So I’m crossing the road in Brighton yesterday and there’s Frank on the other side.
‘Hello,’ he says, ‘Are you alright, then?’
Not ‘How are you?’ or even, ‘Are you missing that madhouse you helped create?’ but, ‘Are you alright?’
As if retiring as college principal is something I could be expected to have to recover from.
Or perhaps, not recover from but stagger off into the future like Grendel trailing the ghastly wound of my leaving behind me.
It got me thinking. Was he right? Why, after eighteen years in the same post, had I been able to walk away so easily from it? Why, two years on, was I happy to reflect on it but never inclined to dwell on it?
The answer has to lie in two questions:
- How attached are you to what you’re doing?
- And how attractive is what you’re leaving it for?
Be a full-time principal without giving up on being a full-time human being
Theoretically, stopping being a college principal should leave a big hole. The job never goes away. It’s not uncommon to wake in the small hours worrying about it and there’s always the abiding knowledge that the phone could go at three a.m. with a decision to make.
A colleague principal once told me the only time he could guarantee not to think about work was when he was landing a plane. The possibility of sudden death tended to clear his mind.
But as that example shows it’s quite possible to be a full-time principal without giving up on being a full-time human being. I always liked the wisdom in that story of Sir Francis Drake getting interrupted by work: ‘Yes, I’m perfectly well aware there’s an Armada in the Channel – can’t you see I’m playing bowls?’
Custodianship not ownership
So the job should never own you. And just as important, you should never own the job. I always had a profound sense of custodianship of the college but never for a moment did I feel it belonged to me. I didn’t own it and never wanted to. I was totally single-minded about making the quality of our work as good as it possibly could be.
That seemed to me a thoroughly worthwhile aim but I never for a moment doubted the college had a life quite independent of mine and would go on thriving after I’d left. I was perfectly happy that one day I’d leave and be forgotten; but I’d know what we’d achieved together and that’s what mattered.
When that time came I had the very good fortune to know just what I wanted to do: carry on working but find time for further study.
The need to feel you’re making a positive difference doesn’t disappear just because the need to earn a regular salary has. And anyway my main hobby costs no more than a bit of travel; membership of the Bodleian and British Library is – amazingly - completely free of charge.
Some battles you never win
If you can leave light in heart you may not be the only one who benefits. What would it be like working for a principal who was obsessed with work or who behaved as if the college really did belong to them?
I can imagine that the fun might kind of get squeezed out? And were you ever at your most effective when working in that state of mind? Pushing too hard and never looking up is how you make a rut.
If my experience is any guide there’s only one difficulty about retirement you won’t get round. Your mother.
So what if you’re sixty? She had you sized up before you could even answer back and nothing you can say now is going to remove her conviction, held with a New Testament conviction and Old Testament fear, that any day now you’re going to flop down on the sofa and give yourself up to perpetual daytime TV.
Some battles you never win. My advice? Don’t try.
Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.