Coming out of retirement

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 4, 2001


PHOTO: LaRue Speights, standing, is returning to East St. John High School in Reserve after two years of retirement. She will also serve as a mentor to Erica Smith, a new teacher, who was at one time Speight’s student. Just a few weeks before the new school session, the two looked at some of the new English materials. (Staff Photo by Amy Szpara) LAPLACE – A familiar face that had been absent from the classrooms and the hallways for a couple of years will once again be seen at East St. John High School in Reserve at the start of school this session. After a brief retirement, a well-loved teacher is returning to the English Depart-ment, mostly she says because she will have the chance to be a mentor. LaRue Speights will again be teaching “Macbeth,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and other pieces of literature to seniors at East St. John, but in addition to teaching, she will also serve as a mentor to a new English teacher, who just happens to be one of her former students. Erica Smith recently graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University in Ham-mond with a degree in Eng-lish Education and spent time as a student teacher at Pon-chatoula High School, and now she will teach high school English to freshman honor students at East St. John. Smith had Speights for senior English and graduated from East St. John in 1997. Speights retired a couple of years after that having spent 35 years in the public school system – 22 of those years in St. John Parish, and now the two will be returning to the school to instruct a fresh group of young adults. “There have been so many people that have helped me, so I want to help somebody. Young teachers come in with such enthusiasm, but our attrition rate is horrible. It’s a difficult situation, difficult to keep them excited. I want to help keep them motivated,” Speights said. “And Erica is a product of East St. John, of the public school system, and now she is coming back to teach.” Smith, who began keeping a notebook in tenth grade, jotting down teaching methods that her teachers had used that worked on her, has known for a long time that she wanted to teach English. “She is a lot like me,” said Speights. “I always knew I wanted to teach English, too. I’ve always kept up with her. She had the opportunity to go other places, but she has chosen to come back here.” Speights chose to return to East St. John, too, after she received a phone call from high school Principal Debra Schum asking her to come back. Under a new law, teachers can return to teach after two years of retirement without losing their retirement benefits. Speights said she returned for several reasons. First, she said, “I just love teaching.” Secondly, she said, “I also really want to be part of this mentor program. I want to pay this system back. It’s been so good to me. This parish has been there for me since the day I walked in.” Speights wants to provide encouragement for Smith, to make sure she doesn’t get discouraged or become overwhelmed, she said. Every new teacher that comes into the state is assigned a mentor for two years, and at the end of those two years is assessed. During Speights’ two-year retirement, she served as one of the external assessors, evaluating and giving new teachers advice on teaching. Aside from serving in that capacity, Speights also had a short stint on the school board and worked in LEAP test remediation. She spent a lot of time with her husband, the Rev. Major Speights, who had also retired. Now, he, too, is coming out of retirement to serve as an interim pastor at Suburban Baptist Church in New Orleans East. The two, while retired, did quite a bit of traveling, visiting Turkey, Greece, Canada, British Columbia and some of the larger cities in the United States. They also spent a good bit of time with their grandchildren. “I’m not sure that pastors or teachers can ever really retire,” said Speights, adding that her husband was extremely supportive of her decision to return to the school system. “When the opportunity became available to me, he knew what it meant,” she said. “I never really left. My heart never left it.” Speights said she was especially delighted when Michael Coburn was named superintendent. The day after he was elected, he visited the Speights and the three prayed that he would do well in his new position. “That touched me,” said Speights. “I think Mr. Coburn recognizes that we have got to depend on God himself to turn us around and change the public perception of the public school system. “We are good. We take every kid. We turn no one away.” Speights said that she has missed her colleagues. “My best friends are in that school,” she said, adding that Robert Beadle, the head of the English Department at East St. John, has been an excellent friend and colleague. Speights said she has always been thankful for the support of her church, First Baptist of LaPlace, which is where her husband served as pastor prior to retiring. While she taught, members of the church painted her classroom, helped her with supplies and even built furniture when she worked at Leon Godchaux High School in the early days. She remembered those days fondly, adding that former superintendent Chris Donaldson, who was a history teacher at the time, used to give her lifts to school when she and her husband only had one car. Though Speights said she never thought she would be returning to teaching, she also said she never stopped missing it, and the idea of going back as both a senior English teacher and a mentor to Smith excited her. Smith is excited as well, not only about her first year of teaching, but also about being Speights’ mentee. “I always knew that I was going to be a teacher. I had Sandra Madere in ninth grade for English, then Joy Donaldson in 10th, and I just knew.” Smith said she will probably have about 22 students in her classroom, and she thanked Southeastern for the up-to-the-minute procedures and methods they taught her. “I think I’m ready for it. I’m prepared to do it,” she said. “And I’m excited to have Mrs. Speights as my mentor, because she has already been my mentor all along. I really enjoyed her class.” She added that the notebook of classroom strategies she kept was filled with ideas that Speights had used on her students. Though Smith said she is a little nervous about the first day of school, which is Aug. 16, she believes she is ready for her own classroom. “Once that first day is over, it will be OK. “The first day is so important. That sets the tone for the year,” she said.