Retirement after 44 years won’t stop Donna Kirkland’s love for education

Staff Report

Donna Kirkland will soon enter a phase of life she has not encountered since early childhood.

The classroom has been part of her life, starting with K-12 school and completion of college in only three years, all of which preceded decades as a teacher at the same school she attended as a child. This fall, for the first time since she was 5, Kirkland will not head into the classroom.

Kirkland recently retired a teacher at her alma St. John School, where she earned her living for 44 years. The days of arising well before dawn and sometimes working late into the night came to an end – at least for now – but she has no intentions of confining herself to an easy chair.

She even endured two battles with cancer, and still persevered. Nothing could take her from fulfilling her goal in life.

“I want to stay spunky and young – that’s my ambition,” said Kirkland, 65.

Her side careers will keep her very busy. Kirkland remains an avid photographer and she has no intentions of ending annual tradition of guiding students and adults to Washington, D.C., that spawned from her years as an educator.

The travel programs will remain very much a part of her life. She’s currently putting the pieces together for group trips next year to Thailand, Sicily and Washington, D.C.

The treks began with a trip to Washington, which became an annual tradition in 1991. It has since grown to include ventures to New York, western Europe, eastern Europe and Asia.

None of it would have been possible without the love for education, she said.

“As a matter of fact, my 11th grade teacher, Sister Doris Steppe, inspired my love of travel,” Kirkland said. “I participated in a six-week trip to Europe organized by her.

“I promised myself that I would be back,” she said. “It took 34 years, but I returned in 1997,” she said. “A I have been bringing groups almost every years since then. Travel is one of the greatest forms of education.”

Kirkland admits the full impact of retirement has not hit her yet.

She attended kindergarten at Our Lady of Mercy kindergarten, followed by 12 years at St. John as a student and 44 years as a teacher. Between her K-12 education and her years as a teacher at St. John, she attended LSU in an advanced curriculum and earned her teaching degree in three years.

“It’s going to feel strange … all I’ve ever known was school,” she said. “I’ve met so many people, made so many friends and shared my love for learning.”

Kirkland began her career in August 1977, within two weeks after she graduated from LSU.

She spent her early years in a fourth-grade classroom and later taught sixth grade and eventually taught middle school and even high school classes.

In the process, she has taught her children, as well as and grandchildren of former students.

“I love the bond of teaching students and watching them grow through the generations,” Kirkland said. 

Retirement was no easy decision, and it’s still feels surreal to the Addis resident.

“St. John has always been my home, so it’s very hard to walk away, and it’s because of the kids … I absolutely loved my 8th graders that I taught this year,” Kirkland said. “Students are like family, I love seeing them, and I still feel the pains about not being there next year.”

Kirkland’s four decades in education seemed night and day from beginning to end.

Chalkboards and textbooks were the mainstay during the early years, but computers and smartboards became the rule of the day in recent years.

“Older people like us weren’t brought up with computers, so I was intimidated at first because at times I felt some of the students knew more than me,” Kirkland said. “I told myself not to be embarrassed because in the process, I could learn.

“The question I learned to pose to students was how they could learn to use a computer to its greatest effect,” she said. “The tradition too some time, and I had to swallow some pride a little bit along the way and learned that they may know the mechanics, but I could offer lessons as to how to use them in real life.”

For Kirkland, the computer played a role in how a curriculum could transcend into life skills – something she worked to convey in every subject she taught.

“Who’s going to remember every little fact?” Kirkland said. “It’s not even necessary anymore – it’s all in how you apply the knowledge. I love sharing my life experiences and travel experiences with my students. I love showing them how to use content to survive in the real world.

“I had an eighth-grade teacher who used to say that a smart person doesn’t know everything, but a smart person knows where to find everything,” Kirkland said. “The important thing about school is not the facts you learn, but how you apply them in life.”

The passion for teaching stemmed from her upbringing. As the only child Eldridge “Bro” and Betty Ann Chustz, she learned about work ethic from her mother, who worked as a banker.

Her mom became the sole breadwinner after an on-the-job accident ended her dad’s career.

“My mom had been working since she got out of high school, and that put the inspiration in me because she was working when women weren’t working and seeing my dad and knowing what my mom did for us,” Kirkland said. “Even when I got married, I was determined I would work, and it was important to have a job and career in case something happened.”

“My mother was a banker, thought I wanted to be like her,” she said. “I wondered if it was just the love of numbers – I loved math.”

Kirkland often thought the background in math and science would possibly lead to a different career.

“I often thought my math and science background and science could have led me into work at a chemical plant where I could have made a lot more money, but when I look back at the whole picture, I made the right choice,” she said. “I was with the kids all the way through elementary and middle school. My husband, Allen Kirkland, is a retired educator. It was nice to follow the same work schedule. Since he worked in the public school and I was in the Catholic school in Plaquemine, I felt like we knew all the kids in Plaquemine.

“Through education, the people I’ve met ... networking with adults, students,” she said. “I feel like I know a good chunk of Plaquemine.”

She said she will miss the students the most.

The innocence and unconditional love from students made the career worthwhile for Kirkland.

“It’s everything from their sense of humor, their honesty and their sincerity,” she said. “It’s that innocence and nonjudgmental view in conversations … we can learn so much from kids.”

Kirkland has not ruled out a return to the classroom, but she wants to focus other interests and enjoy other aspects of life.

“I’m not beyond going back into the classroom in some aspect,” she said. “Right now, I just need to see where life takes me.”  

The life outside the classroom will take some adjustment, she said, but she will stay busy with photography and organizing group travel.

The curiosity won’t go away, either.

“I’ll be trying to catch up with everything on the backburner because I want to do everything,” she said. “I’m like Cinderella. I have lived the fairytale and I have no intention of stopping now. My suitcase stays packed in my car. If an opportunity presents itself, I want to be ready."