Thursday, February 18, 2021

Early Retirement



When I hatched it, I referred to my plan as “23AndMe,” like the genetics company. I would “graduate” (retire) in 2023, after teaching physics (and other things) at Rio Americano High School for 37 years. I was excited when my graduating class arrived on campus last year.

The CalSTRS numbers looked good. The last few years were going to be a bit bumpy, though. Physics, a course I've taught at Rio since 1986, was coming to an end. The vision of Next Generation Science Standards called for Physics to be replaced with Physics of the Universe (PotU). 

California published its vision of PotU, but textbooks and curriculum have been slow to emerge. The widespread expectation is that classroom teachers would absorb the NGSS PotU vision and leverage their creativity and ingenuity to develop curriculum ex nihilo. I had done some preliminary organizational work on how I would implement PotU at my school. But that first year promised to be an endeavor. There were two teachers at my school who could teach physics after I was gone. We met a few times to work on PotU.

In January of 2020 (years ago, now), my district offered a wee early retirement incentive to its oldest and most educated teachers. They hoped to clear out the highest paid faculty, easing pressure on a strained district budget. I looked at the numbers and was insulted. No way.

Then the pandemic struck. The district rescinded the incentive to those who applied for it. Many teachers retired without the incentive.

Our Last Day of School was Friday the 13th of March, 2020. Novel but unspectacular when it occurred. 

We have yet to return. Teaching is remote; learning is distant. It is awful. The school’s younger physics-teaching prospect moved to another district. An intended textbook adoption for all science courses was suspended.

For 2020-21, I had four preps: Physics, AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2, and Conceptual Physics. Transforming each of these classes to online versions has been ... difficult. And, to be delicate, the efficacy/effort ratio has not been high. I'm maintaining a headache that doesn't show signs of subsiding. My screen time exceeds any health-conscious dosage recommendations. 

In November, my district offered the same wee early retirement incentive. Same exact numbers as it offered in January. But they looked quite different to my newly throbbing eyes. Less insulting and more inviting. Bordering on irresistible

There's a significant pension prize if I stay the course for two more years. But here’s what I'm looking at. 

The course I polished over 35 years will be gone. A course I’ve never taught will take its place. There may or may not be a new textbook for the new course. There will be no 180-day curriculum with pacing guide/road map for this new course. No lab manual. No new lab materials. No test bank. Teachers might be given "release time" to develop such during the summer and/or during the year. Scratch that: there will be no budget for such extravagances. 

In fairness, this was what I walked into in 1986. I developed my course on my own, with direct and indirect help from mentors. And I was happy to do the work. Hard work. But I was bringing my vision of the course to life within my operational constraints. And I got better and better at loosening those constraints. The enterprise was enjoyable, challenging, and engaging. I was supported by the school and parents. I knew I was playing a long game, so I mixed patience with my determination.

What's happening now is different. I'm being compelled to implement a vision I was not invited to create. This has been true of the redesigned AP Physics 1 and 2 for a few years, and has not been enjoyable. Doing the same with the new Physics of the Universe does not appeal to me.

Predictions are difficult, especially when the future is involved. But it’s hard to see school districts in the next few years being flush with enough cash to fund curriculum development. Or anything else. We’ve had furloughs in the past. I don't see good times ahead for school district budgets. My district is keen to replace me with someone lower on the pay scale. The budget is prioritized over instructional quality. But that's always been true; you a priori-tize that assumption going in, and do well because it's important to you.

The recently-redesigned AP Physics 1 will certainly still be there. I haven't made a secret of my antipathy for that redesign and especially for the accompanying exam. But the College Board has convinced themselves that they are doing good in the world and so they will continue. Schools use AP courses to market themselves, so AP will continue as a thriving product line. I enjoy the course; I don't enjoy the test-prep aspect.

AP Physics 2 is a bit more on the bubble. It’s a tough sell, a second year of AP Physics in high school. My principal has made it a priority to run it, and I love teaching the material. To me, much of the AP2 material is more interesting than what we do in AP1. The district is in the process of adopting a new textbook for AP Physics 1 and 2. Our current textbook is ©2007 and was pretty shiny when we adopted it for AP Physics B in 2008. That was the last time we adopted physics books, now 13 years ago.

So two years of a developing course and one or two AP courses whose exams have lost their lustre. In a world of no books or piloting new books. With budget cuts looming. While we await full implementation of vaccines in a nation where anti-vaxxers stand loud and proud. 

Which part of that seems unappealing, right?

When I envisioned 23AndMe, Physics was transitioning to Physics of the Universe in a controlled manner with the participation of colleagues who would be left in charge of teaching it when I was gone. I actually designed the transition process for my school. The economy was such that I could expect a raise to be negotiated before I retired. And I had not experienced Remote Teaching/Distance Learning of four courses for the better part of a school year. 

There's more about short- and long-term issues that have altered my perspective, but this post has self-indulged quite enough (even for a blog post). Anything else I need to say will be posted in the comments. I'm dropping this post like a bread crum in case I ever wonder "What was I thinking?" in the years to come. (As Sade once sang, "The rose we remember, the thorns we forget.")

I think it's time for me to turn the page and move on. As the implications of this life-change settle into my features, I feel some subtle tingles of a weight being lifted normal force being reduced. 

I'm 35 years into the career. No one who was working at my school when I arrived is still there now. "Early retirement" feels like a misnomer. CalSTRS estimates over 16,000 California teachers will be retiring this year.

8 comments:

Dean Baird said...

One perspective (and one that is not entirely charitable) is that I'm running off when the going got tough.

I have been very spoiled to have a career that I love with extraordinary passion. One that I've been happy to throw myself into. Quite fully.

Most people work to pay the bills. They don't look to their job hoping to see it as a source of joy. I have bills to pay, too. But it never seemed like that was why I was working. It was; it just didn't seem like it was. And there has been considerable joy.

Remote teaching; distance leaning has made that joy hard to find. I have never worked so hard to be so ineffective. So the job is spiraling into becoming ... a job. The work-a-day bill paying chore set. To paraphrase The Cranberries, "everyone else is doing it, why can't I?"

I can. I'm choosing not to. There is some financial pain involved. I'm making the decision nonetheless. I don't like being thrown off my intended plan, but I was flexible enough to change course in a way that seems like the best course to take given the changed circumstances.

There's always the possibility that I was wrong.

And it seems like a good enough time for Rio to get its fourth physics teacher in its nearly 60 year history. A new instructor will be able to fashion PotU from the ground up. So there's that.

Unknown said...

It's hard to walk away and no doubt you will be missed but you might just be launching some one else's 34 year run

Chiara Stella said...

Couldn't you just stay the two years and keep teaching your current course (passing it off as POTU) or some variation of that while helping with the transition?
I hope you all go back to in person instruction (with social distancing) soon. We did it and it's been OK.
Fingers crossed we get the vaccine rolled out to teachers soon. Apparently, in no state are we considered essential workers. :(

Vince S. said...

I was also planning to teach a few more years but when the retirement incentive was offered I decided to take it. I fell into the same situation in that I could have kept going,figure out how to implement the new PotU, in good faith, but I saw that it would be without any substantial curriculum for several more years. The curriculum would have been created, as you said, "ex nihilo." Best to you in your next endeavor.

Dean Baird said...

Chiara Stella ... I probably could, but it would be dishonest. And that's not a lesson I'm keen to teach by example. I've got an ego the size of Montana, but I'm not going to insist on my vision over the state's vision on the premise that I know better. (That doesn't mean that I don't!)

That said, another part of the genius of my intended 23AndMe plan was that my credential and my Column V salary placement both expire in 2023. I feel like I'm leaving a parking space with time left on the meter. Then again, sometimes that's the smart move.

Caroline said...

Dean, I am sorry to hear about this. I was a teacher in California for a very brief period before I moved away. I remember reading over the "Physics of the Earth" curriculum and wonder this: is this course meant to be taught by anyone with a general science credential / certification? In other words, do you need to have a physics credential / certification? (It reminded me of an initiative that other states adopted where physics was really dumbed down and taught in a quarter in courses called "Integrated Science" or "Chem-Phys". This was done so that teachers not certified in physics could still teach this in public schools while giving the students credit towards having taken physics. This is too bad.)

I really like the way you laid out the curriculum you worked on for over 30 years. You never know - it might inspire some of us who teach outside of California or in independent schools?

Will your "phyz.org" physics website still be active and / or accessible to us after you retire?

LynnSkutches said...

What a sad-- but completely understandable-- decision you've made.

What a train wreck the whole situation for public education --and for LAB SCIENCE educators specifically-- has been this year. So criminal to be sloughed off because your expertise is too much $$$. Our textbooks were also adopted in 2007 and we too cannot find a decent replacement we feel is worth investing in. As a teacher since 1983 (not at the same school and with time out for a masters and babies) I cannot envision the NGSS mess will clear in the next decade. By then there will be another wagon to hitch to, and likely no support/materials/curricula developed for that one either.

I want to say a profound and sincere thanks to you for all your wonderful curricula that you freely posted and shared with everyone for so many years (good on ya' getting on the TPT train finally!). You saved my sanity more times than I care to recall, particularly when I was thrown into teaching physics for the past five years of my career. I too am contemplating retiring, but while likely do Willie Brown instead. IDK.

Dear goodness: FOUR preps??????? Good heavens! RUN while you can!

Thank you again for your dedication to the craft and the difference you have made in so many lives --that you will never realize!

PS To Unknown: You have no idea how much Dean will be missed and I highly doubt there are many (any?) teachers who will have the stamina to make a 35 year career going forward.

Dean Baird said...

Phyz.org will remain up for the foreseeable. I own the domain and was told (last time I switched web hosts) that as the owner of a four-letter domain I should never let it go! Apparently all such simple domain names have long since been claimed.

I'm certainly glad that I had my own web space rather than relying on my school district to host my stuff. My district has, well, "learned many lessons" on hosting web space for teachers. It has not gone well. Having my own space has been great.