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The Celebration, and Why It

Matters

 

BY R. GERARD LONGO

Shortly after becoming the new superintendent at the Quaker Valley School District in Sewickley, Pa., I received a call from a veteran teacher who explained she was in charge of the annual retirement luncheon. She requested I say a few words. She also asked that I grant her and several colleagues the morning off to prepare for the event.

Though her demeanor was respectful, it was clear she expected these “requests” would be summarily granted. I surprised her when I indicated I’d get back to her in a few days.

Seeking an explanation, I crossed the hall to the assistant superintendent’s office. He said the teachers’ union funded the retirement luncheon, which was held on the last workday of the school year, and everyone was excused to attend. “We all go to enjoy lunch and libations at a local social club. It’s our tradition,” he told me.

I tried to digest this information. I came from a school district where frugality ruled and administrators didn’t socialize with classroom teachers, although we got along. Reluctantly, I gave the request a thumbs-up, resolving that this would be the last time the staff skipped work for a party.

Fond Remembrances
The months flew by. A new strategic plan, budget adoption and graduation were behind us. The end of the school year and the retirement luncheon arrived. At the appointed time, I made my appearance. With a welcoming smile, the in-charge veteran teacher greeted me and pinned on my boutonniere.

The club was jammed and buzzing with excitement. Who were all these people? The union president, a warm and considerate woman, introduced me to decades-past retired teachers, principals and school board members. I wondered, “Why are they here?”

I was placed at a table with the new crop of retiring teachers. There were attractive potted flowers on every table. While lunch was being served, each returning retired person was welcomed by name and reminded to take a potted flower home.

The author Daniel Pink writes that stories make the process of remembering easier because “stories are how we remember.” Stories, he suggests, are a way of understanding the future and the past. So on the last day of the school year, surrounded by contemporaries and predecessors, we listened to retiring teachers tell their stories.

Michael, a large and gentle man, was a junior high math teacher. As the union’s negotiator, Michael shared a compelling story detailing the lean years when the merged school district struggled to find its identity. He described how the parking lot then was full of rusty clunker cars but now was full of shiny, newer vehicles. Michael talked of colleagues, past and present, with thankfulness for the roles they had played in his life. He shared how these retiring teachers matured together, married, had babies and even became grandparents. His story was heartrending and humorous.

Michael helped those who were new to Quaker Valley to understand the sacrifices made by others on behalf of the children and us. Michael, the union negotiator, cautioned us not to take our hard-won climate of respect and duty for granted.

A Shared Culture
Several years after I retired from the district, I made my annual visit to the retirement luncheon. Steve was retiring. A talented teacher, Steve was well-loved by students. I, too, admired him. Nonetheless, I always had the impression Steve saw administrators as meddlesome bureaucrats.

He began his talk with a personal history. Raised in a coal-mining town, he told us his family reviled all “suits” (bosses). Steve admitted that were his coal-town ancestors to hear what he was about to say, they “may well roll over in their graves.”

I began to perspire, wondering, “Is this Steve’s chance to get revenge on the suits? Would this be the moment when the retirement luncheon was forever changed?”

It wasn’t, and I shouldn’t have worried. Instead, this became a memorable moment. Steve, the historian, understood and valued our shared culture, teachers and administrators working together in common purpose.

Steve finished his career with a compliment! Movingly, he expressed his gratitude for the opportunities he had been given. This was a breathtaking moment, and mine weren’t the only eyes to moisten.

Across the Years
Every culture is unique. In healthy ones, we value individuals and honor our unique traditions. Too many schools ignore William Bruce Cameron’s admonition: “Not everything that counts can be counted.” Driven by data, policymakers parse every event and action, certain there are touchstone practices easily dropped into established cultures.

Rather than being informed by data, too many schools are tyrannized by data. In the name of accountability, these schools justify every action with statistics and algorithms.

It takes courage to build and sustain a healthy culture, one where our people and their stories unite us in common purpose. Maintaining a healthy culture isn’t an easy task in an age dominated by bean counters and technocrats.

Recently, another school year concluded and another group of teachers and administrators closed the curtain on their careers. After listening to their tales, the school board president thanked us for our commitment to the children. She celebrated our service. It was the end of another retirement luncheon, and across generations, we knew we mattered.

Jerry Longo is a clinical associate professor of education administration and policy studies at University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pa. E-mail: longoj@pitt.edu

 

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