The other day it dawned on me that it’s already been five years since my wife and I retired. I taught 31 years in grades 2-6, and my wife was a preschool teacher and then became director of the same preschool. I’ve volunteered a few times each year at my old elementary school when my former colleagues needed a little extra help with something, but since Covid began, they haven’t called. I understand that; it’s a new world.
One of the reasons I liked teaching was I loved being around children. In a lot of ways, I’m still a big kid. I was that teacher who enjoyed running around with his class at PE time. When we played a game, more often than not, I was a part of things. It was one of the ways I bonded with my class. Having fun with my students? It was one of the things I looked forward to each day. A classroom is more than a place to learn academics. It’s a place to create a love for learning and teach life lessons.
I had planned on teaching three years longer than I did, but I had to listen to my body. One fault of many teachers is we are so busy looking after our students that we sometimes forget to look after ourselves. We try to do it all, and without stopping to realize it, our health begins to suffer. As much as I loved my students, I had to relearn to love myself.
A few years back, I was lying in bed for the third Christmas in a row, and I realized I needed to make some changes, or I wouldn’t be around. That’s not hyperbole—I was a candidate for a heart attack. The pounds kept creeping on over the years, the stress was always there, and I was running myself ragged until I’d get sick and was out for prolonged periods.
Near the end of that school year, I told my class that I was going to retire. To see the sadness on some of their faces still brings tears to my eyes, thinking about it. They cared about me in the same way that I cared about them. “Why are you retiring, Mr. Springer? What are you going to do?”
One of my strengths as a teacher was my honesty with my students. I always tried to “keep it real” with them. I said, “I have to start taking care of myself. Someday I’m going to be a grandpa, and I want to be around to enjoy my grandchildren.”
One child asked, “But what will you do when you’re not playing with your grandchildren?”
I grinned, imagining my future. “I think I want to write books for children like you.”
“You could do that,” said one of my brightest students enthusiastically. “Think about all the plays we’ve done this year.”
One of the things I tried to teach my students was to show them that writing was more than just putting words down on paper. It was a way to communicate, bring joy, be silly, entertain, and yes, it was another avenue to teach.
When it came time to write in class, I wrote with my students. I wanted them to know that I looked forward to writing, and I started to notice a change in them. Instead of kids asking, “How much do we have to write?” as if the task were like eating Brussel sprouts, they began asking questions such as, “Can we write about this?” It was pure magic to a teacher’s ears.
I wrote many plays over the years. They were often silly, and I usually wrote a part for myself into each skit. What could be more fun than having students pretend they were a principal or teacher while I played the role of the lazy, pouty, or difficult student? Embedded in those plays were lessons about honesty, perseverance, kindness, or empathy. Quiet and shy children became performers, often surprising their classmates and themselves with how acting allowed them to find qualities from within that they didn’t know they possessed.
Many people who know me today are surprised to learn that I used to be one of those quiet and withdrawn students. When I discovered my calling as a teacher, I never forgot that lesson. Public speaking empowers us; it makes us feel good about ourselves. Once we overcome that fear, we are emboldened to conquer other challenges.
The reason I’m thinking about this today is I’ve met one of my long-awaited goals. Tomorrow I’ll begin querying agents for my first middle-grade novel, Second Chance Summer, a contemporary story about a 7th-grade boy struggling with his parents’ recent separation.
After I retired, I wrote a book for future teachers—They Call Me Mom. I wanted to give back to a profession that had been so good to me. That book was never part of my plan, but it was something I needed to do. Writing a fictional 60,000-word story for middle grades required an entirely different skill set. I had a lot to learn, but I threw myself into it with the kind of work ethic passed on to me by my hard-working parents.
Anyone who has ever gone after a long-term goal can relate. There is a unique feeling of pride when we finish what we set out to do. I am typically a left-brained person who tackles most problems with logic. I had to take many steps to get to where I wanted to go from A to Z.
Step 1—Physical Needs I started exercising regularly. For the past five years, I’ve addressed that need. I’ve gone to the gym, walked countless miles, swam, ridden a bike, and played pickleball. Has it been easy? No, but it has gotten easier. I’m no longer that guy huffing and puffing up every hill. I’ve gone from 285 to 200 pounds. I’m confident that I’m never going back to my old self because I’m disciplined about exercise, and I’ve given up some poor eating habits. When I have a bad eating day, I don’t beat myself up. I get back to business the next day.
My parents never put importance on what their children looked like, but they always valued character. I’ve always tried to remember that lesson. That’s why I don’t look at losing weight as some great accomplishment. It’s merely a step to help me reach my long-term goals.
Step 2—Emotional Needs I make the time to do things with the important people in my life. I’m an organizer, the guy who gets his friends together. I know how good that is for my soul. Writing is typically a solitary pursuit, but we can’t live inside a bubble. I make the time to gather with my friends because I know that brings me peace of mind. Spending time communicating and laughing with my wife is part of every day. Paying attention to one’s emotional needs is one of the keys to happiness. I spend a lot less time in front of the television, and I end each day by reading. Not only does that feed my emotional needs, but it also helps me fall asleep.
Step 3—Educational Needs After I settled on a goal, the next logical step was to think about how to get there. Great, you want to be a children’s writer, but what does that entail? Like any new pursuit, it involves a lot of learning. I took OLLI classes, joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), attended workshops, read lots of books about writing, found a writing critique group, started a blog, and began networking with other writers. I no longer wrote when I felt like it; I wrote something each day. I didn’t think of myself as a writer before, but now I do. I’m serious about this because I love it. I’ve learned to respect the process, and there is joy in learning.
It’s all been helpful and necessary. Am I done learning? Haha! That’s like asking a teen if he wants to hang out with his parents?
If someone takes motivation from my story, I will feel like I’ve accomplished why I wrote this post. Believe in yourself. Go after your aspirations with fearlessness. It’s much better to have tried than sit on the sidelines watching other people pursue their goals.
Anyone who has read my blog knows I frequently write about the importance of role models. I not only take wisdom and inspiration from those around me—it fuels me. Here are just a few of the many other people who have inspired me in one way or another in the past few years. I know many of them probably haven’t realized they were empowering me through their strength and determination.
Will I feel like a failure if I don’t find a publisher? Absolutely not! I like learning, and there is reward enough in that. It’s not only about the finished product. I know this is still a long shot, but I’m giving myself the best opportunity. I wouldn’t say that I took shortcuts with my first book, but I have gone the extra mile this time. After a bunch of rewrites, going over my story twice with my fantastic writer’s group, gathering lots of feedback from other readers, and hiring professional editors (Thanks so much, Sirah and Jessica—you’re the best!), I am proud of the finished product. I feel like I’ve got a lot more stories to tell. After all, I am still a teacher. Now I’m adding a new tag—writer. I’ll wear those badges with pride.