Letter to the Teacher

DEAR SEAN:

I am a teacher. I’ve been teaching for almost 25 years. It was my dream job. I’ve always loved it and now I don’t.

Inept administration, difficult students, priority-confused parents, and lack of support with increased expectations have worn me down. Now all I think about is retirement.

Kids are my life. Their smiles, wit, hugs, those “aha moments” they have… Their wonder. It is what I live for. How do I find my spark again?

Sincerely,
NEED-HELP-IN-MICHIGAN

DEAR MICHIGAN:

Boy howdy. I’m the wrong guy to ask. Educators are persons who have answered the highest calling, whereas I am a guy who hasn’t emptied the dishwasher since Labor Day.

Besides, I’m in the same boat you’re in. I too have lost my spark.

Have you ever seen the 1953 Western “Shane” starring Alan Ladd? Remember the iconic closing scene wherein the hero (Shane) rides away while Little Joey is begging him to stay?

To freshen your memory, here’s a replay of that movie ending:

The horse stables. Nighttime. Shane saddles his mare. Little Joey is crying, asking Shane not to leave. Shane is Joey’s boyhood idol.

Shane, clad in a spectacular buckskin fringe jacket, tells the kid he’s leaving for good.

“Joey… You go home to your mother and your father, and grow up to be strong and straight.”

The boy sniffles. “Shane…”

Music swells for a dramatic goodbye while Shane steps into the stirrups and rides away into the Wyoming Territory.

The boy chases Shane, pleading with the enigmatic gunslinger not to leave. But Shane ignores the boy and rides off.

The final line of the movie comes from the weeping child who screams: “Shane! Shane, come back!”

That’s exactly what my year has been like.

Old Me climbed onto his horse and hightailed it into the Bighorns, while Current Me chased him and shouted, “Sean! Sean! Come back!”

Before COVID, I had a spark for writing. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been a skillful writer, but I’ve lost something. Last year, for example, I would have never resorted to doing something as tacky as beginning a column with dialogue from a 1953 Paramount Pictures Western.

See how far I’ve fallen?

Quarantines. Civil discord. Cable news. The toilet paper crisis. I’ve gone flat.

Throughout the pandemic, my wife has often walked into my office to find me staring at the wall. She asks what’s wrong. Meanwhile, I’m thinking to myself: “Shane. Shane, come back.”

So you’re not alone. These are rough times, and many people, not to mention educators, are going through what you’re experiencing.

After I received your letter this morning I decided to contact some friends who are teachers for some advice. I haven’t talked to these friends in years.

I was surprised to learn something staggering when I called. Out of the four teachers I called, three retired early this past year. These are middle aged people with families and bright futures. I couldn’t believe it.

So I took the liberty of asking what caused these teachers to quit. And without getting into gory details, they said the same things you said.

One teacher summed it all up by saying: “I’m just tired.”

My friend Marcia actually wept about the issue on the phone. Marcia has been a grade school teacher for almost 30 years and she says this previous year has tested her mettle.

Teachers are struggling right now. In a recent study done during the pandemic, research found that 60 percent of American educators admitted to disliking their job. Another 27 percent of teachers say they are planning to quit or retire early.

If this is true, this means that out of an approximate 4 million teachers in America, a cool million are planning to ride their horses into the sunset.

But I don’t mean to depress you. That’s not why I wrote this. In fact, I wrote this in hopes of doing the opposite.

Enter Miss Wanda.

Today I was put in touch with an elderly retired teacher named Wanda (age 88), by a mutual friend. Wanda had a brief story to tell:

“I’ve been teaching since I got out of college, I was a teenager when I started…

“But I reached a point where I’d had all I could take with the school politics, rebellious students, and pressure…”

So Wanda retired from teaching at age 50. It was a hard decision. There were lots of tears. She had been in education for a long time.

Not long thereafter, dozens of parents started begging Wanda for private tutoring. Even more students were contacting her for private instruction.

So Wanda started meeting students in their kitchens, or doing tutoring over the phone. Soon she was spending upwards of 35 hours per week tutoring. And do you know what?

She was doing it for free.

Wanda came out of retirement and resumed her old teaching position the same year since, in a way, she never really quit.

“I was a glutton is what I was,” Wanda says. “But I rediscovered my love of education. I taught for almost half a century altogether. Sure, it was hard, I won’t lie. Lotta people poo-poo teachers as though we’re superfluous, and it hurts. But we have to be strong.”

After I looked up “superfluous” in an unabridged dictionary, I asked if Wanda had any advice for struggling educators in today’s changing national climate. She did. And here are her words:

“Embrace whatever comes next in your life. If it’s retirement, do it. Give yourself a break. You’re not superhuman.

“No matter what, you’re always going to be helping kids, you’re a teacher, it’s in you, it’s just who you are. This world can kick you around until you’re a mess, but it can never take the Gift from you. Never.”

With all my heart, I hope this advice also applies to hack columnists.

Sean. Sean, come back.

38 comments

  1. Linda - April 29, 2021 7:07 am

    Loved this. You are a wonderful writer. Thank you so much.

    Reply
  2. Sandi. - April 29, 2021 7:31 am

    Sean, if your response to the Michigan teacher’s letter encourages just one more teacher, you have been successful in your reply.

    Reply
  3. Sandi. - April 29, 2021 7:33 am

    Sean, what a splendid response to the Michigan teacher’s letter. If your reply has encouraged just one more teacher, then you have succeeded.

    Reply
  4. Sandi. - April 29, 2021 7:37 am

    Sean, your reply to the Michigan teacher’s letter is splendid. I think it will encourage many others who read it. I’m not a teacher, but have utmost respect and admiration for them, especially during these Covid times.

    Reply
  5. Mark D MacIntyre - April 29, 2021 7:37 am

    Your humble heart makes you a wonderful writer of words we all can’t get enough of my friend.

    Reply
  6. throughmyeyesusa - April 29, 2021 7:39 am

    It’s partly the endless threat, drudgery and concern of Covid, Sean, but more, I believe, the overwhelming pressure, largely mindless, of government restraint, of restrictions which go counter to our very soul as Americans. Many are willing to march in two step, eyes downcast, faces masked, carefully distant, never touching, never gathering, obediently baring arms for a vaccine they may not understand or even trust. But others are watching in confusion – or horror – as they see American liberties take a backseat to government control. And this doesn’t even take into account “cancel culture” and the absolutely frightening efforts, largely successful, to silence voices that oppose….most anything that represents what we remember as “normal” not so very long ago.

    If it’s any comfort, as much as you may feel that “Old Sean” is riding away into the sunset, we, your readers, see him quite clearly, very present still in your daily offerings. Thank you for that and please keep it up. For many of us you are a life raft in stormy seas.

    Reply
    • Karen - April 29, 2021 10:17 am

      You have did so well what is in my heart and mind. It has become ever harder to stay upbeat and positive. And, Sean, your word are the first thing I reach for every morning-at 2:30 or 5-to start each day on a hopeful note. May you and all the good dedicated teachers never give up.

      Reply
    • Sandi. - April 29, 2021 10:23 am

      BRAVO to what throughmyeyesusa posted!

      Reply
  7. Sandi. - April 29, 2021 7:41 am

    I’ve tried three previous times to add a Comment to this specific post, but each and every time, they are omitted for some reason. All I wanted to say was sincere thanks for your splendid response to the Michigan teacher’s letter, and hopefully it will encourage, inspire, and cheer up many others, especially those who teach.

    Reply
  8. Susan Parker - April 29, 2021 8:56 am

    Sean, thank you. You don’t have to come back, you never left.
    I had a pitifully short career as a therapist. And yet, what Wanda says is true. You don’t lose your gift. And there are always people to hrlp, whether you hang out your shingle or not. Thanks for reminding me that I didn’t really fail.

    Reply
  9. Julie Moreno - April 29, 2021 10:20 am

    Thanks Sean. I understand. All the healthcare workers I know (this is my peer group) feel the same way. Hard times, I want Shane to come back too. I also want to grow up strong and straight through all this.Thanks for making me know we are not the only group overwhelmed.

    Reply
  10. Virginia Russell - April 29, 2021 10:21 am

    As long as you don’t think the problems teachers have started with the one pandemic. Inept administration, for one, was around when I was in high school in the 60’s.

    Reply
  11. Kat - April 29, 2021 10:22 am

    You took the words right out of my mouth “throughmyeyesusa”. I to am tired and have decided to retire and enjoy and appreciate the simpler things in life like gardening, raising chickens,walking the beautiful beaches and picking up shells, cooking. I’m not giving up, just redirecting my life. Thank you Sean

    Reply
  12. Bette - April 29, 2021 11:07 am

    Sean you have definitely not lost your spark. You are a spark of hope in these confusing, often mean-spirited times. I wake up each morning looking forward to what you have to say, as I know without a doubt it will lift my spirits. Every day my best friend and college roommate from 55 years ago chat long distance. Most days your words fuel our conversations and remind us that there is light at the end of this tunnel and hope for a brighter future. Keep it up, Sean-you do good work!!

    Reply
  13. dbwalk - April 29, 2021 11:11 am

    Sean, I enjoy reading your posts but I don’t quite understand why you keep talking about covid and how you can’t do the things you used to do. My question is why not? You live in Florida. I know right about where you live because I used to live there too. Florida has not been locked down in a year unlike other places so why are you still wearing a stupid face diaper and not going about your life as before?

    I’m in Georgia now and we are wide open too and have been for quite some time. I haven’t worn a fear diaper on my face ever unless I really needed something and couldn’t get in a store without one and I’m 71. Its all about keeping us in fear and controlling us. Why don’t you see that? Masks don’t work and there IS science behind that. So, break out of fear, do some research and have a great summer doing the things you always do and keep writing about cool stuff.

    Reply
  14. Barbara Pope - April 29, 2021 11:13 am

    Well you rekindled that terrible sadness experienced by an 8 year old in the 1950’s because it was obvious Shane was never coming back. Brings “Old Yeller” to mind.

    Reply
  15. Ann - April 29, 2021 11:39 am

    Teachers are the constantly giving GIFT for our young and their,and our, futures depend on the dedication and SPARK to be re-ignited in them! Their rewards are certainly not monetary but the love of seeing “ their children”
    go forward in their lives of chosen successes, no matter what they are, is priceless! This pandemic has tried to stifle all of this, and many teachers have done everything they can to keep the flame burning. I pray that as we see each sunset we will remember the sun still rises each day. God bless our teachers and you❤️

    Reply
  16. Pink13 - April 29, 2021 12:20 pm

    Once again, you have saved me. I am a teacher of 40 years. Difficult students ands administrators just about made me take any other job. It almost killed me this year. A line in your column kept me alive. I just signed my contract again. I have to remember the kids who still care. This has been harder than any other year. Thank you for the ray of hope. You make a difference.

    Reply
  17. Jan - April 29, 2021 12:23 pm

    This has been a difficult year for everyone but perhaps it has been most difficult for those involved in the “helping” professions – teachers, nurses, pastors, police officers, therapists, writers/people lovers (Sean) and many others. Perhaps that is partially due to their inability to truly help in this time and place we find ourselves in. As a retired nurse, I have always tried to find ways to help others through my church, family and civic activities. With the pandemic and so many changes to our normal lives, that very essential part of our makeup has been dramatically altered. We are not able to do what we normally did and therefore find ourselves feeling useless and helpless. Hopefully that is changing for the better – either by going back to our old ways of doing things or finding new, creative ways of helping from a distance.

    Reply
  18. Carroll Uithoven - April 29, 2021 12:47 pm

    I taught in high school, English and business, for 25 years. I retired 21 years ago for the same reasons this teacher did. I have never looked back. Have done lots of cool things such as writing a book about Dauphin Island, making and selling mosaics, volunteering at the Estuarim, writing the church newsletter, etc. Life is short. Find what makes you happy!

    Reply
  19. Donna Ivy - April 29, 2021 1:04 pm

    Dear, Dear Sean. For that is what you are to me. I found you at the beginning of the pandemic. I thank God for that. You have been a beacon of hope and sense in this nurse’s otherwise difficult time. You may think you’ve lost your spark but to me you’ve been the spark that has lightened my tough days. God put you in my way on purpose. Thank you for being an instrument God chose to help me through this difficult time.

    Reply
  20. Christina - April 29, 2021 1:20 pm

    Grateful for your gift of showing up regardless of how much spark you got. It matters!

    Reply
  21. Sharon J Mondragon - April 29, 2021 1:43 pm

    And it is a Gift with a capital G. I had the privilege of volunteering in my daughter’s classroom ( she was teaching 4th grade at the time). It took my breath away to watch the way she managed a class with reasonable and consistent expectations, a long with kindness and love. I watched her creativity and the way she encouraged the struggling and didn’t let kids who weren’t giving their best skate. I am in awe of teachers.

    Reply
  22. Janette Anderson - April 29, 2021 2:57 pm

    As an educator retiree – after 44 years “in the saddle,” (teaching high school English, predominantly) I can tell you that teaching MUST be borne in the heart, and it is CERTAINLY nurtured by the successes that the teacher’s students realize they are meeting. Those successes do not come daily … or weekly … or even monthly on any regular basis, but they DO come, and at the moment of the students’ recognition of success, the teacher FEELS LIKE “TEACHER OF THE YEAR”! (EVEN if said “recognition” occurs WELL AFTER the time spent together in the classroom!) The rewards of student-realized success is worth MUCH MORE than ANY dollar figure, Award Certificate, or public recognition. After retirement, the reward is any occasional “Thank you” – whether with those words or through a hug, a remembrance of your name upon chance meetings, or a thousand other “sweet remembrances” from those that you loved and nurtured LONG BEFORE THEY LOVED AND APPRECIATED YOU‼️❤

    Reply
  23. GG - April 29, 2021 3:20 pm

    Thank you – for your response and for your obvious respect for teachers

    Reply
  24. MAM - April 29, 2021 5:14 pm

    For crying out loud, Sean, you haven’t lost your spark. Your gift continues to grow and give. That’s Success with a capital S. Sean, Sean, stay right here writing!

    Reply
  25. Linda Moon - April 29, 2021 5:37 pm

    Emptying the dishwasher sometimes seems like it was since Labor Day by the time My Guy gets around to it. We’ve both seen “Shane” lots of times. We ALWAYS get around to watching movies, and we often converse using dialogue from some of them. My fingers are trying right now to resist the urge to tell/teach you about “Come Back, Little Sheba” or Cecelia’s last letter to Robbie while they are separated by war. She ends it with “Come Back”. You are here, Sean, back where you belong. This is a teachable moment. Teaching and Learning. and Writing Columns…all gifts.

    Reply
  26. Carol Sprunger - April 29, 2021 5:44 pm

    I shared your column with my coworks at Dothan High School. They were encouraged by your writing. Thank you!

    Reply
  27. Bob Brenner - April 29, 2021 6:30 pm

    First of all, God bless our teachers! Second, Shane greatest western ever!

    Reply
  28. Sal - April 29, 2021 7:20 pm

    Sean you still have the gift of communication. Always a pleasure to read your posts.

    Reply
  29. Lifetime Chicago - April 29, 2021 8:49 pm

    This brought tears to my eyes. I have spent a lifetime in education starting out as a high school teacher, worked in Special Education and college. My current retirement years I am assisting in first grade and you could not have described this any better. Thank you!

    Reply
  30. Rebecca Souders - April 29, 2021 9:05 pm

    Whatever the topic, Sean, your writing is a gift to us all. Thank you.

    Reply
  31. Linda Holmes - April 29, 2021 10:21 pm

    As a high school teacher and counselor, I totally understand the teacher from Michigan, and I retired 15 years before Covid. I have often thought about and prayed for those teachers who are on the front line. Many of the younger teachers I once worked with are now retiring for all the same reasons. Burn out plus coronavirus. Sean, you are gifted writer so don’t be so hard on yourself. The way you see things and the ability to express yourself are uniquely yours.

    Reply
  32. Belinda Crowell - April 29, 2021 10:36 pm

    Sean, what the heck are you talking about?? There’s no way that you could have kept that away from us, your readers. I’ve enjoyed every single story you’ve written…..just like I did before Covid. You’ve not let me down, Buddy! Lost your spark??? Bull!!!!

    Reply
  33. Lauren Lopez - April 30, 2021 12:50 am

    I am a new reader of your’s, Sean, and I absolutely love your writing!! I have shared your writing with my husband, my younger brother, and my closest friend. Thank you so much for using and sharing your gift!!

    Reply
  34. Ann - April 30, 2021 1:38 am

    Thanks, Sean; you came back❣️

    Reply
  35. DiAn - April 30, 2021 3:39 am

    Sean – THANK YOU for sharing your inspiring perspective and fresh outlook. You are NOT a hack by any means or definition. I know that I have benefited from your words and cannot wait to read your next adventure – so please keep on writing and sharing your life episodes with us!

    Reply
  36. Debbie g - April 30, 2021 12:42 pm

    The Gift. That’s what you are to all of us and we hope we can. Also be a gift to all your readers with also words of encouragement. Love you and family. Keep up great words !!!!

    Reply

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