Maxine LeBeau says she’s gone to school every day since she was 4 years old, which is really something considering she turned 86 years old Saturday.
She is the longest-serving substitute teacher at Rock River School, having substituted there since she retired as a teacher in Carbon County in 1984.
“I’m now on my third generation of students if I were to count those I’ve substituted with here,” she told the Laramie Boomerang earlier this month. “On some, just subbing, I’ve been on the second generation.”
She and her husband, Gerald, live on a ranch in Carbon County his grandfather homesteaded in 1888. Although her husband has lived in the area his whole life, LeBeau is from the Seattle area, having graduated from university there in 1954.
Her teaching career started at a middle school in Bellevue, Washington. Although her degree had prepared her to teach science, math and history, the principal at the time threw a curveball and asked her to add English to her curriculum.
The only problem was, LeBeau hadn’t taken an English class since her first year in college.
“The students were concentrating — I think it was grade eight — on grammar,” LeBeau said. “I did every single grammar and punctuation lesson that I had assigned the children, and that’s how I learned.”
Not only did she teach the traditional subjects, but LeBeau was also a certified ski instructor. In fact, she met her husband skiing in Washington while he was stationed there with the U.S. Army after he graduated from the University of Wyoming.
“Now the story goes — as my husband, Gerald, tells it — I ran into him on the ski slope,” she said. “I say that he ran into me. We’ve told the story so often; I don’t know what’s the truth. I really don’t.”
Once they were married and settled in at her husband’s family homestead near McFadden, LeBeau was looking for another job teaching. She found an opening at McFadden High School teaching math and science.
A year later, the school was closed, and she took a job teaching at the middle school in McFadden. She taught there for 27 years before taking an offer for early retirement from Carbon County School District No. 2.
“I couldn’t stay away; I began subbing in August or September,” she said. “I substitute whenever I’m asked.”
Although she’s had experience teaching middle and high school students, LeBeau said her time with Rock River School gave her the chance to experience new teaching firsts, including teaching subjects like home economics or elementary school students, who always keep her on her toes.
She said continued substitute teaching, even well into retirement, because she didn’t want to stagnate.
“I want to keep learning,” she added. “But the thing I haven’t learned is how to use a computer.”
Technology, especially computers, was the biggest change she saw during her decades in the classroom.
LeBeau said when she made copies during her first years teaching, she had to use a Ditto spirit duplicator or make carbon copies of worksheets or other documents for the students.
Now, when she has an off period between classes, she’ll go ask each of the teachers if they need anything copied, using just the one button on the copier instead of messy Ditto ink.
“I’d much rather have them using the internet or something else to come up with information for the kids to help them learn,” she said. “I don’t mind manual labor.”
Beyond technology, LeBeau has noticed other changes, too, like dress codes.
“Pants were a no-no when I was student teaching,” she said. “I always wore a suit or a skirt and blouse or a dress.”
Although she and her husband don’t have any children, they care for the school children as if they were their own.
Starting in 1966, LeBeau would take pictures of students during art projects, science fairs or performances, compiling the photos into little photo books she gifted the kids upon their eighth-grade graduations.
The practice grew exponentially until she was giving away close to 200 photo books each year.
“In 2012 they started doing away with film pretty much,” she said. “It got too expensive for me to produce over 200 of these things — time-wise, too. So, in 2012 I quit that.”
LeBeau also makes flannel baby receiving blankets and bibs, giving them to neighboring families and families from school.
The community, students and families, she said, are a big reason she’s stayed in the area so long.
Outside of the classroom, she and her husband continue to ski each winter, although they no longer buy season tickets to Steamboat Springs.
Recently she concluded a nearly 27-year genealogy project, where she learned about and even tracked down people from her family tree.
She even visited her family in Germany, seeing the churches and former homesteads of her ancestors and “taking pictures, of course.”
In 1992, she compiled a history of her family including current members. She updated it every year, calling relatives to get new information on marriages, deaths, graduations and other things of interest.
She said this year is the first year she hasn’t updated since she started.
Like the ancestry project or the photo books, all good things must come to an end. LeBeau acknowledges her time substitute teaching will soon be over as well, but that doesn’t mean she’s not enjoying it while it lasts.
“I’ve just been very fortunate, I think, in my lifetime to be able to do the thing I like while employed and then continue it past retirement,” she said.