Last semester, Dobson High School English teacher Mike McClellan's students examined the plots, characters and themes of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

It's a lesson McClellan has led students at the Mesa high school through for more than three decades.

It was also the last time.

"I thought, ‘Wow, that's the last time I'll teach that great book,'" McClellan said. "It was kind of bittersweet."

McClellan is one of 254 teachers who have told the Mesa Unified School District that they'll retire at the end of the year.

Last year, a record 313 teachers made the same decision.

When McClellan and his colleagues started teaching in Mesa - for McClellan that was 34 years ago - the district was on a growth spurt. Hundreds of students were enrolling. The district was building new schools and opening several campuses each year.

Dozens and dozens of teachers were needed.

Now, 20 and 30 years later, those teachers have reached retirement goals and are ready to close this phase of their lives.

McClellan was one of the original teachers at Dobson - many of whom stuck around for years and years.

"I like the people I work with. I think that's one of the reasons you see our staff being as grey as it appears to be. It's not just a few teachers who have been here a long time. A good core of the staff has been here a long time. The energy of the kids is still a lot of fun," McClellan said. "I like to see that spark in a kid's eye when they get it and you see them improve. Plus, I got to teach great literature."

McClellan's colleague Anita Cavender is another Dobson original retiring this year.

For 37 years, Cavender has taught business and computers in the district.

"I've taught a wide range of things," Cavender said. "From keyboarding on typewriters and, as we evolved into computers, word processing classes. I've taught beginning and advanced Web design, economics. I've taught an investment course, management class, and years ago, we used to have an entrepreneurship class. I've taught shorthand when that was around."

The past few years, Cavender said she's observed more demands on students, and has spent time encouraging them.

"This economy has raised havoc with a lot of families. I have students helping their families out in terms of the money they get with their part-time employment. It goes to pay for the rent, put food on the table," she said. "Teenagers feel and respond to those strains accordingly ... Some of them I know are feeling quite overwhelmed.

"Some are worried if they can afford to go to school. Some are concerned they won't be able to meet their goals in the future, which I find frightening for children 17 or 18," she said. "I tell them you have a lot of years ahead of you. Sometimes it's going to take longer to achieve those goals. But whatever you do, never give up."

Mesa Education Association president Kirk Hinsey predicts there will be more teachers retiring before the end of the year. Because contracts haven't been issued yet, teachers are still notifying leadership of their plans to retire or resign.

"Some of the veteran teachers, they could have retired last year or year before, but because of the uncertainty they wanted to keep working. Now that the economy is starting to slowly turn around, they're like, ‘OK, I can retire now,'" Hinsey said. "I know that's the case for some teachers."

The state of education in Arizona is also evolving - not necessarily for the positive, some say - as reforms mean new standards, increased scrutiny of teachers with test scores being tied to evaluations, and far fewer dollars.

That may also be driving some teachers to the door.

"I think it does have an impact in Arizona," Hinsey said. "It is an all-out attack and assault on public education and public education teachers. They are attacking us and it's not to create better schools. It's to silence the teachers who do speak up about what's best for education."

Some teachers could return to work part-time for the district, said Kathy Bareiss, district spokeswoman.

"Sometimes we do hire retirees, say teachers or specialists. It's mostly part-time work because we have a specific need," she said.

But both McClellan and Cavender have other plans right now.

McClellan - a frequent columnist with the East Valley Tribune - said he plans to write more. And Cavender is almost done with courses to get her securities license. She hopes to work with her husband in his business.

The idea that she's retiring just hasn't quite hit "100 percent," she said.

"It was the day I had to submit my retirement form. It was a very strange feeling. You fill out the form and there's this ‘submit' button," she recalled. "I thought, ‘OK. There's this button I have to push. Once I push that, there's no turning back.' I will say there was some hesitation for a few seconds.

"But I'm ready to move on and try other things."

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.