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A Tulsa World analysis found summertime teacher retirements are up nearly 38% year-over-year, in yet another sign that Oklahoma’s teacher shortage is worsening.

Many newly retired educators from area school districts say the pandemic pushed them past the brink for one reason or another, and in a lot of cases, years sooner than they might have left the classroom otherwise.

“This past year was just tough. I think people got to the point where they had enough,” said longtime Collinsville Superintendent Lance West, who at just 54 years old also just retired from the public school system. “I don’t think it’s just about money anymore. It’s the demands of our society — our society has changed.

“If people don’t think there’s any correlation between teachers leaving and that, they’re not paying attention to the data.”

According to data from the Oklahoma Teachers’ Retirement System, retirements the previous two summers were relatively level at 1,622 during the months of May through August in 2019 and 1,600 during the same peak retirement period in 2020.

During the same summer months this year, 2,205 Oklahoma teachers retired.

“We will have more detailed information in October when we receive our actuarial report,” said Sarah Green, the new executive director for Oklahoma TRS.

For a decade, the state’s public schools have grown increasingly reliant on filling teaching vacancies with nonaccredited teachers.

School superintendents certify to the state that no certified candidates were available to fill a position they wish to fill with someone who needs an emergency certification. Emergency certifications allow individuals with a bachelor’s degree to be employed as teachers for up to three years before they complete the education or training requirements for regular or alternative certification.

The Oklahoma State Board of Education has approved nearly 2,700 emergency certificates since June 1, nearing the full-year total of 2,801 for all of the 2020-21 academic year.

Locally, Tulsa Public Schools went into the fall semester with warnings to the community that severe shortages in teachers and substitutes could hamstring the district’s ability to operate normally if the current COVID-19 surge doesn’t subside soon.

One of those vacancies was created when 54-year-old Lynette Shouse left Grissom Elementary School, where she was the longtime gifted and talented coordinator.

Just six years ago, Shouse was TPS Teacher of the Year and was showered with gifts from local businesses and surprised with a classroom makeover by a local architecture firm.

Today, she’s working at a private Christian school at the church she attends because life there, she said, is a bit simpler.

“It is just a different atmosphere. I feel like there are more demands on the public school system to provide some things that might be less of a need here,” said Shouse. “Probably without the pandemic, I would have spent a few more years. I think the pandemic pushed some of us over the edge. Teachers my age and older — we’re not digital natives.”

Shouse added that her decision to try her hand at teaching in a private school for a few more years has confounded friends who also recently retired from public schools.

“But I don’t really feel like I’m completely finished teaching. I feel like I had given what I needed to give to public education — I had given them three decades of my life,” she said. “I feel like an athlete; I left it all on the field, but I still have a little bit more in me.

“Like Michael Jordan trying baseball, I’m going to see how I do in a private school.”

‘They see us as servants’

Rebecca Harris, 63, spent her entire career at TPS and figures she could have taught another five years.

New demands and challenges presented by the students she was serving of late combined with inadequate resources to support them left her defeated and drained. Then the pandemic hit, and she said she gained 30 pounds from stress eating while trying to “do school” via a computer screen with her students in 2020-21.

“The final sign came in December 2020 when a student’s parent flipped me the bird in a Zoom class. I said, ‘Thank you, God.’ That was the final sign,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t blame the district or administrators. The warriors in TPS beat the odds every single day, but it’s not a classroom anymore. It’s not an academic setting.”

Harris said she has already lost weight and is focusing her early retirement days on simple pleasures like gardening and taking flowers to people she encounters in doctor’s offices or restaurants who are kind to her.

“My doctor wanted to prescribe me an antidepressant,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I have a better prescription: I put in for retirement!’”

Both West, the former Collinsville superintendent, and Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association President Shawna Mott-Wright said the pandemic brought into laser focus how much parents and the economy as a whole rely on school teachers for child care.

They said they’ve seen firsthand how teachers who see themselves as educators first have had to reconcile that.

“Teachers have been blamed for every problem and ill of society like it’s all our fault. If teaching is so easy, why do we have this massive shortage of epic proportion?” Mott-Wright said. “It was made abundantly clear that we are here to serve as servants. Like, ‘Why aren’t you doing this for me? Move your butts, Cinderella.’

“They see us as servants, as a lower class to ‘handle’ their kids so they can do whatever they want or need to do. And I don’t mean parents — I mean society.”

West said Collinsville fared better than most districts in maintaining in-person instruction for students throughout 2020-21.

“We had to go out very little because of COVID quarantining numbers, but even for the small number of times we did that, what I learned is a large group of our people really just look at us as babysitters,” West said. “I didn’t get a lot of ‘Oh, my gosh! My kid is going to be so far behind.’ I got a lot of ‘When are we going to be able to play basketball again?’

“I don’t know that we ever had that in our face before, but we all did a lot last year.”

‘It’s no one’s fault. It’s just COVID’

Union Public Schools had about 30 retirements among its 100 teacher exits since last school year, which is about three times the normal number of retirements there, said district spokesman Chris Payne.

The district had braced for greater turnover, in part because last year was the third year since public school teachers received a significant raise and the last three years of a teacher’s career are critical to how retirement pay is determined.

But other pandemic stressors seemed to drive much of the churn.

“We are finding that many people are moving out of state, and many of these are with spouses,” said Payne. “We think it’s due to many companies experiencing changes post-pandemic, which maybe created new opportunities.”

Irene Castell left what she described as her “dream job,” teaching prekindergarten at Zarrow International School for the past eight years of her 25-year teaching career.

She said she had wonderful students and got to watch them grow up as they progressed through the school. And their parents’ support for material needs in the classroom, as well as their undying gratitude and encouragement to teachers, is unmatched, she said.

But trying to conduct preschool for 4-year-olds in the manner she has known and excelled at was suddenly stripped away in spring 2020.

“When COVID hit and we were put online virtually, I thought: If school’s going to be like this, I need to retire. I didn’t go into this to teach through a computer screen,” Castell said.

Even after her school reopened in November, every Wednesday’s classes were conducted via Zoom from home. And some of Castell’s students remained at home because of parent choice, so she had to juggle both in-person and online remote instruction.

“TPS uses a platform called Canvas that was designed for secondary and college. It does not translate well into early childhood,” she said. “I had to make up two reading and math assignments per day for them to be marked present. That was more pencil and paper than I’ve ever done in my career because at 4 and 5, they don’t learn that way. It should be mostly hands-on, game-based.”

To keep up with all of the online teaching demands, Castell’s workdays grew from nine or 10 hours to 12 hours a day plus weekends.

“Every good teacher spends extra time out of the classroom, but I was exhausted, and it was just like the joy was being sucked out,” she said. “We had to try to keep students in pods, separated. A lot of the things that were fun and enjoyable just stopped. It was just sad. It’s no one’s fault. It’s just COVID.”

At 64, Castell abandoned her plans to teach “until at least 66 or 67.” She has expanded her garden and is spending more time with her husband and eight grandchildren.

She has also taken on a twice-a-year assignment for Union Public Schools, screening students who may need English language services. On those limited work days, she goes in at 8 a.m. and leaves at 2 p.m. with no work to take home.

She gets wistful only when she mentions the students she left behind at Zarrow.

“One day this summer, I went up to the school when the kids were there eating lunch, and I felt like a rock star. They saw me and were like, “Senora Castell!” she said.

“I loved my school. I loved my team, and I loved the kids — I really miss the kids.”

Featured video: TPS superintendent on teacher shortage

Aug. 9, 2021 video. TPS superintendent Deborah Gist addressed media about COVID-19 concerns during a Zoom call

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