In a perfect world, every elementary school would have a “Mr. Charlie.”
Charlie Thoma retired 27 years ago, but he had no intention of leaving the workforce entirely. Instead, he dedicated his time, patience and brain to helping young schoolchildren overcome struggles in the classroom.
Even at 80 years old, Thoma seems to have boundless energy and enthusiasm for pitching in around Pioneer Elementary School. After stints as a computer lab teacher in the Littleton and Cherry Creek school districts, he found himself in Parker, and within three months, had landed a part-time gig at Pioneer assisting children with individual learning needs.
That was more than 13 years ago.
Paula Haugerud, the principal’s secretary and former volunteer coordinator for Pioneer, knows how rare it is to have the same person helping out for an extended duration. Typically, the parent of a student will volunteer, but leave once the child moves on to a different school.
“When I started here, he was a part of the school,” said Haugerud, whose two boys were taught by “Mr. Charlie,” as he is known around the prekindergarten-to-5th-grade school.
Aside from the joy of helping children learn, Thoma’s reasons for coming week in and week out are threefold. The first is “job satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment,” which was lacking in his career as a middle manager for what was then US West, the Denver-based telecommunications company. The second reason is, the work keeps his brain sharp, and the third is that the schedule provides structure.
Thoma earns a small paycheck for his Tuesday-through-Thursday visits, but sets the record straight: “I’m not in it for the money.” That much is evident when looking at the organization of a folder that never leaves his side. It’s filled with notes about where to be and when, and memos about subjects in which students need the most attention. He usually works with kids in groups of three to five.
Haugerud says Thoma’s services are invaluable. He goes where he is needed, whether it’s reading to preschoolers, helping third-graders with their math lesson or challenging a handful of talented and gifted pupils. His ability to adapt to different grade levels throughout the day comes naturally. The tutoring sessions are short, but Thoma’s intervention has enabled countless children to get over academic hurdles.
“It’s time that the teacher may not have to give to that small group of kids,” Haugerud says. “I don’t know what we’d do without him.”
Thoma remains in constant contact with the teachers of the students he assists to make sure they are on the same page. He even brings in his own lessons after getting some general direction from the teacher. This week, he used money to teach math. His pockets jingled with the sound of loose change he brought from home.
For all the praise he gets from the faculty, recognition is not Thoma’s main motivation. That comes from seeing the light bulb go on.
“That’s wonderful,” he says with a laugh. “That’s that daily accomplishment I was talking about.”