The 55-25 retirement option
In my third year of teaching when I was 24 years old, there was an option to sign up for “55-25.” “55-25” was an early retirement option for educators, which meant that once you turned 55 and had been teaching in the system for 25 years, you could retire early and receive 50% of your average salary.
I remember several veteran teachers asking me if I had signed up for 55-25. I barely registered their question. I figured, there’s no way I’ll still be in education in 25 years. I assumed that in 25 years, or even 5 years, I would have switched to a more glamorous profession. After all, in college, I had double- majored in film and literature. In a few years, I would no longer be teaching and would instead be doing something creative, like screenwriting award-winning films, or working as a journalist in an exotic location. I told myself that I was in teaching because I wanted to get some real-life experience and do something useful and practical before I did something creative.
Teaching is a “Real Job”
When I started teaching, I had two roommates: one was a musician, and the other was a comedy writer. They both labeled my job as “real job.” So did I, at times resentfully. I told myself that I “had” to stay late at work to read through my students’ essays and make notes about where they needed extra help. I also told myself that I “had to” go into work extra-early every day to double-check my lesson plans and setup my classroom, revise the homework assignment, and then spend Sundays grading students’ work and writing my lessons for the week.
The truth was that I didn’t really “have to” do any of it. I wanted to do the work of teaching, and it was fun. Yes, fun—and extremely creative. Writing a test was actually fun—I remember inserting little jokes into certain test questions and seeing my students suddenly giggle in the middle of test-taking. Getting a pile of essays was like getting a present. I loved reading their work and as I graded papers, I’d always have a running list of things I noticed in their writing that I wanted to teach them—there were so many golden opportunities. I remember getting poems back from my 9th grade students, and reading some of them again and again, struck by how unconscious, unpretentious, and beautiful the writing was.
Teaching was probably what I had always wanted to do but just didn’t realize it. It was my chosen art, but it didn’t fit my idea of art. My boyfriend Sathya is a filmmaker and can get completely absorbed writing a script or editing a film, and spending hours tweaking something until it’s perfect. When I was a teacher, I had the same experience of getting completely absorbed in planning lessons and reading student’s writing, yet it didn’t fit my idea of a creativity. Now as a principal, I see my teachers getting absorbed and creative in their work the same way. And in my role a school leader, I have the same experience of being completely engaged when I talk with my team about reducing student lateness, or planning out a peer tutoring initiative, or helping teachers create stronger student discussions, yet what we’re doing is so real and practical it doesn’t fit my idea of creativity. But that’s what it is.
The window for signing up for 55-25 came and went that year and I never signed up. If you had told me then that I’d stay in teaching and that today, on my 40th birthday, I’d be in my 17th year as an educator and my 7th year as a high school principal, I would have been shocked. But here I am, fulfilled in my work, and happy that I didn’t listen to my earlier self about moving on to a more “creative” job.