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Love the last class

A kindergarten teacher with a passion for instructing kids is calling it quits at the end of the year after nearly 30 years at Riverside Elementary School.

Theresa Thomas reads with Riverside Kindergartener Carter Johnson and his father, Jeremy, who was also Thomas' student 28 years ago. Thomas will retire this spring after near 30 years in the classroom. (Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls) Gallery and Video
Theresa Thomas reads with Riverside Kindergartener Carter Johnson and his father, Jeremy, who was also Thomas' student 28 years ago. Thomas will retire this spring after near 30 years in the classroom. (Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls) Gallery and Video

A kindergarten teacher with a passion for instructing kids is calling it quits at the end of the year after nearly 30 years at Riverside Elementary School.

When Theresa Thomas started teaching in Brainerd Public Schools in 1986, she would ride on the school bus home with the kids to help them acclimate to the school day.

"You wouldn't expect that anymore," Thomas said. "But it always helped me build a relationship with the kids even faster."

Thomas won't stop helping people once she's retired, she's just going to start helping the community in other ways. She wants to help her mother, who's going through dementia, and wants to help people going through similar issues.

"I would like to help those people, it's quite like this," Thomas said, gesturing to her classroom. "You're still reading stories and doing projects with them, they just have no memory of who you were from the last time you were there."

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She's also the grandmother to twins starting kindergarten in the fall and she'd like to help them transition to school.

"It's the both ends of life I really love, the beginning and the end," Thomas said.

Thomas also has a passion for gardening, through all three seasons. Putting the flowers to bed in the fall, waking them up in the spring, and the "constant needs" in the summer give her joy.

"I don't know where this journey will take me," Thomas said. "I don't have to travel, but I would like to travel."

The decision was perfectly timed, Thomas said. At the start of the school year in the fall, she met her students and their parents, and had a wonderful day. But when she got home that night, she had a moment of clarity.

"When I went home that night, I said, 'Today was really cool and fun,'" Thomas said. "But I shouldn't be doing this anymore."

Going into the year knowing it's your last has means you can "love your last year the best of all," Thomas said.

"I'm not getting sad at all," Thomas said. "This is such perfect timing. I'm having the best year."

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Everyone Thomas has told about her retirement has been supportive and happy for her, she said, because they see her happiness and realize it's the right decision.

"It's been so obvious that it's the right thing," Thomas said. "I will miss the kids like crazy, but I can fill that void by volunteering and helping."

Thomas started her teaching career teaching kids in the Mounds View School District in 1975. After five years, she returned home to care for her two sons. Then in 1986, she started teaching in Brainerd and has been here ever since.

Thomas' love of children is part of what made her want to be a teacher. The other part is her affinity for instruction, evident from an early age.

"I always played teacher when I was little with my stuffed animals," Thomas said. "I'd line them up on the bed and teach them the things I knew."

Teaching kindergarteners also gives Thomas a front-row seat to her own personal episode of "Kids Say the Darnedest Things."

"Little kids are never at a loss for words that are true," Thomas said. "Little kids are very honest and tell you the way it is."

Kindergarteners also have boundless curiosity, which results in many teaching moments throughout the day, Thomas said.

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"If a kid brings in a dead bird, or a snake skin, a nest, or a plain old rock, it's a teaching opportunity," Thomas said. "I can really have fun with it."

Thomas's students are in their first year of school, and come into the learning environment ready to do just that.

"We get them at a vulnerable age when you can make this wonderful environment they want to be in," Thomas said. "They're super happy to be here."

Thomas said her favorite part of the school day is sitting with the kids on their "magic carpet," a rug where she reads stories to the kids.

"I love getting into their hearts and souls and how the story relates to their lives," Thomas said.

When Thomas first greets the students in the morning, she's able to read how they react to her greeting and know what that student might need for the day.

"You greet them and say 'Good morning,' and you know in exactly how they reacted what their day started like at home," Thomas said. "And I try to make it the best day ever."

Thomas' last year has been marked by a special occurrence, which has actually become more frequent as her career has gone on. Jeremy Johnson was in her second kindergarten class in Brainerd, and now his son, Carter, is in her last class.

Teaching the child of someone she taught earlier in her career has started to happen more and more in the past few years.

"It's happened more than I ever thought it would, because I've been teaching for so long," Thomas said. "Probably this year I have three, and the last few years, it's been at least three per class."

Sometimes the kid is a similar student to the parent, Thomas said, but it depends on the kid.

"I had a little one last year who was just like her dad," Thomas said.

In Carter's case, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, Thomas said.

"Jeremy was laid back, and nothing rattles Carter," Thomas said. "He's genuinely wonderful with other kids and does his best, same as Jeremy."

The similarities don't stop there, though.

"Jeremy was a super good friend to all and Carter has a tremendous heart," Thomas said. "He's a cool little boy."

Jeremy Johnson said it's "familiar and cool" to see his son Carter go through kindergarten with a teacher he had.

"You're always nervous when your kid goes to school for the first time," Johnson said. "But you know he's going to learn a lot and be treated well."

Johnson said Carter loves having Thomas for a teacher and looks forward to going to school every day.

"He had confidence issues at first, where he wasn't the most confident kid, and now he's pretty confident," Johnson said. "He likes going to school."

Thomas said she'd like people to remember her as a "fun" kindergarten teacher, one who "always did projects, took lots of pictures and always gave hugs."

As the years went on, Thomas didn't find she was worn down by the high-energy 5-year-olds she spent her days with. Rather, they had the opposite effect on her.

"Being around kids brings the calm out of me," Thomas said. "I don't want to have heart stress over a 5-year-old."

SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 855-5859 or spenser.bickett@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett .

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