Can California’s retired teachers be lured back to the classroom?

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Exactly six months after Susan Gonyo retired, the calls began coming in. She had spent two-and-a-half decades teaching at a Santa Rosa elementary school, and as soon as the mandatory 180-day separation period set by the state’s teacher pension agency had passed, her former principal was already asking her to return.

It was right after pandemic-era school closures. The teacher shortage was just getting worse. And so, 67-year-old Gonyo went back to the classroom — first as a substitute, and then as a part-time teacher.

Second grader Gabe Hernandez, 7, raises his hand as Enrichment teacher Susan Gonyo looks over at second grader Azalea Gage, 6, to answer a question while teaching at John B. Riebli School in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 25, 2023. After 25 years of teaching, Gonyo retired in 2022 but after a year off she decided to return back to the classroom. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
Previously retired teacher Susan Gonyo sits with two of her second grade students, Gave Hernandez, 7, left, and Azaliea Gage, 6, answering their questions at John B. Riebli School in Santa Rosa. After 25 years of teaching, Gonyo retired in 2022 ; however, after her former principal asked her to return, she came back to the classroom at age 67 . (Jose Carlos Fajardo/ Bay Area News Group) 

“School districts love to call on retired teachers because one, they’re teachers, and two, they trust them,” Gonyo said. “Some teachers don’t want to go back at all. But others like myself really miss it.”

For years, retirees like Gonyo have become the first line of defense for schools battling ever-increasing teaching vacancies, with many taking on part-time or substitute roles to fill the gaps. Now, California is trying to make it even easier for retirees to return to the classroom.

Senate Bill 765 would remove the waiting period to hire a recently retired teacher, and boost the post-retirement compensation limit — which is set by the state teachers pension agency, CalSTRS — from 50% to 70% of the median teacher income across the state. The state Legislature passed the bill and Gov. Gavin Newsom has until Oct. 14 to sign or veto it.

Nearly 13,600 teachers retired during the 2020-21 school year, followed by more than 12,900 in 2022, and 11,200 in 2023.

“That’s a major hit, by any stretch of the imagination, to a profession that was already down on teachers even before the pandemic,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who sponsored the new legislation.

But even after they finish their full-time career, retired teachers often come back to the classroom. From 15% at Dublin Unified to 24% at San Ramon Valley to 8% at San Jose Unified, schools rely on retirees to fill critical shortages.

“Over the years we, like many school districts, have had a very active retiree community that wants to help serve the students in our classrooms. Unfortunately, due to earning limitations, this has been limited,” said Ryan Sheehy, the director of human resources at Mt. Diablo Unified School District in Contra Costa County.

Today, 15% of Mt. Diablo’s substitute teacher pool is made up of retirees. One of them is Kathy Young, who retired in 2021 from teaching at Highlands Elementary School in Concord. Within months of her retirement, she got a letter from the district urging her and other retirees to consider coming back, and as soon as her six-month separation period had ended, Young — like Gonyo — did just that. She now spends five to 10 days a month subbing for both special and general elementary education classes.

Substitute teacher Kathy Young teaches math to third grades at Highlands Elementary School in Concord, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 30, 2023. Young retired in 2021 from the same school, and now is one of the 15 per cent of Mt. Diablo's substitute teachers made up of retirees. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Substitute teacher Kathy Young teaches third-grade math at Highlands Elementary School in Concord, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 30, 2023. Young retired in 2021 from the same school and now is one of the 15 percent of Mt. Diablo’s substitute teachers made up of retirees. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

“(My pension) is enough to make the bills, but subbing pays for the extras,” said Young, who mentioned that teaching summer school helped her pay for an upcoming trip to Ireland. “I knew I wanted to be a teacher ever since I was a little girl … so (even when I retired), there was a pull back. Teaching is just what I do.”

During the 2020-21 academic year, nearly 40% of schools in California had teaching vacancies they found either very difficult or impossible to fill, according to the Learning Policy Institute, a research organization that focuses on K-12 education. Though that statistic is lower than the national average of nearly 47%, those vacancies still hurt.

“We’ve heard stories of people who are filling in that do not have a teaching background, or who make really poor choices,” said Thurmond. “Classes have to double up, and we know the impact that has on the quality of education our kids get.”

Across California, 10% of teachers were not fully certified for their jobs during the 2020-21 academic year, according to a Learning Policy Institute analysis. That meant 27,475 people were teaching a class without any credential or license, still working to complete those certifications, on an emergency or temporary credential, or teaching a subject or grade level not covered by their certifications.

Though the new legislation is seen by many as a solution to that problem, some say it’s little more than a band-aid on a gushing wound.

“I feel that most retired teachers want to remain retired,” said Georgia Moore, who ended her career at the San Ramon Valley Unified School District in 2012. “I applaud the attempt to rectify the teacher shortage, but I don’t feel this is the main reason (for it).”

Moore polled 10 retired teachers in her network, asking them if they’d return to the profession if the retiree income cap was removed. She got 10 “no’s” in return.

“Teaching is a hell of a lot of work, even under the best of circumstances,” said Lanny Lowery, a former English teacher in Sonoma County’s Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District. “And right now, the circumstances are not the best.”

After retiring in 2018, Lowery did substitute teach for a time — when money flooded his former school district to provide support for kids during the pandemic. The 76-year-old even filled in as an elementary school librarian for a year and loved it. But little by little, the job became more difficult to manage. Behavior problems were on the rise; politics had entered the classroom. Neither he nor his wife, Janet, could earn up to their former teaching salaries while still pocketing a pension.

Though Lowery and Janet had applied for a number of teaching jobs this summer, a few weeks ago, they looked at each other and shook their heads. There was no way they were going back.

Still, not all teachers agree. Dennis Dowling, who taught high school biology for 43 years before retiring from the Santa Clara Unified School District in 2012, received similar calls for help during the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time schools had shut down, Dowling and his wife had relocated to Austin, Texas — but Santa Clara Unified still wanted him back.

Dennis Dowling, 81, a substitute teacher at Santa Clara High School, teaches an AP Biology class on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Dennis Dowling, 81, a substitute teacher at Santa Clara High School, teaches an AP Biology class on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Dowling, then age 78, felt he couldn’t say no. The extra money couldn’t hurt, and it was clear the district needed support, so Dowling set himself up on a laptop and live-streamed any lesson he was called in to sub. And despite being more than 1,700 miles away, he made it work. In the thick of the pandemic, Dowling plunged head-first into virtual learning, witnessing things he’d never seen before — including a 12th-grade student spinning pizzas at Domino’s while tuning into his calculus class remotely.

“I can really see the value of having someone experienced in the classroom, especially now,” said Dowling, who now splits his time between Texas and the Bay Area. “I just tell them: I’m 81, so be nice to me now … and if your family has always lived in this area, I might have taught your grandmother or grandfather.”

Two years later, Dowling has kept it going, now in person. In September, he subbed across the Santa Clara Unified district for more than 20 days in one month, earning a $500 bonus for doing so. He says he’s going to tone it down in the months to come.

But still, he likes having something to do.

“My wife says, you already retired,” Dowling said. “So why aren’t you retiring?”

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