The Changing of the Guard

By NAfME Member Joseph Rutkowski

Ella Wilcox’s article “Building a Legacy” in the August 2022 Teaching Music magazine begins with the current worry of the teacher shortage we are encountering. However, I might add:

Should a veteran music teacher feel guilty about retiring with this dire teacher shortage?

Or

Should a veteran music teacher feel guilty about NOT retiring while some teachers are waiting in the wings to take the stage?

newer teacher Joseph Rutkowski

Photo courtesy of Joseph Rutkowski.

After 31 years at Great Neck North High School on Long Island, eight years at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, and seven years freelancing as a classical clarinetist, saloon piano player, and strolling accordionist, at the age of 68, I hung up my baton, tuxedo, and spats on June 24, 2022. I knew I would miss the job a lot. But I also knew that I needed to retire from full-time teaching when my health was still good enough to continue practicing and playing public concerts and be able to spend time with my family and travel with my wife, Lisa.

smiling orchestra students

Photo courtesy of Joseph Rutkowski.

And this is something that I actually did not realize until three weeks into retirement when I re-visited my favorite Twilight Zone episode: “The Changing of the Guard.” The longer an older teacher stays on the job, the longer the young teacher has to wait to start their teaching career. It’s only fair that the teacher who has passed the retirement age considers a changing of the guard to serve the youth. In Rod Serling’s “The Changing of the Guard,” an elderly literature teacher is told by the school headmaster that his contract will not be renewed, and he is being terminated in order to serve the youth. Professor Fowler is completely depressed, because he is convinced that his 50+years of teaching has been a waste of time for him and his students until he enters the Twilight Zone. He is visited by the ghosts of his students who died as heroes in various courageous acts, and they each attribute their bravery to the lessons in poetry that he taught them.

It is February 2023, and I have been retired from 39 years of teaching high school music for eight months. To say that I miss spending my waking hours sharing my love of music (listening to it, talking about it, studying it, practicing, rehearsing, and performing it and most importantly THINKING about it) with excited teenagers is a gross understatement. But, so far—not one regret that I retired. I have kept myself quite busy getting a normal amount of sleep, spending time with my wife, family, and friends, practicing my clarinet and piano more than I have in decades, going to plays and concerts and thinking about how music has treated me.

In my years as a teacher, I was really lucky. And so many music teachers are, too. In high school, you get teenagers who care about playing music to spend at least one (sometimes two or three) period(s) every day for four years with you. Most teachers are lucky to have a student spend more than one year with them. High school music teachers can have them for four years. Let me repeat what a high school principal told us in his final faculty meeting before he retired: “You will always underestimate the influence you have over our students TENFOLD.” Imagine the high school music teacher who gets to spend more quality time with their students than they probably spend with their parents and friends during those four years.

Changing of the Guard

Photo courtesy of Joseph Rutkowski.

In the final three months of my teaching career, I had the incredibly good fortune of training a student teacher named Raffi Froundjian. At the age of 30 (the same age I was when I started teaching high school), Raffi had a previous career as a professionally performing guitarist and now wanted to settle down from his internationally touring road gig. He was so excited about starting his new career as a teacher. Helping him learn the ropes on a daily basis for three months rekindled the same emotion I had when I was ready to start my teaching career. For the first summer of my retirement and his last summer before starting a teaching career, Raffi and I spent hours talking on the phone as I guided him through preparing for teaching job interviews.

It got me all excited thinking about that first day of the school year when I’d tell the students, “No, we’re not going to play today. We’re going to go over the ground rules of what you should expect from me and what I should expect from you starting tomorrow. I remind you that you MUST bring your instruments to class tomorrow. If you play the large instrument, I will tell you which school instrument will be assigned to you with the combination numbers of the lockers. Then, we’ll sing a little, we’ll conduct a little, and for a few minutes, we’ll listen to and try to identify some great music on the local classical music station (WQXR). And tomorrow we start playing and reviewing the B flat major scale (D major for the string players) and read through Vaughan Williams Folk Song Suite (Beethoven Symphony No. 1 for the string players).”

Well, I won’t be doing that anymore. And I will really miss it every September going forward. But now, I finally understand “The Changing of the Guard.” The longer an old teacher puts off retirement, the longer Raffi and his young teacher colleagues have to wait to get started on their teaching careers. After only eight months of no longer teaching, do I miss it? You bet I do. But I have no regrets. It’s time for a changing of the guard.

Joseph Rutkowski conducting on stage

Photo courtesy of Joseph Rutkowski.

After eight months, I think I found the solution to these questions of guilt:

Should a veteran music teacher feel guilty about retiring with this dire teacher shortage?

and

Should a veteran music teacher feel guilty about NOT retiring while some teachers are waiting in the wings to take the stage?

To alleviate the guilt of retiring or NOT retiring, I am finding that a veteran music teacher will find great satisfaction visiting new teachers in the classroom to observe, speak to the students, and privately offer suggestions to the teacher. I am finding ecstatic joy when I accept the invitation to appear as a guest teacher from orchestra teachers still in the classroom. More about that in my next blog: “The Profound Experience of Sharing.”

I was blessed by the students who spent four years in room 218 at North High and in room 122 at the old Stuyvesant High School on East 15th Street. The final concert.

YouTube video

Sincerely,

Joseph Rutkowski

Wild Man Joe II video by Ben Rutkowski was released in September 2022

Wild Man Joe II from Benjamin Rutkowski on Vimeo.

 

It is the sequel to his Wild Man Joe posted 12 years ago.

Wild Man Joe – Directing Exercise from Benjamin Rutkowski on Vimeo.

 

For further reading:

About the author:

Joseph Rutkowski retirementNAfME member Joseph Rutkowski taught band and orchestra classes at the John L. Miller-Great Neck North High School on Long Island from 1991 to 2022 and was the orchestra director at Stuyvesant High School in NYC for the eight years prior. He continues to perform as a concert clarinetist in orchestras and chamber ensembles, as well as a jazz pianist with his sons and former students. Joseph is a two-time Presidential Scholar Teacher, a Distinguished Teacher of the Harvard Club of Long Island, the 2015 Long Island Music Hall of Fame Educator of Note, and a three-time GRAMMY Music Educator AwardTM quarterfinalist. Check out the John L. Miller – Great Neck North High School music program website.

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

March 21, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

March 21, 2023

Category

  • Ensembles
  • Lifelong Learning
  • Music Education Profession

Copyright

March 21, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

April 2024 Teaching Music
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Gator Cases new Largo series. Image of high school girl sitting next to music cases in front of green lockers.