KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Señora Melissa Mann greets every student that walks into her classroom with a smile and "Buenos días," which means "good morning" in Spanish.
Her passion for teaching the language is evident.
"Spanish class is not just verb conjugations and nouns and this and that," she said. "It is culture. You have to appreciate the culture of all the different countries where the language is spoken."
Mann grew up in a family of educators. She said her dad was a college professor, and her mom started a school in Moscow. She and her siblings followed in their footsteps.
"We're all educators," Mann said. "It just seemed like the natural thing to do."
After five decades as an educator, Mann chose to retire in May 2021. She thought her time in the classroom had come to end — until she ran into Central High School administrators.
"They said, 'Señora Mann, what are you doing these days?'" Mann said. "I said, 'Reading books, hanging out, cooking.'"
The next thing she knew they were asking her to return to the classroom under a new state law.
Legislators passed HB2783/SB2702 in the spring, which allows retirees to return as teachers, substitutes or bus drivers without losing or suspending their retirement benefits.
They are not able to be re-employed for more than one year at a time, but they could be re-employed for multiple 1-year periods. Retirement benefits would also be reduced to 70% of the allowance they would otherwise get if they were not re-employed.
Their new employers would also need to either pay 5% of their pay rate to the state's retirement system or a payment equal to what they would have paid if they were not returning to work. The special provisions end in 2025.
"For me, it was like a door opened and all I had to do was decide if I wanted to take the step in or if I wanted to stay back," Mann said. "It's fun. I like it."
Mann is now a Spanish teacher at Central High School, where she gets to interact with some of her former students from Northwest Middle.
"That's been like, 'Wow, I haven't seen you since 6th grade and here you are in 11th grade,'" she said. "That's a very cool thing for a teacher to be able to have that connection with their students after all those years."
Mann is not sure how much longer she'll stay in the classroom, but she's grateful she took the teaching opportunity this year.
"If I can influence one student in these classrooms, then it's all worthwhile," she said. "I'm glad I came back."