Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Susan Schripsema began every class with a “temperature check” – a procedure pitched to teachers as a way to gauge the well-being of students and their readiness to learn.
Through a writing prompt, she would ask the students to respond to questions designed to capture their energy level and mood, often discovering one-third of the class felt overwhelmed.
But then what? Schripsema still had a class to teach.
“It seemed like the pressure on our time kept increasing,” she said in a recent interview, “but the number of minutes in the day doesn’t ever change.”
Schripsema retired in July after 29 years of teaching – part of a 40% spike in the retirement of education employees this year.
She cited a variety of factors in her decision to leave the profession, a year after she was first eligible. But she didn’t feel like she had the training – or support staff – to adequately address students’ social and emotional health.
Whatever the reason, hundreds of other education employees made the same decision.
The Educational Retirement Board – which oversees the pension system for New Mexico’s public schools, colleges and some state agencies – reports that it handled 1,269 applications for July 1 retirement this year, up from just 906 the year before. It was the largest number in seven years.
Albuquerque Public Schools reported a similar retirement wave among its Schedule A employees, a group that includes teachers, librarians, nurses and counselors.
July 1 is the start of the state fiscal year and often coincides with teacher contracts.
The exit of so many veteran educators comes as school districts across New Mexico face a sharp increase in the number of teacher vacancies this semester.
“Superintendents are highly concerned about this issue,” said Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders.
The state had more than 1,000 teacher vacancies this fall, up from 570 the year before, according to a preliminary analysis by the Southwest Outreach Academic Research Evaluation and Policy Center at New Mexico State University. A formal report finalizing the numbers is expected within weeks.
Untangling why so many educators opted for retirement isn’t easy. It could be a blip, bringing the number of retirements back in line with the numbers seen in 2014 and 2015.
The Educational Retirement Board handled 1,280 retirements in 2014, then the number fell for six consecutive years, before shooting up in 2021.
Rounds, a former Las Cruces superintendent, said the COVID-19 pandemic might be a factor. Older people are most at risk for complications from the disease, and the pandemic has now stretched across parts of three school years.
Since March 2020, students and teachers have endured some combination of remote learning, hybrid classes, coronavirus testing and mask wearing.
But other factors may be at play.
Exit surveys at APS “show many reasons for retiring, including health reasons, feeling overworked, leaving New Mexico, and not liking remote teaching,” district spokeswoman Johanna King said.
Rep. G. Andrés Romero, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairman of the House Education Committee, said he and other policymakers will delve into the data to try to determine why so many teachers are leaving and how to improve retention.
“It is really deeply concerning and alarming that’s happened,” Romero said of the retirement spike.
Veteran teachers are an important part of any school community, he said, serving as informal leaders and mentors for younger employees.
Romero himself is a social studies teacher at Atrisco Heritage Academy High School in southwestern Albuquerque. He has taught for seven years and isn’t close to retirement.
The rising cost of health insurance, he said, has been a topic of conversation among teachers, in addition to challenges caused by the pandemic.
Sen. Gay Kernan, a Hobbs Republican and retired teacher, said changes to retiree health care benefits might be factors in the July retirement surge.
Regardless, she said, legislators will have to evaluate how to attract more people to the classroom. The state already offers generous pension benefits – teachers can retire at 70.5% of their salary after 30 years – but something else may be needed to entice younger workers.
“We’re going to have to figure out how to incentivize our young people, or people at any age, to consider education as a profession,” Kernan said. “Salary could be a part of it. It’s certainly a rewarding profession.”
About 60,000 employees are active members of the Educational Retirement Board, serving as teachers, professors, administrators and school employees.
The system supports about 51,000 retirees. The average annual pension benefit is $23,052.
Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, a union, said the education workforce – including teachers and nurses – is aging as fewer people enter the profession.
Factors in whether teachers stay, she said, include the physical condition of classrooms, such as the availability of air conditioning; a supportive principal and colleagues; and the capacity to make their own choices at work.
“We haven’t made the profession attractive both monetarily and professionally,” Bernstein said.
Schripsema retired July 1 after teaching English and journalism at La Cueva High School in Albuquerque. She had also spent parts of her career at Hoover and Madison middle schools.
She was eligible to retire in spring 2020 but said didn’t want her teaching career to end with the pandemic lockdown.
Schripsema, who’s in her 50s, said she wanted to return and help students during what she knew would be another tough year on campus.
But the increased demands on teachers and other factors contributed to her decision to retire before this school year, Schripsema said.
She wished she had more training, she said, to address the social and emotional health of students, or at least another staffer with expertise she could refer students to.
Teachers were encouraged to start classes with a temperature check to see how students were doing and ease their transition to a new environment, Schripsema said, but it wasn’t necessarily clear how to respond when so many of the teenagers reported feeling overwhelmed and stressed out.
The long days, starting at 6:30 a.m., also took a toll.
“I feel like there is an age,” Schripsema said, “where a person gets a gut feeling that it’s time to give this classroom to someone who’s younger.”