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Lessons learned — Kindergarten teacher wraps up 40-year career at Lakeside Elementary

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | May 20, 2024 12:00 AM

For 40 years, Lakeside Elementary kindergarten teacher Coleene Torgerson has been “at the beginning” of students’ education, sending hundreds of children off on a path of learning and discovery.

This year, she has reached the destination of her teaching journey as she begins a new one in retirement.

During a May 13 interview at the school, Torgerson shared the joys and challenges of teaching Lakeside–Somers School District’s youngest students. 

“They’re curious. They’re eager to learn. They love everything and they especially love their teacher. You get, ‘You’re the best teacher I’ve ever had,’ even though you’re the only one they’ve ever had,” Torgerson said with a smile and a laugh. 

“They’re true to themselves,” she added.

With a mother who taught kindergarten and first grade and a father who taught middle school math and coached basketball, it wasn’t a difficult choice in determining her career path. Growing up in Bridger, Montana, Torgerson enjoyed spending time at her mother’s classroom, helping her organize, set up materials, or decorate the bulletin board.

She knew she wanted a career working with people when she went to college. After graduating, Torgerson landed her first teaching position at Somers-Lakeside School District in 1984, where she remained for her entire career. 

“My husband is from Bigfork so we wanted to come to this area,” she said. 

“I started at this school. I love this school,” she said (which includes teaching in Somers until 1997-98 when Lakeside Elementary was built at its current location, 255 Adams St. in Lakeside).

During her tenure, she also taught first grade, second grade, a bit of fourth grade, students who struggled academically, along with gifted students and coached girls and boys basketball. For one year, she and another elementary teacher served as interim principals, when a former administrator took another position right before the start of the school year. The two teachers divided their time between principal duties and teaching in the classroom.

“It was a good experience, but it made me know that the classroom was my place,” Torgerson said.

For about 20 years, she’s taught kindergartners. 

“It’s just really fun watching them learn letters and sounds and how to put it together — that beginning process of reading and being interested in books,” she said.

TO BE a kindergarten teacher requires plenty of energy, patience and a flexible mindset to keep up with the 6-year-olds.

“You have to love hugs,” she said, and be ready to handle the messier aspects of growing up such as bathroom accidents or nose-picking. “There’s a lot of things that happen in kindergarten that don’t happen in other grades. You just have to be really flexible and able to roll with it.”

After the experience of teaching two half-day classes with 30 kindergartners each before Lakeside Elementary opened, Torgerson knows why smaller class sizes are crucial. 

“Because we say [it’s] like herding butterflies. They’re here and there and everywhere and we’re trying to keep them all focused at the same time and quiet at the same time,” she said, waving her hands in the air.

At this age, students are brimming with curiosity, wonder and imagination.

“You can get them excited about anything. It’s all how you present it,” Torgerson said.

Torgerson described how she incorporates songs and movement into learning letters, sounds, numbers and colors, for example. She also loves to use hand puppets of the beloved characters in children’s books such as Clifford the Big Red Dog and Pete the Cat, when reading aloud. 

“It has to be engaging,” she said about presenting the curriculum. “In kindergarten, they’re short little bites because they don’t have a long attention span so you move really quickly from activity to activity, every, you know, 15 to 20 minutes.”

If there isn’t a song available, which the internet has made easier, she’ll make one up.

“Back 40 years ago when I started, you didn’t have that, so you took familiar tunes and you just made your own words,” she said, singing, “R-E-D, R-E-D, apples are red, apples are red,” to the tune of the nursery rhyme “Frère Jacques” as an impromptu example.

Hands-on manipulatives such as dice and blocks are also important in learning at this level. Play stations where students can pretend are also a staple. Incorporating play and imagination into learning is a touchstone in child development. Over the years, however, Torgerson said there’s been a shift from play-based education to an academically focused one as standards and accountability requirements change. She also noticed this change when kindergarten moved from half days to full days for all students at Lakeside.

“A lot more is expected out of kids than it used to be. They’ve moved first grade down to kindergarten. They’ve pushed it down and that’s unfortunate because they don’t have as much of a chance to just be kids; to love school and to love learning; because they have to learn sight words and numbers — in addition to all those things in kindergarten that we touched on — but we didn’t have to master it all. Kindergarten used to be more about playing, singing, painting, playing games, taking turns and sharing. All of those types of things. And now, kindergarten is really academic,” she said.

But, she agreed educational philosophies and trends appear to be cyclical with a movement to bring those play-based elements back into the forefront.

“I really hope that it does,” she said. “Because they [students] don’t realize they’re learning and they’re just having fun with their learning without even knowing it.”

THE TIMING was right to retire this year Torgerson said, noting the recent birth of her third grandchild, whom she is eager to see. A breast cancer diagnosis last year and subsequent treatment — surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — all went well, but it took a toll on her energy level. Torgerson recalled how much she looked forward to returning to the classroom that year.

“Having the kid and teaching to look forward to got me out of bed every day and it was such a blessing,” Torgerson said.

In retirement, she’s looking forward to traveling to visit her children and grandchildren who live out of state and keeping busy.

Her parting advice to new teachers is to give themselves grace.

“Especially starting out, you are not going to be an expert at everything. In fact, pretty much nothing that you do in college prepares you for that first day. So just realize that you’re not going to know everything and it takes a while.”

“Be willing to reach out to others,” she adds. “You don’t have to be an island. There are other teachers, administrators, parents — people who can help you and support you.”

She recommended getting involved in school and community activities or groups to build connections.

“Those are the things that make you want to stay if you feel really connected to the community. That’s why I wanted to stay.”

The public is invited to attend an ice cream social in celebration of Torgerson’s retirement on June 5 at Lakeside Elementary in the gym. The time is to be determined.



Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.