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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Inland Northwest teachers close the book

Retiring educators, staff say they’ll miss the kids, not the paperwork

Joe Biegler, a Lidgerwood Elementary School fifth-grade teacher, says goodbye to student Charley Jordan, 11, on the last day of school  June 11. Biegler is among more than 100 Spokane Public Schools employees who retired this year.  (Colin Mulvany)
Joe Biegler, a Lidgerwood Elementary School fifth-grade teacher, says goodbye to student Charley Jordan, 11, on the last day of school June 11. Biegler is among more than 100 Spokane Public Schools employees who retired this year. (Colin Mulvany)

Inland Northwest school districts are losing hundreds of years of education experience as teachers and other employees retire in greater numbers. The number of retirements nearly doubled in the Spokane and Central Valley school districts compared with last year, according to district officials. In those districts and the Mead School District, retirements this year were at a five-year high. Coeur d’Alene School District was the anomaly, with four fewer retirements this school year than in 2008-’09, but more than in years past.

More than half of those leaving the districts are teachers.

Last year’s poor economy may be one reason retirements are up now; even if people were ready to go, things were too shaky, said Jenni Rose, Spokane Education Association president. That was the case for Pat Gunning, an elementary school music teacher for Spokane Public Schools who’s retiring after 29 years. “If the economy had been better, we had planned to retire in 2009, but our 401(k) turned into a 201(k),” she said. But in addition, Rose said, “people are just getting tired. Curriculum is constantly changing, and it’s hard to keep up. All the stuff we are asked to do without additional resources, it’s just hard.”

The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a nonprofit research group, says the nation’s teaching population is older than it has ever been. At least 1.8 million K-12 teachers will be eligible to retire nationwide in the next decade, according to the organization.

“I could have taught until I was 96, because I love what I do, but it’s just time,” said Linda Abrams, 61, a Central Valley School District middle school teacher who’s retiring after 30 years. “This has been the perfect year, and I thought I’d go out on a good note.”

Joe Biegler, a fifth-grade teacher at Lidgerwood Elementary, said, “I’ve given it 150 percent. I’ve given it 40 years. I’ve given it my best, and it’s time to leave.”

Biegler is 66. Nationally, the average teacher retirement age is 59.

“The factor for me was to be at full retirement age,” Biegler said. He’ll be able to collect full Social Security benefits as well as his state teacher’s pension, which is a formula based on highest salary earned and years of service. “Financially, it worked out best for me that way.”

Biegler has been at Lidgerwood most of his career.

“I always had a yearning to teach fifth, because they are more docile and willing to learn,” he said.

In addition to teaching, Biegler coached elementary school sports until 2006 – “flag football, soccer, volleyball, basketball, softball and track – and for a few years, pingpong.”

Retiring teachers noted how much the profession has changed.

“I think the amount of knowledge and skills we are teaching has greatly increased, and our expectations are higher,” said Karen Pottratz, who taught at Spokane’s Stevens Elementary for 40 years. “There’s a huge amount the students need to know. I’ll be teaching a math concept to fourth-graders that I realize I didn’t have to learn until high school.”

Said Biegler, “as far as workload is concerned, this has been my most difficult year. This year we had three new programs that were introduced (for the classroom).”

Teaching also involves “more paperwork,” Gunning said.

The issues students are dealing with have changed almost as dramatically as curriculum, said Susan Betts, 60, who spent most of her career as a counselor in Spokane Public Schools.

“Challenges that students and parents are facing seem to be more intense. Some homes are not as stable as they used to be. The world economy puts more stress on families,” Betts said. “The peer pressure put on all ages of students in general to do good and bad, and at a younger age, concerns me.”

Betts said she’ll miss the students and staff, but not the paperwork.

Other retirees echoed that sentiment, as well as Betts’ plans for her newfound leisure time: “I’m going to sleep more, play more, hopefully travel some and make new friends.”

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