability and demonstrate results. Starting a new business usually requires major capital investment and high risk tolerance. These factors must be weighed against the common desire among retirees for flexibility in the use of time and protection of accumulated assets.

School administrators who accept challenging private-sector roles often report a strong linkage with someone already well established in the business or industry. The relationship helps to open doors to opportunities that match the retiree’s training, skills and experience.

Few retirees from the education sector purchase an existing business. Even fewer start a new one. Even though the choice to enter business in retirement is not common among educators, the opportunities remain viable.

A more likely second career for retired superintendents comes when linking up with an education-related business. Companies that market products and services depend heavily on forming and sustaining relationships. Doors open easier when there is name recognition, which makes retired administrators prime candidates for full-time or part-time employment in education-related businesses.

On first blush, hourly-pay positions may seem like poor matches for retired educators. However, many of these jobs provide part-time or seasonal employment and put the retiree in contact with people, thereby meeting important relationship needs during retirement years.

Community Service

An entire book, much less this article, could be devoted to example after example of selfless giving by educator retirees to children, causes, campaigns and charities. In retirement, work schedule restrictions are lifted, and a wide array of new service possibilities open to which many superintendents and other school leaders respond. Their deeply held values are plainly visible in the services they continue to render in community settings.

Typically, programs and activities in worship centers depend heavily upon lay leadership. Some retirees find that travel, multiple residences and other activities of choice interfere with such calls to service, and they literally drop out as volunteers. Still other retirees hold to the belief that the sharing of time and talents with others is a lifetime commission and not just the purview of younger people. They find ways and means to serve their fellow believers as well as humanity at large in spite of occasional schedule conflicts.

Most civic organizations have mottos that remind members of a caring life philosophy or an attitude that is intended to pervade every aspect of life. For example, Rotary’s motto is “Service above Self.”

A host of community boards and agencies are found in most places with am aim of improving the quality of life for citizens. The need for volunteers is often carried by word of mouth. Once the human eye begins to spot these opportunities to serve, they seem to pop up like springtime mushrooms on the forest floor.

Identifying human need and responding to it by taking personal action comes naturally to school leaders who have spent a career taking such initiative. The caring heart of educators remains evident in retirement.

My Own Story

My retirement, now 12 years long, has drawn deeply from each of the categories I’ve described. Much more of my time is being spent with our grown children on their home projects and with our grandchildren. My wife and I still live in the same house and spend many summer weeks at our lake cabin remodeling; entertaining and recreating. We travel some each winter, and we remain active in our local church and community life, which attends to our spiritual growth and need for continuing friendships.

I also became an educational consultant, working first in the public sector (University of Minnesota, Search Institute, and trouble-shooter in school districts) and later broadening the assignments to include the private sector. Along the way I’ve served on boards and national awards selection committees and have been able to do some writing too. For the third time at age 71, I’m about to retire from several professional roles, but the door is still ajar, though less so than before.

At this stage of life, my wife and I visit doctors more frequently and say a final goodbye to more friends and associates. Giving comfort, support and encouragement are significant contributions throughout one’s retirement. My intention is to remain active in the whole of life as long as I am able, thus being a good steward of mind, body and soul and continuing to enjoy a wide variety of life experiences. In my case, finding the right balance is an ongoing challenge. Adjustments seem to be continuous.

New Terrain

Retirement is like virgin soil. The ground must be cleared, plowed and fertilized. New possibilities must be turned over in the mind and heart. Learning doesn’t end in retirement; it shifts to a brand new terrain.

Each retiree becomes the planter, caretaker and reaper of harvest. Your retirement story will be highly personal and totally unique. Thankfully, we can learn from each other as we prepare for retirement or move through it, even as we have drawn from one another in our administrative preparation programs and throughout our careers.

The most critical variables reported by retirees are mindset and attitude. School leaders who express the most happiness in retirement see today and tomorrow like a gift package to be unwrapped and enjoyed. They don’t deny or forget the past, but they do make the present and future their primary focus. They reject the old rocking chair model (complete withdrawal from communal society).

Most superintendents and other school administrators in their retirement become engaged — to varying degrees and for different lengths of time — with four pursuits: personal interests; part- or full-time assignments within education; private-sector work opportunities; and/or public service. Retirees who are most positive acknowledge the predictable stages of retirement, accept change and show grace through life’s many transitions.

Donald Draayer, the 1990 National Superintendent of the Year, can be reached at 5906 Holiday Way, Minnetonka, MN 55345. E-mail: dondraayer@ comcast.net