Law ‘excited’ about retirementPublished 11:04am Friday, March 5, 2010
By JESSICA SIEFF
Niles Daily Star
Since announcing his retirement almost two years ago, Doug Law has been relatively tight-lipped about his decision and even his reflections of his own career.
But with his replacement just a few signatures away from being a sure thing, there is something definitely changed in Mr. Law, who will end a 39-year career with the Niles Community Schools system at the end of this school year.
It is not total relief, for Law still has an ugly budget to build, something he is well aware of. And it is not growing anticipation, for he says he doesn’t even think about the days ticking away to what will be his last; he still has work to do.
Rather, it seems the change in Law these days is an abandonment of restraint. He is more forthcoming in his insights on the future of education, more than willing to talk about the joys and the frustrations.
Law was raised in a suburb of Detroit. Growing up, he spent a lot of time working with children as a camp counselor and working in his area YMCA, where his father was an executive.
Going into college, Law said he knew he enjoyed working with kids and he figured his future could go in one of two directions: business or education.
He chose education.
Following high school, he attended Adrian College, where in biology class he sat at the same table as a young woman named Ellen.
With the school’s football standout posing a bit of a challenge by literally sitting between the two, Law chose a unique approach to catching the eye of the young woman.
“What I intentionally did one day was I tripped over her feet,” he said. “Oh sorry, I’m Doug Law.”
The two began dating in the second semester of their freshman year. They were married in their junior year “because we were really mature,” he joked.
Both in education, the two graduated and received dual opportunities to work in the same school district.
“We didn’t even know where Niles was,” he says.
At the time, he says, the country was “staring Vietnam in the face.” There were more challenges to come Law’s way. The threat of being drafted and, one might imagine, the pressures of being a young husband and a new teacher.
“They gave you a classroom, they said here’s your books and there was very little support for teachers,” Law said of his first year teaching as an elementary school teacher at Howard.
He credits his wife for providing a lot of the support he needed as they both began their careers and felt the same experiences affecting them.
“Thank goodness we were both going through the same experience because it was hard for both of us,” he said. “But I think she was a far better teacher than I was.”
He stresses the need for support to new teachers starting their careers now.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” he said, adding that many teachers run the risk of isolating themselves in their classrooms and for new teachers especially, there is disillusionment to face when lessons don’t always go as planned.
As he winds down his career with the Niles Community Schools district, it’s easy to see somewhat sad ironies when it comes to what Law is leaving behind.
He came into the district at a time of immense change.
The high school in the mid-1990s, he said, had built a bad reputation and was losing students to School of Choice.
Law called a teacher’s strike in the mid-1980s “awful.”
“I’ll never forget it,” he said, “because I didn’t agree with it. It was awful because it was destroying the district.” The Michigan Education Association’s involvement took control away from teachers, he believed, and to him it felt as though the educators were being used as pawns.
“It was so destructive for the school and the community to have teacher’s out on strike and kids not in school,” he said.
He marks the switch to an eight-period schedule at the high school as one of his stand out memories and achievements.
“Block scheduling, whole career focus, was by far the best professional experience I ever had,” he said. “We took a real honest look at what we needed to do to make things better for kids and for two years it was just great conversation. It was very collaborative, it was people willing to take risks and we put this fantastic program together at the high school and without anyone telling us we had to.”
Now, that highlight is poised to be cut in order for the district to save money.
Whereas so many people who end careers that have spanned as much time as his try to leave their respective places on a high note, one has to wonder whether or not Law feels a little cheated. Many of his accomplishments now stand to be eliminated before he’s even through the door.
He’s proud of his accomplishments, he said, but acknowledges that the current state of the district might not have been the view he’d hoped to see from the rearview mirror.
“I was picturing leaving this district with all these great programs in place, with a fairly stable funding situation that was going to be great for someone with new eyes and new energy that was going to be able to come in and take it to the next level,” he said. “And this whole budget mess is certainly putting a cloud over that for me. If I was a really smart man, I would have retired last year and not have to do this. But it is what it is.”
And what it is, is frustration
“The main reason is dysfunctional state government,” he said. “You get to the point as a superintendent where it wears on you.
“I’m worn out mostly because dysfunctional state government makes it very hard to lead with vision when you can’t predict what’s happening in state government and you can’t trust … all of a sudden it’s one step forward and two steps back and it’s very frustrating,” Law said.
Had it not been for the state government’s impact on education, Law says he believes he might have held on to the superintendent’s office for a little longer.
“I like being here,” he said. “It’s a great district with great people and great programs and we do wonderful things for kids.”
The decision to leave
“Something just happens to you, you just know,” Law said of other motivators for his decision.
With the movement to bring Richard Weigel, his successor, to the district, Law has now been given the gift of knowing his resignation is getting closer and closer to reality and there an obvious joy that comes out in him now, one that seems to be tied to the possibilities that await.
In July 2008, when he announced his retirement, he said “things were good” and officials didn’t see the current challenges coming.
Still, he adds, the state government issue is what has really gotten to him.
“I guess I got to the point where I realized that it was my belief that it was time for somebody new to be able to come in and take this well run district to another level and I wasn’t going to have the energy to do that.”
If there is any energy left for his current role, he is bringing it with him to the table – but there is an obvious desire now to hit the home stretch.
That home stretch includes an ample amount of fishing, golf and time with his wife, his father and his children and grandchildren.
“I’ve got five granddaughters, my dad is still alive and healthy and I look forward to spending a little more time fishing and time with Dad,” he said. “I’m still interested in doing the education part of this business, the people part, but I’m tired of doing the business part. I’m tired of cutting budgets every year. I think professionally I leave on that high.”
And he’s clear that Niles is home. Ellen, after all, is still teaching at Ballard Elementary School and Law says he thinks there is something else that’s waiting for him, even if he’s not quite sure what that is yet.
In the end, Law says that if he had a chance to look at the young, inexperienced Mr. Law at Howard School facing his first classroom and a wide open future, he’d tell his younger self not to be afraid of the open door.
“I’m happy he wasn’t afraid to take risks,” he said.
One thing Law has made sure of – he won’t make any decision regarding his next career move until after September. He’ll get his first real summer vacation in more than 35 years.
And when the bell rings next year and fresh faces fill the halls of Niles’ schools and many students walk into classrooms with all of the possibility a new year affords, one could say Law will once again be able to relate.