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An unexpected ending for retiring teachers

The pandemic left many older educators with a difficult decision


A retiring high school teacher at a drive-thru graduation in Wheaton, Ill., in May 2020 Getty Images/Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service (file)

An unexpected ending for retiring teachers

Richard Irby, 71, retired this summer after 48 years of teaching. His wife, Debra, also left after 30 years. Retiring together “was kind of part of the plan,” Irby said.

Irby, a senior English teacher, worked for Kansas public schools for 34 years before beginning at Trinity Academy in Wichita, Kan., in 2007. When online learning began in the spring of 2020, Irby and his students missed his one-on-one editing sessions, and some students shared a computer with other family members or were busy helping younger siblings. He described the struggle of trying to have meaningful interaction as a “nightmare” but tried to schedule one-on-one Zoom meetings with interested students.

At the end of the 2019-2020 school year, the Irbys had to decide whether to return to the classroom. Before the pandemic, they had planned to teach one more year, but with Irby in his 70s, his wife’s history with breast cancer, and no vaccines yet available, it was a serious decision.

In April 2020, a study found that around 18 percent of public school teachers and a quarter of private school teachers were older than 55. Throughout the pandemic, older teachers have faced greater health risks on top of the stress and unknowns. As schools scrambled to come up with virtual education strategies, many teachers had to master technical skills they hadn’t needed before: In a 2018 teacher survey, Zoom did not even make the top ten list of teaching apps. In 2020, it took first place. Though fears of a mass exodus from teaching have not yet come true, older teachers have more reasons to consider retiring now than before the pandemic.

Linda Swenson, 57, retired from Salem Academy, a private Christian school in Salem, Ore., this summer after 30 years of teaching early elementary grades. For the past three years, she has been thinking about when she would retire, and this year she felt like it was time.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Swenson uploaded three to five YouTube videos a day for her students. “It was a stretch for me,” she said, noting her generation is less familiar with computers. At the beginning of the fall 2020 semester, Swenson taught in person four hours a day, split between halves of the class. She assigned daily work through Google Classroom and hosted a half-hour afternoon Zoom meeting to answer homework questions. In January, the school returned to all in-person classes.

When public schools closed, many parents turned to private schools like Salem Academy for face-to-face learning. “I had kids in my classroom that would not have been there,” Swenson said. Nearly half of her students this past year were new to the school. Despite the short class times, Swenson included a Bible lesson every day, and one of her new students became a Christian in her classroom.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Swenson threw a retirement party at home instead of a school celebration. She missed getting a chance to say goodbye to former students and families.

The Irbys decided to come back for one more year in fall 2020 and entrust their health to God. “We just had a conviction that if there was ever a time we needed to be teachers, for experience, it was this last year,” Irby said.

They plan to travel during their retirement, but also hope to find ways to volunteer. Irby’s lifelong passion for education continues, though he doesn’t plan on ever returning to the classroom. Irby said he and Debra are considering volunteering as grandparent readers or helping in an after-school program with their son-in-law’s church: “We’re not made to retire from life.”


Lauren Dunn

Lauren is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and an intern with WORLD Digital.

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