Reflections from a Recently Retired Head of School

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TABS recently returned from a great week in Boston for our Annual Conference (which we’ll recap in a separate post, for sure). Among many highlights of Conference week is the Head’s Dinner on Friday night, which celebrates all heads of school but particularly retiring heads. TABS Board Member and recently retired head Theo Coonrod shared some thoughts with her colleagues that are poignant, moving and beautifully-articulated — and she’s been kind enough to allow us to publish her remarks here on KeepingTABS. Thank you, Theo!

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TABS Heads Dinner Remarks
December 7, 2013
Theo Coonrod

Pete asked me to speak briefly after this dinner tonight to share my perspective as a recently retired head of school. Ever an English teacher, I believe in the power of stories to reach and teach. Perhaps there’s some part of the story of my journey from headship into retirement that will resonate with you.

In June of 2012 after 12 years as head of school at Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh, North Carolina, I retired and moved to Austin, Texas, my childhood hometown, to join my husband David. He had been caring for my now 95-year-old mother for the previous 18 months. At age 92, Mom had suffered a stroke, and David had volunteered to be her primary caretaker until I could join him. So the first perspective I share is a general one:  it is important to find yourself the right partner for sharing the burdens and blessings of life—like headship and caretaking.

In retrospect, I realize that it was important to me that I was the one making my decision to retire, not my board. Equally important was that my timing reflect a balance between what I needed and what my school needed. It was important also that the timing be such that undue unfinished business would not fall to my successor.

How do you know when to leave? Anthony Sgro at Rabun-Gap Nacooche School suggests that because he has such young children, he cannot retire until ten years after he dies! For the rest of us, Michael Thompson, the popular independent school psychologist, puts it a bit vaguely:  “the way will become clear.” He adds that the marker might be

  • 21st century learning sounds like something you can’t do.  OR
  • You’re so tired on Friday night and when Monday comes, you think, “Oh, do I have to go in?”  OR
  • The school is starting another capital campaign and you can’t do those 35 dinners again.  OR
  • You are tired of your Board Chair.

For me, the moment of truth came when I contemplated signing another three-year contract. My family was calling me back to Texas—Mom had not yet had her stroke, but other family tugged at me: my son and his family in Dallas, and my daughter and sister in Houston. My school had recently wrapped up three financial and strategic initiatives: capital campaign, re-accreditation, and the Board’s strategic planning. However, after 12 years, bone-weariness had replaced the requisite fire in the belly to tackle the school’s next initiatives.  Sensing the limits of my energy and enthusiasm, I had the vague feeling that I had used up nearly all the tricks in my bag.  Also, I was sure that I wanted to leave when people would ask, “Why is she leaving?” not “Why isn’t she leaving?”

For a while, retirement felt like an extended vacation.  I used my energy and time to fix up our remodeled home, catch up with old friends, take a cruise, see our family on a regular basis, explore the quirky charms of Austin, volunteer, celebrate my daughter’s marriage—and take a nap whenever I felt like it.  But when I awoke from what I call my six-month nap, I surprisingly found myself in a state of longing—longing to be doing something that made me feel good about myself, something bigger than my home and family, something that contributed to the larger, common good.

Isn’t this why I became an educator in the first place—a missionary heart that yearned to make the world a better place?  When I shared my malaise with my doctor, she remarked that she treats nearly every one of her newly retired patients for depression at the six-month mark.  When I spoke to other retirees, I heard the same remark—that the first year is unsettling; going from 100 mph to “I may not even start my engine today” is hard. Not having work to do feels unnatural.

Not once in 47 years as an educator did I doubt that I was contributing to anything less than the future of our country.  Isn’t educating children about securing our collective futures? Isn’t an independent school with its visionary mission the best educational sector for doing this work?  Isn’t headship the most impactful position from which to do this work? And isn’t a boarding school the best educational model for developing young hearts and minds to lead our future? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. However, it was not until I walked away from my school campus and a long career in education that I understood fully what I would be losing.

Losing my professional identity has created the biggest hole in my psyche. I had accepted that my voice would lose resonance in my school community as soon as I announced my retirement, and that letting go felt right and reasonable. However, I hadn’t associated my position with my identity, my diminished role in that one school community with the demise of my core identity as an educational leader. Gratefully, I have remained intermittently connected to independent schools through serving on the TABS board, representing The Heads Network at a Canadian conference, conducting a workshop for NCAIS, and meeting with colleagues in Episcopal schools in Austin—connections that energize and restore me.

Most definitely, there are some parts of my profession and position I do not miss—those burdensome responsibilities (Rob Hershey of Episcopal High School calls them the “big R” we wear on our backs) that heads carry with them, even into their sleep—rogue Trustees, the latest scandal in the dorms, vulnerable faculty, annual fund shortfalls, irrational parents, disgruntled alumni, stale strategic plans, flagging enrollment, and the weight of grueling hours.  However, I am missing the power of headship. In a side conversation tonight, Pete suggested that heads really have no power—that we are like superintendents of cemeteries in that everyone is underneath us but no one is paying a darn bit of attention to us! The power I miss is the power to make things happen, to marshal the resources to create a vibrant residential community of living and learning, to sit at the decision-making table, to manage the business of school.

In the quieter space where I now live, I mostly miss the hubbub of school life. I miss having school people in my life everyday. I miss collaborating with others in the trenches on projects, and I miss intellectual conversations with colleagues on topics that stir passions.  I miss opportunities to mentor, to reach out, and to heal. I miss watching kids engage, reach, stumble, right themselves, and grow. I miss the unpredictable that invariably inserted itself into each school day and even miss the challenge of dealing with it.  I miss being a part of something big. And I am missing the paycheck.

Eighteen months into retirement, I now understand what meant the most to me about my work as a head of school; these are the parts of it I must recreate in my new life. I concur with Marion Stone, the narrator of Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, who wisely observes, “You live [life] forward but understand it backward.” I also concur with Marion’s twin brother Shiva, who says that “life in the end is about fixing holes.”  Sure enough, I am now about fixing the holes of loss in my life.  Many have filled, but others still gape.

I now understand that retirement, like all of life’s transitions, is a process and a passage, not a “flip the switch” transaction. I had planned and prepared for retirement and thought I was ready. But I am reminded once again that, even at this stage, I am not just a human being, but also a human becoming. I am not at the end of transformation, but in the middle. I’m still letting go of what’s been lost while shaping what’s to be.

I’m not sure yet whether this process requires simple reframing or whole-hog reinvention. But I am practicing patience, something, my family will tell you, I’ve never been good at, and letting my new identity unfold. I am honing in on what I like to do most, what tugs at my heart (that is, besides hold a newborn grandbaby). I am becoming clear that I need to stay connected to people and to use my skills and talents in the community.  And I’m working on redefining “something big.” Maybe I can find it in my own very little corner.

While I continue to busy myself with fixing and filling my holes, I ask you to do one thing. When you hear someone in our industry complain about “having to go to work,” respond with the retort my mother had handy when we children balked at doing our chores: “In America, you don’t have to; you get to.”  I exhort you to drink deep, not disparage, the elixir of the meaningful work you do while you still have the privilege of doing it.

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