The Last Months of Work at a Rewarding Career: Bitter and Sweet


September 7, 2013 by Jean

I’ve been lucky. I have not slogged through life, forcing myself to go off each morning to a job I hate. On the contrary, I have had a career that has been intellectually, emotionally, and financially rewarding. As I’ve returned to Gettysburg College for my last year of teaching before I retire, several people have noted that these last months of work will be “bittersweet.” In paying attention to my emotions as I go about my work each day, I’m finding this an apt description.

When I walked into my department’s newly renovated space for the first time three weeks ago, I found the walls decorated with framed photographs of my garden, taken from the gift calendars I create each year. I was completely surprised by this, and it was sweet.

Then I walked down the hall and opened my office door to find an overwhelming jumble of unplaced furniture and unpacked boxes. Bitter.

For the first two weeks of classes, I’ve been meeting individually with all my new students and getting to know them. Sweet.

Last weekend, I had to work almost a full day on Sunday to get all the reading and grading done in preparation for this week’s classes. I hate having to give up evenings and weekends as leisure time once school starts. Bitter.

This week, I’ve had really wonderful class discussions in two of my courses – the kinds of discussions where I learn something new about material I’ve been teaching for years. Sweet.

By Tuesday evening, I was already backed up with grading, with three sets of papers (one from each course) demanding my attention. Bitter.

On Wednesday evening, I gave a talk in a large introductory class; the students were lively and engaged and several stayed behind after the lecture was over to talk further. Sweet.

By the time I left campus to go home that evening, I had been there for 13 hours, working nonstop, and I was exhausted. Bitter.

I learned that the college library is about to mount an exhibit of my garden photography. Sweet.

On Thursday night, after less than two weeks of classes, I broke my resolution to get at least 7 hours of sleep every night. I stayed up grading papers until after midnight and crawled into bed less than 6 hours before my alarm clock would go off at 5:45 a.m. Bitter.

On Friday, as I was walking back to my office after my 9 a.m. class, a student I didn’t know stopped me on the sidewalk and said, “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your lecture the other night.” Sweet.

The bitter items in this list are the parts of my job that I don’t enjoy – grading and long, exhausting work hours that leave little time or energy for anything else. While the experience of these is bitter, the realization that I’ll be done with them forever in a few months is sweet! On the other hand, many of the sweet items (e.g., personal interaction with students and class discussion), are the parts of my job I love and find rewarding and that I know I will miss. Other sweet items, however, (e.g., gardening and photography) represent parts of my life that I will have more time for after I retire and the anticipation of those opportunities is sweet.

While the description of my last months of work as “bittersweet” is apt, I am finding that the sweet outweighs the bitter. There are aspects of work I will miss, but I am looking forward eagerly to retirement.

12 thoughts on “The Last Months of Work at a Rewarding Career: Bitter and Sweet

  1. Jean says:

    Teachers are such dedicated souls. Even after you leave the class room you’ll still be teaching so many things by example. I can even visualize you starting a garden club exchange where you each teach each other about plants and life. Enjoy the ‘sweet’ in your coming days and they will fly by.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I think you are right that leaving the classroom does not mean that I will stop teaching. I actually see blogging as having some teaching elements. What I have to be careful of is that I don’t put on know-it-all professorial airs in situations where it is inappropriate. 😐

  2. Sandy says:

    As a community college administrator (formerly faculty) who has started thinking more often than previously (let’s put it that way) about retirement (the date will be determined for the most part by the condition of TIAA-CREF), I discovered your blog this summer. Am enjoying it the same way i enjoyed Carl Klaus’ book Taking Retirement…this may be me in a few years! So thanks.

    • Jean says:

      Sandy, Thanks for visiting and commenting. I hadn’t heard about the Klaus book, so thank you for recommending it. I will definitely look for it.

  3. Oh Jean, this is all so perfect! The “bitter” times are mostly ones you will be leaving soon. But the sweet ones that relate to your other passions are all the sweeter for reflecting what you are looking forward to. It’s been 6 years for me and I DO NOT miss grading papers or attending committee meetings. I don’t miss missing sleep. And I don’t miss office hours that are just about paper revisions and grades. I do miss the intellectual stimulation of class prep and many, many of my students individually and in classes. There’s really nothing like it. In my life, I was a performer as well as spending years as a professor. And I’d take the classroom over the stage any day! But I’m happy with my memories and my new life. I’m sure you will be too. This is SUCH a great blog! It’s a very common yet very special experience that you record here. Thank you for that.

    • Jean says:

      Emily, I’m interested in your performance background. I often compare the classroom to the stage. Discussion classes, for example, seem to me akin to improv; you have some outline of where you are going, but no script. (So much depends on audience reaction.) This is my favorite type of teaching, but it always feels a bit like a high-wire act.

      • Diana Studer says:

        then perhaps you will enjoy Hangouts on Google Plus. Not my style, but the live video (either Public or by invitation) seems to work well for others. It is social media, but I miss your, Jean the sociologist’s input amongst the marketing gurus.

        • Jean says:

          Diana, The idea of using Google Hangouts for on-line discussions is intriguing. I did enjoy my HuffPost Live panel discussion experience, which was orchestrated in Google Hangouts. Please be reassured that I am not retiring from being a sociologist — and I’m looking forward to having more time for doing more of that thinking and analysis. I’ve been using some research funds provided by my employer to collect a library of sociology and history books on social media, gardening, retirement, and leisure. I’ve been dipping into them in my spare time; but more spare time will allow me to get beyond dipping and actually swim!

  4. Jean I can relate so well to this as I have the same bitter and sweet aspects of my job. The bitter are far outweighing the sweet right now and the overload of work has made me run down and sick. So I am looking forward to ending the bitter and starting the sweet time of relaxing and easing into life again with writing and gardening….not to mention a few more new hobbies to explore…I think the cosmos are sending me more bitter so I will finally retire. I am getting the message loud and clear.

    Oh and congrats on the exhibit of your garden photography!!

    • Jean says:

      Donna, I’m sorry to hear you are having such a difficult last year. I think I am finding the workload a bit easier to take because I know it will be over soon.

      I love the (unintended?) double entendre of your comment about the cosmos. Is it the universe that is sending you the message to retire, or flowers in your garden? 🙂

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

Please join me as I step into my future.

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