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“Are you counting the days yet?”

I’ve gotten used to this daily refrain from inquisitive colleagues since I announced my retirement after 27 years with the district. When I hear it, I smile back, dreaming of leisurely coffee over the weekday Los Angeles Times while a new poodle sits at my feet, gently tapping his tail to the beat of Vivaldi on the stereo. I will be able to do what I want, when I want, without the nagging responsibility of 30 sixth-graders to cajole, inspire, reprimand and worry about 181 days of the year (not including overtime). Sure, I’m counting the days!

Yet, something strange happened after my formal announcement. After two decades of teaching gifted and talented children, I realize I have a smattering of vocal students who act like they don’t want to be there, or should I say, don’t want to learn the way I like and know best how to teach. After most of the year of hitting my head against the wall, it dawns on me that they want a different kind of teacher, not the intellectual, achievement-motivated type that I’ve prided myself on all these years.

One of my biggest points of resistance is J.L. There is one word to describe him: impulsive. He is incredibly loquacious, can even get a sleeping cricket to pay attention to him. He is everywhere and nowhere. He doesn’t do his work, or if forced to, just rushes through it. He constantly sucks on his water bottle after lunch until dismissal time. He frequently wraps his sweatshirt around his head while fanning himself with the plastic top of the supply box. And did I mention that he loves to put other kids down? In other words, he’s exactly the kind of kid I have never been able to connect to. The more I try to change him, the more he pushes back.

“ I have embraced this challenging situation as a fertile reflective moment where I can perhaps continue to make a difference.”

J.L. reminds me of the students in the first class I had as a beginning teacher. The class that the principal gave me midway through the year because he placed the actual teacher on early retirement for turning off his hearing aids and letting the students run wildly out of the room into the planter boxes during instructional time. Everything I thought I wanted to be as a teacher was totally contradictory to that first year. Yet, I stayed for another 26.

And now I am forced to rethink what it means to teach in my last year. Whereas in Year 1 I was just trying to make some semblance of order out of chaos to meet official objectives and keep my sanity, in Year 27 I realize it’s more important for me to understand students like J.L. and meet his needs from where he is rather than from my assumption of where he should already be. So, I changed my attitude and my approach. I put him next to me, up front. I promoted him to be my class assistant, asking him to run things in the classroom and give his opinion throughout the day. I got his parents to put him on a football team, which he loves. I set him up as a tutor in a kindergarten classroom where the kids drool all over him. I invited his mother to join us on a field trip to the local state university where she and her son held hands the whole time.

And you know what? I’m happier. And so is he. He is still obnoxious and difficult to teach, but ironically, I’ve gone back to the roots of who I am as an educator. Instead of complaining about students like J.L. at lunchtime or staring absent-mindedly at Netflix in the evenings before dozing off to sleep, I have embraced this challenging situation as a fertile reflective moment where I can perhaps continue to make a difference.

In her book Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins describes the amazing physical and psychological prowess of tennis great Martina Navratilova. Although Navratilova no longer competes for the Grand Slam, she regularly plays on the professional circuit. She quipped, “The ball doesn’t know how old you are.”

As Jenkins eloquently explains how to “disrupt aging”: “The first step is to ‘own your age.’ I’m not talking about just accepting your age. I mean really own it: embrace it, feel good about where you are in life, and more importantly, about where you are going.”

As I learned this year, teaching doesn’t know how old I am. In the first, the last, and all the years in between, you just have to embrace it if you’re going to be more than a footnote in a student’s life as well as your own. In the meantime, I do count the days until I close that door for the last time, but at least I’ll know they’ll measure up to something.

Newly retired Anaheim Elementary Education Association member Leslie Young, National Board Certified Teacher, is finishing her Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University and continues to teach for the Orange County Department of Education.