Marshall retiring after 40 years of teaching

Published 12:48 am Monday, May 17, 2010

VIDALIA — When Ernestine Marshall started teaching special education for $500 a month, she knew it would have to be a labor of love.

It began when she was student teaching.

“I was taking the class ‘Social Studies for Children,’ and as part of that one day they brought in some special needs children,” Marshall said. “Something touched my heart and I knew that is what I needed to go into.”

And for the last 40 years, that’s what she has done. At the end of the school year Marshall will retire, having spent 34 years in Concordia Parish and having taught at Ferriday Upper Elementary, Ferriday Lower Elementary, Vidalia Lower Elementary and — for the last 26 years — at Vidalia Upper Elementary.

During that time, she has taught the full spectrum of special needs students, from slow learners to the profoundly mentally handicapped.

She’s spent time teaching in portable buildings, basements and even an old locker room.

But the reward of the job has always been the same.

“When you’re teaching (the students) something, when they get it, you can see the light bulb go off in their heads, and their faces just light up,” Marshall said.

The model used in special education now is one of inclusion rather than having special needs students segregated from the rest of the student body. That means that how a special education teacher works has also changed, placing them in the classroom along with another teacher.

“Basically, you are assisting all of the kids in the classroom,” Marshall said. “You keep the students on track, and if they need help reading, you help them read — basically, you do what they need to do to finish their work in that hour they are in that class.”

For some of the students with the more profound disabilities, inclusion learning is more for social skills than anything else, Marshall said.

But inclusion has helped change attitudes about special needs students.

“When I first started, it was a very negative thing to be classified as ‘special education,’ but now they are more accepting,” Marshall said. “I believe that’s because of the inclusion, because (the other students) get to interact with the (special needs) students more.”

Through the years and changes, Marshall has kept up with her old students; one graduated this year, another one works for the city, she’s even teaching the son of one of her former pupils.

“You don’t go into it for the money, you go into it for the love of the kids,” she said.

Vidalia Upper Elementary Principal Darla Johnston said Marshall’s teaching is geared wholly toward the student, and that she will be missed.

“She tries to give them everything they need to be improving,” Johnston said.

“She does what they need for when they leave here.”

For her part, Marshall said she would miss her work, but that it was time to retire.

“I am going to miss the kids, the camaraderie I have with my co-workers — some of them I am old enough to be their grandmothers, and some of them I could be their mother,” Marshall said.

She plans to spend time with her children and grandchildren, reading and volunteering at her church.

“And who knows,” she said. “One day you might look up and see me walking back in here.”