It was admittedly not the way two longtime and highly regarded Sag Harbor Elementary School teachers wanted to end their careers. But the onset last spring of the coronavirus pandemic and the impact it could have on how school resumes this fall helped convince kindergarten teacher Nina Dohanos and science teacher Kryn Olson that it was indeed time to pass the torch.
“The way things are headed in the world right now, it’s time for the younger crew who are all tech savvy to jump in and do their thing,” said Ms. Dohanos, who along with Ms. Olson, informed the Sag Harbor School Board last week that she had reached the difficult decision to retire.
An admittedly “dyed in the wool, hands-on teacher,” Ms. Dohanos said “it was beyond challenging to do the online teaching” last spring for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the inability to interact on a personal level with her students. The prospect of more of the same this year didn’t help.
“I want to pull a kid up on my lap and read them a book or show them their sight words,” she said. “I don’t want to have to do it from behind a piece of plexiglass or with a mask on.”
“There is a way to teach with masks and gloves on,” added Ms. Olson. “But it’s not going to be in my vocabulary — the first thing I do when I see the kids is I give them a big hug.”
Ms. Olson has another, more personal, reason for deciding to retire at age 62 after 24 years with the district: her health. She has a chronic condition, she said, that makes her susceptible to complications if she is exposed to COVID-19.
“I’d like the kids to understand that this was not an easy decision,” she said. “I’m trying to keep my family and me safe. Had this not happened, I’d still be there.”
Ms. Dohanos said the pandemic was not the only reason she decided to retire at age 55 after 33 years from the only job she ever knew. But when school closed in March, she had more time to reflect. “When the pandemic hit, and I finally got to be still — at least a little more still than I normally am — I realized this might be the perfect time to do it,” she said of the need to take a new direction in her life.
“But walking away from Sag Harbor Elementary School is like walking away from the greatest love of my life — with the exception of my own children,” she added. “It has been everything to me.”
Ms. Dohanos, who grew up in East Hampton, landed a job as a teaching assistant at the elementary school shortly after graduating from Skidmore College in 1987. She remembers her interview with Dominic Annacone, who was then acting principal and superintendent, in early September. “He was dressed in his tennis whites and had his feet up on the table,” she recalled. “He asked me, ‘Do you like kids?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he asked me, ‘Do you want to work here?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Come in on Tuesday.’”
During her career, she taught either kindergarten or fifth grade. “I’ve been through a couple of principals and a ton of superintendents — and a lot different teaching methods,” she said.
“There were no computers, really, when I got here. No smart boards,” she said. “I was psyched to have a box of colored chalk over a box of white chalk in those days.”
The memories are many, but one that stands out in particular is the creation of the morning program, a period before the start of each school day, when the entire school comes together to sing songs, celebrate birthdays and holidays, or address a special theme. Morning program started, she recalled, as a special Earth Day celebration, and then-Principal Joan Frisicano suggested making it a part of each school day.
Ms. Olson, who was born and raised near Detroit, said she knew she wanted to become a teacher from the time she was a little girl. After graduating from Michigan State University, and later studies at Siena Heights University and the University of Texas, she landed a job teaching at an arts magnet school in Dallas. After a varied career that included running her own art gallery and framing shop in Dallas, she moved to Sag Harbor, landing a job first as an art teacher and then as a science teacher for the elementary school.
“It has been such an exciting career,” she said. “It’s as if I blinked and so much time has gone by.”
Ms. Olson credited administrators for encouraging her creativity in the classroom. “They were just always very progressive and willing to allow me to do anything I found,” she said.
“It was very exciting to be a teacher there because they were so open minded about projects and possibilities.”
Ms. Olson has her memories, too, from field trips to East End estuaries, and special projects, like collecting plastic bottle caps to be repurposed into colorful benches. But the school garden and outdoor classroom stand out.
Both teachers said they were blessed to have outstanding principals, first in Ms. Frisicano, and more recently with Matt Malone.
“She is the one who instilled the work ethic and the drive to always do better and do what was right for the kids,” said Ms. Dohanos.
“He’s always been a huge supporter of all my creative ideas and allowing me to test and try things out,” Ms. Olson said of Mr. Malone. “He likes change, and he likes growth. His true passion, I think, is seeing these kids enjoying hands-on activities.”
The feeling is mutual. “Sag Harbor Elementary is grateful to Nina and Kryn for all they have given to our school and community over the years,” said Mr. Malone via email. “The intelligence, creativity, professionalism, and above all, the love for children, they brought into our school each day will be difficult to replicate.”
In retirement, Ms. Dohanos will continue to tutor students, a sideline she has been expanding in recent years, while Ms. Olson hopes to return to her art roots and spend more time at a farm she and her husband own upstate.
For now, though, the teachers say it is difficult to say goodbye.
Ms. Dohanos said she was struck at how abrupt the end of the school year was when she returned to clean out her classroom and saw the calendar showing the month of March with shamrock decorations and the number 11 for the last day school was held.
“I had always hoped to be able to say this is going to be my last year and then just drink it in and love every moment of it,” said Ms. Dohanos. “And I feel sad, profoundly sad, that I didn’t get to do that.”
“They always say teachers touch our lives,” said Ms. Olson, “but the lives we get to have because of these children — their joy, their excitement for learning and living, their passion — are truly a gift.”