On Target November
Dr. Marilyn Birnbaum
  • Why I Failed at Retirement!


    Having spent my entire career (40+ years) in education in the same district, I knew retirement was imminent. Everyone was pushing me, particularly my family and friends. So I decided to take the next step. I must admit, though, that the thought of no 4 a.m. snow calls, HIB appeals, and security drills was appealing. But little did I know what I was getting into. 


    The summer after my June 30 departure was quite pleasant—particularly traveling to Ireland. At the end of the summer, I even decided to take up golf—a bold move for someone with no athletic prowess. However, as September rolled around, I had a pit in my stomach: no new teacher orientation or superintendent’s convocation and no little ones to welcome to kindergarten. Fortunately, I wasn’t totally forgotten yet. Corporate leaders valued my expertise and asked me to serve as an educational consultant providing advice and marketing strategies. 


    However, I was still not happy. So, when I was asked to be an interim superintendent, I decided to try it. This shocked many, including myself, since I had said I would not do this, thinking it was just paper pushing.


    So began my journey as an interim superintendent in a new district. While the district may have been from a different DFG from my former one, many of the tasks and issues were still the same. Aside from the commute, the decision to become an interim was a good one. All the skills I had accumulated over the years were invaluable. I was respected for my judgement and my knowledge, viewed as an expert, and appreciated for my input. In fact, when we parted after two years, I felt a loss. However, there was a sense of relief because I was now responsible for myself again not an entire district. I took a deep breath and started retirement again.


    To my surprise, within several months, another opportunity arose. This time the phone call was from a professor at one of the universities asking me to serve as a coach in their leadership program. This work seemed to fit into my life because there was flexibility in scheduling and a limited number of sessions. And once again I was appreciated for my expertise. Simultaneously, I was still able to take vacations, see my family, play golf, and enjoy life. 


    In August, as I was getting back on track to retirement, I received several calls about serving as an interim superintendent. And once again the magnet attracted me. Thus, the cycle continued. Although I did not appreciate writing my opening day speech on Labor Day weekend, I am now happy again learning new names, seeing children on the playground, and sharing my expertise. (Preparing for QSAC, however, still doesn’t thrill me.)


    So, what advice can I give?

    • Start planning for retirement early in your career by maintaining a balanced life. Make time for other activities or hobbies.
    • Develop a transition plan. It is extremely difficult to go from being the leader of a school district to suddenly looking for things to do.
    • When learning something new, use the skills you have learned as a superintendent in your new activities, such as perseverance and humor. Realize you may not be successful in everything you attempt, and you may not be the expert anymore, but it is OK. Your activities should be enjoyable.  (Of course, I question whether golf will ever truly be fun for me.)
    • Limit the chores around the house. Although you may have neglected cleaning your closets, this is not the time to go full speed. Perhaps when you downsize you can take on this challenge.
    • Spend more time with your family, but do not let them take over your life. Otherwise you will be living their life and not your own.
    • If your significant other is still working, travel alone or with friends and family. (It is amazing how independent your partner becomes when you are not there!)
    • Stay connected with your colleagues but remember that you are not the leader in your former district anymore.
    • Try being a mentor, coach, or interim superintendent. You have years of experience to share.  Give back to our profession.


    Although the title of this article is “Why I Failed at Retirement,” I will leave you with the question: Am I really a failure at retirement or did I fail at reinventing myself at retirement?