When Emily Vilkus reflects on her 33 years as a public school teacher and on the many colleagues she’s had, she recognizes something they all share. “I’ve never seen a teacher have a midlife crisis about what they’re doing with their life or what they’re contributing to the world,” she said. “Every single day I’ve done something good for a child. Some days it’s just one kid, but some days it’s all 175 of them.”
Vilkus will retire after the 2018-19 school year from East High School in Denver, where’s she’s been a math instructor for the past 29 years—minus a couple maternity leaves. Like so many educators, she hails from a family with the “service gene;” her mother and both grandmothers also were teachers. She thought about being an engineer during college, but even though she’s part of “the first generation of women who could really do anything professionally,” the allure of teaching never dimmed.
Vilkus realized several years ago that this one would be her last as a teacher, and she used Colorado PERA’s services regularly during the wind-down to her departure, including one-on-one and group retirement-planning meetings. “Figuring out exactly what your benefit check is going to be and how the health care works makes retiring really daunting,” she said. “Fortunately, the meetings were all helpful every time. I got good information, and no one at PERA ever contradicted each other.”
Now that she’s on her way out, Vilkus will miss her fellow teachers and staff, the school’s extracurricular activities, and the energy of her teen students, particularly the way “they’re figuring out who they are and also starting to see you, the teacher, as a human being, too.”
The energy she mentions goes both ways. Hannah Roy started taking math classes with Vilkus during Roy’s freshman year at East; she ended up in a Vilkus-led class all four years and went on to study math and education in college. “I didn’t necessarily even like math at first,” Roy said. “But there’s just something about Emily’s storytelling and energy that inspires you.”
The close relationship between the two flourished so much over time that Roy is currently finishing her second year as an East High School math instructor, with Vilkus serving as her treasured mentor. “She’s been a great resource for helping me with things like lesson planning or classroom management, or for giving advice when I just need to vent,” Roy said. “The first few years for any teacher can be crazy anyway, but I try to bring the same level of engagement and kindness to the classroom that she always has.”
After handing the reins to her former student and to her other colleagues at East, Vilkus, newly able to take an autumn vacation, will travel this fall with her husband to Venice for the renowned international art fair, La Biennale di Venezia. She’s also planning to visit Scandinavia and the Baltic states and see more of her three grandchildren in California. Overall, she appreciates how much her work and its retirement benefits have given her the ability to determine how her next chapter will unfold. “It’s nice to retire and I’m sure I’ll keep working, just not at this,” she said. “Hardly anyone has a pension anymore. It’s so rare but so great to have that for the rest of your life.”