SNOHOMISH — Not many people can remember their first- or second-grade teacher, but Jeff Thoreson’s class at Riverview Elementary is hard to forget.
Each day begins with Thoreson’s loud baritone voice singing a long, operatic, “Good morning!” that echoes through the hallways. A jet-black Kawai piano sits against one wall, keys worn from the songs Thoreson incorporates into each lesson.
“My students know, when things are serious, I let them know right away,” Thoreson said. “But we’ve already established a relationship, so they know, ‘Oh, I need to take this part really seriously.’ We learn to laugh and we learn to work hard.”
Costumes and creativity are cornerstones of the curriculum.
Vowel review means donning a tuxedo or duck bill to teach the short “u” sound. An introduction to fractions often includes Thoreson showing up to class with only half of a beard.
“One year, I think I even taught one quarter the next day, shaving another quarter of the beard off, but that was a little embarrassing when I went to the grocery store, so I think I only did that once,” the jovial 63-year-old educator said.
On Friday, at school day’s end, Riverview Elementary’s piano man will take his last bow. After 41 years at the school, Thoreson is retiring from teaching.
At first, Thoreson believed the job at Riverview was just a foot in the door.
A classical voice major in college, Thoreson aspired to be a choral director at the high school or collegiate level. Instead, when the job market ran dry, he accepted the position teaching general music at the small elementary school on Fobes Hill in Snohomish.
“I took courses in college, so I knew kind of what to do, but the kids had to teach me what they were all about,” he said. “I ended up falling in love with this age group and the creativity that we could do. The sky was the limit.”
Thoreson taught music for nine years, but longed to develop stronger relationships with his students. He moved his piano to a first-grade classroom and never looked back, spending the rest of his career teaching first and second graders.
After so many years in a tight-knit community, last names began to repeat.
For the past 25 years, Thoreson said he has had the kids of former students in his class. Some years just one, other years as many as six or seven. He said the role change is often more difficult for the parents who aren’t sure how to address their former teacher.
“Maybe one of the reasons I am retiring is because I don’t want to get to the grandchildren, that might freak me out,” Thoreson said.
He estimates 2,000 to 3,000 students have passed through his classroom. Five of those students were Thoreson’s own kids.
Thoreson’s oldest daughter, Sigrid Ary, said her dad made school fun and easy to understand with tangible, engaging lessons. From a young age, Ary said she heard from kids on the playground excited about her dad.
“I think part of growing up in the community that my dad taught in, I really saw how much of an impact he had,” Ary said. “Even now, anywhere I go, sometimes not even in Snohomish, people will find out he is my dad and they have all these amazing things to say about him. Some of them were past students, some were past parents. Growing up, that really showed me what a big impact teachers have and I think that is part of what made me really interested in teaching.”
Ary is now a kindergarten teacher in the Snohomish School District and said she swaps lesson ideas with her dad daily.
Thoreson’s colleagues praised him as an ideal teaching partner.
Catherine Curran taught with Thoreson for more than 20 years and continued to substitute for his class after her retirement. She said Thoreson’s willingness to try any new idea set him apart.
Curran and Thoreson co-opted an annual project raising salmon in the classroom and releasing them into local creeks to help restore the area’s fish population. After three years, waterways once vacant of salmon had the adults returning regularly to the streams.
Amy Reese taught second grade in tandem with Thoreson for 11 years. She said Thoreson’s ability to blend laughs and amusement into important lessons resonated with generations of children.
“Kids love Jeff,” Reese said. “He just has a certain way about him that really engages the students”
On a visit to Riverview last month, Thoreson said he was sore from playing Flyers Up with a football on the playground earlier in the week. The kids make him feel like a star athlete and Thoreson said he returns the support.
“However you do it, developing a relationship with students is really what drives them,” he said. “They learn very little without relationships.”
With only a few weeks of school left, Thoreson wasn’t focused on his retirement. Instead, he talked about what still needs to be done for the kiddos before the school year’s close.
Like any educator, Thoreson hopes he made an impression on every child he taught, but said when the kids are so young it can be hard to know what sticks. It may be the goofy moments that he’ll be remembered by, but it’s the discussions on being a better person and communicating with one another that Thoreson wants to last a lifetime.
“I know everyone is going to move on and memories fade and that is fine,” he said. “I would rather have that lasting impact be things I never know about, but really made a positive influence on (students’) lives.”
On Monday, Thoreson received a tangible marker of the difference he made. The stage at Riverview Elementary has been renamed “The Thoreson Theater” in his honor.
Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; email@example.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.