Christmas in July

My daughter, Miss Sunshine, and I were fortunate enough to teach in the same school district together during her first two years of teaching and my final two years of teaching. Our schools are attached to one another and we would frequently visit one another on our breaks or during lunch. This is the foyer of the high school where she teaches 11th Grade English. We knew this was our last opportunity to take a picture together at school since I was retiring the very day this picture was taken. I am so thankful for this blessing.

Well, Friends, an entire long and difficult year has elapsed since I wrote “We, The Teachers” on my Green Acres Adventure blog back in July of 2020. A lot has happened since I wrote about the concerns of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic in The United States. The biggest news to share with you is this:

I AM OFFICIALLY RETIRED FROM TEACHING!!!

(I actually retired in December of 2020, but am just now posting about it! Thus the “Christmas in July” title for my blog!)

Please bear with me as I take you on a nostalgic tour of my teaching career. Following a month-long backpacking trip through Europe with my closest college friends after graduating from Texas A&M University in May of 1988 (Whoop!), I began teaching in August of 1988 at the age of twenty-two. My teaching career began with seven amazing, fun-filled years at Deer Park Junior High in Deer Park ISD. In addition to my teaching assignment in Deer Park, I was also the cheerleading sponsor for the school along with the Student Council sponsor for a year or two. I was also blessed to take a group of students to the Future Problem Solving State Competition and also led several groups of students on tours of Europe during the summer! During the year I was pregnant with my first child, I helped my principal open a brand new school in the district, Fairmont Junior High, and was there for one year as the 7th grade ELA teacher and cheer coach. That was followed by seven exciting years as a stay-at-home mom with my two children. During that seven year season, I went through a very unexpected divorce and, just as unexpectedly, returned to Deer Park Junior High for four more years of teaching. To be honest, those were not my best years of teaching since my mind was very preoccupied with my overwhelming new status as a single mom. During those four years, I taught some amazingly sweet students and worked with some wonderful, familiar colleagues from my earlier years at DPJH. Even more importantly, about three years after returning to teach, I met and married The Outdoorsman and we moved our family to League City where I taught at Victory Lakes Intermediate in Clear Creek ISD for the next ten years. Throughout the memorable years teaching at Victory Lakes, I was also one of the leaders and trainers for a large, proactive anti-bullying group called Safe School Ambassadors. This program enabled me to meet and interact with many amazing faculty members and student leaders on our large campus. In addition to that, I was able to bring my own two children to school at Victory Lakes while they were in middle school. I was able to watch them blossom right in front of my eyes every day at our amazing school during a really difficult time in their lives due their dad’s illness and eventual death when they were in 7th and 9th grades. I was so grateful to know all of their teachers and help them process the stress and grief that goes hand-in-hand with a 5-year-long, very difficult battle against cancer.

After my children graduated from high school and began attending The University of Texas and Baylor University, The Outdoorsman and I decided to pursue our dream of living on a farm and moved our family to a thirty acre farm in Central Texas in December 2015. Our new farm was located directly in the center of The University of Texas, Baylor University, and Bastrop ISD where our youngest daughter, The Trooper, attended school. Since it was mid-year when I arrived in the area, I took an interim job at Taylor Middle School where I met some wonderful teaching colleagues until I secured my final teaching position at Lexington Middle School only a couple of miles from our home. I spent the final four and a half years teaching at Lexington Middle School and also served as their cheerleading sponsor and worked with amazing students and colleagues during my years at the school. Halfway through my fifth year in Lexington ISD, I retired from my career in teaching at the age of fifty-five in December, 2020. Like the author Gretchen Rubin said, “The days are long, but the years are short.” This could not ring more true of my teaching career. It went by so quickly that it seemed impossible that 33 years had elapsed since my first day of teaching in the fall of 1988!

I remember one moment during my first year of teaching like it was yesterday. I was standing in the office checking my teacher mailbox as I did every day during my conference period. Other teachers were standing near me checking their boxes as well. I reached my hand into my box, grabbed an envelope, pulled it out of my box, and said “Oh My Goodness!! I forgot I get PAID to do this!! This is the best day ever!” I had gotten my very first paycheck and couldn’t believe how lucky I was! The other teachers standing near me all laughed simultaneously and poked fun at me about that for years afterwards! It was the truth. I loved teaching that much. I loved it to the very last day because I loved the people I met along the way. The students. The colleagues. The cafeteria workers. The custodial staff. The administration. The school board members. The parents. Every single person played a role in my love for teaching because every single person impacted my day in some positive way. Yes, there were some students, parents, and colleagues who were difficult to work with at times, to be sure, but the overwhelming majority of people I interacted with daily were kind, supportive, and absolutely lovely to work with during my career. I still smile often when I think of my former students and colleagues or get a sweet message from one of them via social media.

My career included equal years of teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. Over the years, I taught classes of 6th Grade English, 7th Grade Gifted and Talented (TREK) English, 7th Grade English, 8th Grade English, 6th Grade World History/Geography, and 8th Grade American History. While in Deer Park ISD, I also created and taught an integrated 8th Grade English and History class that was a fun way to teach and an equally interesting way to learn. My early years of teaching were, most assuredly, my favorite years because teaching was not as regulated by testing and data, the curriculum was extremely advanced and varied, and the students were both hard-working and eager to learn. I rarely ever heard a word of complaint from my students about an assignment–even a difficult assignment–during the early years of teaching. They enjoyed the challenge of a difficult assignment just as I had always enjoyed the challenge as a student.

I was so fortunate and blessed because my very first teaching position was a dream job in the top-paying district in the state. In the fall of 1988, Deer Park ISD paid beginning teachers $22,500 with “0” years of experience. During my first years of teaching, I had a ton of super sweet, overachieving students in my 7th Grade G/T English and 6th Grade World History classes. During those years, teachers were highly encouraged to attend educational conferences to hone their teaching skills. One of the best training experiences I had was a three-week long National Geographic Institute during the summer where I received 6 hours of Master’s Degree credit in Geography and Geology and learned exciting new information to help me teach 6th Grade World History and Geography. For several years in a row, I was also sent to a week long G/T conference in San Antonio to meet authors and other middle school teachers across the country who shared ideas and advice about teaching. I was also able to spend valuable time with other members of our faculty and school district. This was a rare time in teaching. I was in a school district that benefited greatly from local industry taxes and was able to provide an excellent array of training for its new teachers. A time before the state was over-involved in every decision and dollar spent by a local school district. Before education was ruled by people who have never stepped a foot into the classroom as a teacher. Before students felt entitled to voice their displeasure of hard work in the classroom. Before there were rules and regulations that felt restricting to teachers, students, and administrators alike. Before creativity took a backseat in the classroom to make room for data driven teaching. My amazing former principals and superintendents have all been patient and supportive during the changes in education. They understood the strain it placed on the classroom teachers and tried their best to alleviate the stress concerning testing. They are all currently trying their best to successfully oversee the data and results that the state demands of each district. The national and state requirements can be challenging and draining for all parties involved.

In November of 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I miraculously reached the seemingly elusive age + experience = 80 equation that enabled me to retire with full benefits. Retirement from teaching couldn’t have happened at a better time for me. COVID-19 had entered the fray of public education and it was wearing on every teacher in the country. I was no different. The mask-wearing, cleaning frenzy was difficult for me since I am a relationship oriented teacher. It hurt me to not see the faces of my new students under their masks. Were they happy, sad, worried? For many of my students, I couldn’t understand what they were saying when they answered questions I asked because they didn’t articulate clearly enough to be heard through the mask. I found myself not calling on particular students because they would have to repeat the answers two or three times before I could understand them or another student would interpret what they were saying. Until masks came along, I didn’t realize that I watched their mouths so closely and, apparently, did a lot of lip reading with my students who have speech impediments. After a couple of months into the school year, the strain of teaching during COVID-19 and the addition of one of my former students in our home as a foster child proved too much for me. Something had to give because I couldn’t healthily balance the demands of teaching during the pandemic and taking on the fostering situation as well. Over time, it became too difficult for me to handle because there was zero down time to relax or refresh myself at home or on the weekends. After weighing the options and not wanting to end the fostering situation until we worked out a positive solution, I finally decided to retire midway through the school year so I could give our foster daughter my undivided time and focus.

When I made the final decision to retire mid-year, I was fortunate enough to have the full support of my fantastic principal, Mr. Johnson, AND the well wishes of my amazing superintendent, Dr. Knowlton, to retire halfway through the school year in December, 2020. I could not be more thankful for their amazing understanding and full support of my decision and the LISD School Board’s decision to approve it as well. It could have been a very different scenario since our school district is small and they easily could have refused to accept my mid-year retirement. I am grateful for leadership who looks beyond what is convenient and easy and, instead, considers the entire situation and all people impacted. It makes a difference in the morale of the faculty and staff to know they are supported and valued. It definitely made a difference for me.

When the last weeks of teaching arrived, my retirement celebrations were beyond my wildest expectations. Our outstanding school faculty threw a really fun surprise party for me and, in addition to the party, my students did a marvelous job celebrating with me as well! At my retirement party, I was presented with a beautiful rocking chair given to me by our Superintendent on behalf of the Board of Trustees and Lexington ISD. For the rocking chair, I was also given a beautiful plaque engraved with my years of teaching and a sweet message. To add to the overall excitement of retiring, I was able to retire at my favorite time of year: Christmas! For my entire life, I have LOVED all things Christmas. The anticipation. The weather. The celebrations. The decorations. The festive atmosphere. The birth of Jesus. Everything about Christmas has always been so exciting to me. Well, retirement at Christmas was absolutely magical! There were parties, celebrations, and lots of sweet gifts of chocolate, coffee, mugs, t-shirts, and more from my students. I was also blessed to receive a notebook full of sweet notes from my former students in Lexington ISD and Clear Creek ISD that had been gathered by my oldest daughter, Miss Sunshine. She used her contacts on social media to gather the letters (and gifts!) during the weeks before my retirement. I cried when I read some of the letters penned by my sweet, thoughtful students from my years at Victory Lakes Intermediate and Lexington Middle School. I even got some sweet letters from students I didn’t teach, but were friends of my students or friends of my children. Those meant a lot to me as well.

Then, to top it off, we actually got out of school two days earlier than planned for Christmas Break so I didn’t even have to grade our final exams due to the sudden dismissal. Was this all a wonderful dream? It all worked out great because I had already cleaned out most of my things in the weeks leading up to that in order to make way for the new teacher who had been hired to replace me. I spent the entire next day after the students had been dismissed for Christmas Break loading up my belongings. I was the last person at our school that day. I had already said my goodbyes to everyone and walked to my car alone with my arms full of gifts and my heart full of gratitude for the years I had spent teaching so many amazing, energetic middle schoolers. Between 3,000-4,000 students have crossed the threshold of my classroom doors over the years that I taught. There were years I had close to 200 students packed into my classroom throughout the day and years I taught less than fifty students throughout the day, but each year was full of special memories and special faces I will never forget. As I pulled away from the school building for the very last time as a teacher, I felt nothing but happiness and peace about my years in the classroom. Now, I was free to do whatever I wanted to do over Christmas Break and FOREVER after that. Wow. It didn’t seem real.

Something amazing that happened after retirement was that I didn’t miss one single paycheck because I had met with TRS about nine months before I applied for retirement. While I was at the TRS headquarters in Austin (before COVID-19 arrived in Texas!), I turned in all of the required documents for my retirement. When the time came to officially retire, I only had to fill out two lines of information on a really short form to make my retirement official. It felt pretty surreal when I faxed that short form to TRS and knew that was the final step I would need to take. Our sweet and efficient business manager turned in another required paper that indicated my final date of teaching in the district and everything worked out perfectly to receive my first TRS paycheck without missing a single paycheck!! This was another Christmas miracle! Haha!

So, what have I been doing with all of my spare time you ask? There have been many things vying for my attention here on the farm, but I have been doing a lot more reading, a lot more Bible studies on my Bible App, and finally calling my close friends and family during the day when I am able to have an uninterrupted conversation!! My parents have jokingly told me that they have never heard of someone retiring so that they can talk on the phone to friends, but I told them that I have been looking forward to that since beginning my career 33 years ago!! Since 1988, I have done the following things: worked full time as a middle school teacher; raised my two sweet children, Brave Heart and Miss Sunshine; gone through a really difficult and unexpected divorce; pulled myself up with the help of God, family, and friends; learned to live as a single mom; very hesitantly entered into the dating scene with two children; met and married my wonderful husband, The Outdoorsman; became a stepmom to his sweet daughter, The Trooper; moved from Houston, Texas to a farm on 30-acres; learned all there is to learn about farming, raising cattle, and gardening; and, finally, taken on the challenge of fostering an 11-year-old student during my last full year in the classroom. When she lived with us, we called her our Special Surprise because, trust me, we were not even thinking about fostering at this time in our lives when we were ready to slow down and bask in the silence as empty nesters. Hopefully, seeing the busyness of my life lined out for you should explain why I needed to retire in order to call and talk to my friends uninterrupted!!

As many of you know, our Special Surprise headed to her new foster home about two weeks ago. Her departure brought with it a new level of retirement for me and allowed The Outdoorsman and I to return to our status as Empty Nesters. We could not be more grateful to God for working out the incredible details that enabled her to return to a loving, former foster home where we know she will thrive. In the meantime, we are enjoying spending time together on our farm as Empty Nesters again. The peace and quiet that comes with this stage of life is invaluable.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have focused on some exciting things that are shaping up on Green Acres. We are currently focused on finishing out my home decor shop, The Rusty Coop, building a new equipment shed, and spending time on our emotional and physical health. Concerning my home decor shop, we are about to get things underway for The Rusty Coop. I have lots of ideas, sketches, and pictures for my vision of the shop. I can’t wait to see all of my planning come to life over the next couple of months. We have recently hired an eager, new contractor to finish the shop in addition to a large equipment shed he is building for our farm. We are excited to see what he can do with our vision. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Actually getting to plan and dream and create the things I love for our family and friends to enjoy. Without the daily “distraction” of an actual job. Lol! Teaching middle school was a treasured time in my life, to be sure, but it sure is nice to get paid for the rest of my life and get to stay home! Who wouldn’t love that?! I now have the freedom to pursue some much loved hobbies such as decorating, raising animals, growing our own food, making muscadine jelly, and visiting with friends. It makes my heart so happy to think of hosting family and friends at our home and getting to share the shop and the garden and our land with them. My entire married adult life has been spent hosting people at our home. I have always enjoyed having family and friends over for food and fellowship. (**If you visited with our family at one of our homes during those years, please comment below and tell us something you remember about our time together!! I would love to reminisce.)

Well, what happened as I grew older and our children grew up is that teaching middle school was taking a toll on my energy level. It was all I could do to go to work, teach middle schoolers all day, conduct a middle school cheerleading practice or event at least once a week, take care of our farm, feed and tend to our animals, cook for my family, clean our home, and nurture the ever important relationships in my life. As I grew more tired from responsibilities at school, I started feeling more anxious about weekends when I knew we were having company, when we were traveling to Houston to visit our families, or when we were hosting events and get-togethers at our house. I fully understood that I had very little spare time to take care of the tasks involved with hosting ahead of time. This is why retirement is such a wonderful blessing to me. I really want to continue having friends and family to our farm. I hate it when my level of exhaustion or lack of time to plan for a get-together causes me to not enjoy the get-togethers as I should.

To be sure, I’m grateful to have been in public education and have the benefits of a retirement income. During my first years of teaching, I remember thinking how far away retirement sounded, but it came quickly as the years passed with everyday life and living. If I could offer some words of encouragement to you, I would tell you not to put off things you are wanting to pursue. Try your best to incorporate those things into your life along with your work!! Travel when you are off for vacation or during the summer, learn to raise chickens or another type of animal that brings you joy, go camping in beautiful state parks with friends, host gatherings with friends and family, read inspirational and educational books about parenting and relationships, and pursue the other things that bring you joy. Those things will help push you through some of the tough days of teaching or working at another job. You must find a balance so that you don’t burn out and grow weary of the work load you carry during the work week. In order to keep a healthy balance, I always made sure to do the things I loved on the weekends, holidays, and summer breaks. I am so thankful I nurtured those relationships and hobbies while I was still working because those very people and activities are what kept me going at times.

I hope you, too, can pursue happiness in the midst of extreme busyness. It’s worth the effort and before you know it, you will be able to focus solely on the things that have afforded you intermittent joy and peace during the busy years. I’m so thankful to be at this place in my life. In the meantime, I encourage you to keep working and dreaming. The work will one day stop and the dreams can be continued full-time when that happens. That is definitely something to look forward to as you head to work each day. I am now living the dream part of the equation without work in the picture. I made it!! Hallelujah and Amen!!

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