Retiring teachers’ careers cut short by pandemic

Donna McGee began her teaching career in 2001 and has spent the last 19 years in the district at William Henry. She had two prior careers as an accountant and then a probation officer. Her next career will likely pursue mediation. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Teaching is a strange way to make a living, said DuWane Sandlin.

“But it’s pretty rewarding and we’ve had a good career,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything.”

For 30 years, Mr. Sandlin and his wife, Vanessa Sandlin, have taught in the Caesar Rodney School District, serving as director of bands and assistant director of bands, respectively, at the high school. Their last year ended on a different note than they could have anticipated, though, with schools across the state shuttering in mid-March due to coronavirus.

Just like students, teachers who were wrapping up their final years had experiences to look forward to: concerts, an annual kickball game against students and just seeing colleagues and students every day.

“It was tough. I mean, it came up pretty quick on us,” Mr. Sandlin said. “We had some things planned for the end of the year to celebrate the kids. I had an event scheduled to bring in a bunch of alumni for a concert but that didn’t happen. It took a while for us to adjust to it, but I think we’ve adjusted. And we’ve come to grips with it because we’ve had some wonderful moments over the years.”

The Sandlins, who are from Maryland, met at Frostburg State University as college freshmen. They began their teaching careers in 1978 in West Virginia.

“I always wanted to be a teacher since I was a little kid; that was my favorite thing to play,” Mrs. Sandlin said, who also served at Postlethwait and Fifer middle schools as sixth-grade band teacher, said.

“I would set up the blackboard and make all my little brothers and sisters sit there and be my students, and my only question was what I was going to teach, so when I was in high school, it was a big decision between math and music.”

Her cousin was a music major, though, and pushed her “over the edge” of pursuing music over math, she said.

“It was the best decision ever,” she said.

“Because that’s where we met,” Mr. Sandlin added.

After 12 years in West Virginia, the two returned east and began their careers at CR. They shared an office, along with one other teacher.

“We laugh constantly. I mean, we have so many laughs throughout the day. We can always find the light side,” she said.

She said teachers were asked to give a piece of advice to the class of 2020 and she and Mr. Sandlin agreed for theirs: don’t forget to laugh.

“We do every single day,” she said. “I’m not sure I would have done that if I was a math teacher.”

“I know some math teachers that have a good time,” Mr. Sandlin noted.

In retirement, with Mrs. Sandlin potentially taking on a part-time position, being apart for the day would be the biggest change for the two. They didn’t necessarily intend to retire at the same time, either.

“I was actually going to retire last year,” Mr. Sandlin said. “And the women in my life, Vanessa Sandlin and Sherry Kijowski [principal of Caesar Rodney High School] they kind of encouraged me to hang on for one more.”

Wrapping up this year under the shadow of coronavirus was tough, especially when thinking of their senior students.

“We were really looking forward to those last concerts,” Mr. Sandlin said, adding that, after spring break, they had planned to start packing their office up with the help of teacher’s aides. Instead, it fell mostly to them.

“Thirty years worth of stuff is a lot of stuff,” Mrs. Sandlin said, noting that they wanted the office to be a particular way for the next person to come in and start their tenure.

The couple’s successor, Catie Preszler, is an alumna of the high school.

“She knows what the program is all about and she knows the traditions,” Mr. Sandlin said.

There’s a lot of moments woven through their 30 years in the district together, Mr. Sandlin said.

For 30 years, DuWane Sandlin and his wife, Vanessa Sandlin, have taught in the Caesar Rodney School District, serving as director of bands and assistant director of bands, respectively, at the high school. (Submitted photo)

“And it went by just like that,” Mrs. Sandlin said.

The Sandlins are among several teachers who had planned on retiring from their teaching tenures following the conclusion of this academic year, but the end came in a very different way.

Ending another chapter

“Emotionally, it was crushing, especially during my last year and I knew it was going to be my last year. I planned when I was going to retire for a couple of years now,” said Donna McGee, a teacher at William Henry Middle School. “I kept hoping that we would go back in so I could see the kids again because that’s the best part of teaching.”

Ms. McGee began her teaching career in 2001 and has spent the last 19 years in the district at William Henry. She had two prior careers as an accountant and then a probation officer. Her next career will likely pursue mediation.

“It’s cool to try different things,” she said. “It’s great for those people who know exactly what they want to do. Unfortunately I wasn’t one of those people. I had to keep trying things and every job has its parts that are awesome. But once I kind of learned it, I wanted to move on. ‘Let’s try this now.’”

She became a teacher because she loved working with children and thought she could help them, especially at the middle school level.

“They’re always changing, they’re growing and it’s such an important time in their life that they’re trying to figure out who they are and know what they want to be,” she said. “I remember that being a very important time in my life and I wanted to help kids during that time.”

A graduate from Smyrna School District, she got her start in Capital after completing her student teaching in the district and falling in love with it.

“If you told me that I would be a Senator, I would have been like, ‘No way, I’ll be an Eagle my whole life,’” she noted.

She taught all subjects for sixth grade before switching to a health and physical education teacher for fifth and sixth grade.

As a teacher, she liked being challenged.

“It’s probably the reason why I taught every subject in sixth grade before then turning and going to a whole different area of P.E. and health,” she said. “Because, like our students, you need to constantly be growing. So those challenges actually help you grow and become a better person and a better teacher.”

Her students helped with that, too.

“It’s like they teach you as much as you teach them, and I loved it,” she said.

While retirees usually have a celebration and a dinner, this year was obviously different. A car parade of colleagues and gifts arrived, however.

“My staff at the school did an awesome job of making me feel that it was a good closure. It wasn’t the normal closure, but just because it wasn’t the normal closure didn’t mean it wasn’t still outstanding because I loved it,” she said.

Of her 19 years in the district, she recalls a parent of a former student from her English class explaining to her that the student kept one of the papers she graded to read over her notes throughout.

“I always believed that, if they did something, you give feedback on what they did great and if they need to fix something, how to fix it,” she said. “When she told me he still had the paper and still read over it, it was a moment of going, ‘Oh my gosh, the time you spend really does help the kids.’ That was probably one of the moments that I’ll remember forever.”

Alumna returns

Leesa Lopez attended school at Lulu Ross Elementary, where she eventually returned as an educator for 26 years. After getting a taste of it through substituting while a stay-at-home mom, she decided to go back to school and get a degree in education. She served as a fifth-grade math, science and social studies teacher at the Milford school.

Leesa Lopez served as a fifth-grade math, science and social studies teacher for 26 years at Lulu Ross Elementary School in Milford. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

When her students were heading home for the weekend on March 13, teachers had a sense something was coming. They had the children clean out their desks and tidy their spaces — but they only expected to be out for a few weeks.

“There’s two other teachers in my school that are retiring and we were texting and calling each out and so when [Gov. John Carney] made that announcement, we were watching it on television at the same time and so we were teary-eyed,” she said.

Transitioning to remote learning also proved challenging, but Ms. Lopez always enjoyed the challenge the new curriculum brought, she said. She set up her dining room like a classroom, with her posters and lessons.

“There’s nothing like being in the classroom with the students,” she said. “Remote learning can’t replace that.”

There were experiences that would go untapped this year: the annual kickball game of teachers versus the fifth-graders, the Shorebirds field trip, the fifth-grade recognition ceremony, the Slaughter Beach field trip.

But one of the highlights for Ms. Lopez is the years to come, when she gets to see her students and the careers they go into.

“Some of the students that I’ve had are teachers in the Milford School District or teachers in other districts,” she said. “Some of them became doctors and lawyers.”

Looking back at her time in the district, she noted that as a first-year teacher, there’s a lot of questioning oneself.

“Know that you can make mistakes,” she said, “but you’ll learn from those, which is something that I’ve always told my kids.”

This summer originally held hope for a trip to Paris, but that was postponed due to the virus. In the fall, though, she’s still planning on a trip to Disney World.

“Two of my friends retired that also taught fifth grade,” she said. “We were all in classrooms next to each other.”