Back in 2010, Mike Christensen thought he had left his life working in Missoula’s schools for good.
After a 33-year teaching career, Christensen was more than ready to spend his time getting around to all those projects he put on hold as a working man.
But after he built a new deck, after all the rooms in his house had been repainted and after a few trips had been taken, Christensen was a man with time on his hands.
“After a year of being retired, I felt at loose ends,” Christensen explained Tuesday morning. “And I told my wife, Cindy, I’ve got to find something else to do – I need to be busy.”
The logical answer to his unforeseen problem was to get back in the schools – part time.
Kind, big-hearted and experienced with young people, Christensen in 2011was welcomed back into the fold at Rattlesnake Elementary School, where he works 4 1/2 hours a day as a para-educator.
“I live about a half mile from here, and this was the school I wanted to work at,” Christensen said. “I love my job. It’s great because I get to have this relationship with the kids that I didn’t before.
“Life gets so busy in the classroom and you run all day, and there’s so many expectations hanging over your head as a teacher – and over the kids’ heads – that I didn’t have time to really connect with the kids,” he said. “This, for me, is wonderful – I get to know the kids and be there for kids who need a little extra support.”
Christensen wears about three different hats during his short but busy shifts, which begin about 8 a.m. each school day.
As the designated staff person for the school’s Check-In Check-Out program, Christensen keeps a close eye on about 40 children who, for a variety reasons, could use a little extra adult support.
Most often, he visits with the children in the cafeteria, where they come rolling in, eager to have breakfast before class begins.
That important first 45 minutes of the students’ day is filled with welcoming words from Christensen.
“How are you doing? Are you hungry?” and “How is your morning going? Thanks for reading to me yesterday – you did a fabulous job” are the types of exchanges that drive Christensen’s engagement with the youngsters.
“I see him every morning, and I always say hi to him and give him a hug,” said April Reavis, 9.
“He really cares about us. I got my teeth pulled and he’s really concerned about how I am feeling, and that makes me feel good, makes me feel safe.”
“I’m not really good at math, and he helps me with math,” said Kailyn Wilson, 10.
“He just makes school better,” said Sean Jean, 10. “He’s funny and nice, and it’s cool to check in and check out with him every day.
“It’s really nice to know he is always there to help us.”
“Yeah, it’s good to know he’s here every day,” chimed in Sean’s best friend, Taylor Thomas, 9. “He helps us to behave better.”
When the rush of the early morning gives way to the start of learning, Christensen makes one last round through the school to make sure he’s checked in with all the kids on his list.
Then, it’s off to spend an hour or so with the top fourth-grade math students before spending an hour with students who need extra reading help, then recording test score data and filing other important progress reports.
“Being a retired teacher, I can look at what elementary teachers do now and how much of their time is consumed with new curriculum,” he said. “I take a sigh of relief, and I am so thankful that I am not a classroom teacher any more.”
The changes, sparked by Common Core implementation and other Missoula County Public Schools initiatives, are signs of the times, he said. And although such changes are happening everywhere, Christensen said there are some things that need shoring up in the transition.
“We have lost a lot of our personal connection between teachers and kids, and among staff people,” he said. “For the last few years, every year classroom teachers are asked to do more and more programs. There’s so much more accountability – paperwork and meetings after meetings.
“The thing elementary school teachers do not have is time – time to prepare their lesson plans because they are being stretched too thin.”
Christensen said he’s happy to not be caught up in that shuffle, and those stressors make his para-educator job all the more special.
“I love the contact with the kids. They have such a wonderful view of live, and most of them are happy every day,” he said. “I enjoy the one-on-one time, and they keep me young although the calendar says otherwise.”
Christensen said his part-time job has also given him insights into the shift of the modern family structure and its ripple effect on children.
“I think there is a much larger group of kids that come from poverty, and if they are lucky enough to come from a two-parent home, Mom and Dad are working really hard to pay the bills and keep their heads above water,” Christensen said. “I see that stress passed on to the kids, and the kids are on the same schedule as the parents, who are up early to go to work, and often when the kids get home from school their parents are still at work.”
Such a schedule makes it hard for parents and children to have quality time together, and makes it difficult for kids to get homework help from Mom and Dad, who are exhausted after a long day at their jobs.
“It’s a setup that is especially difficult for students who struggle with school and who don’t want to do the homework,” Christensen said. “It can turn into a battle at night and moms and dads don’t want to or have the energy to take that on.”
Christensen said he’s seen a lot of families “that are just hanging in there. I see a lot of children who come to school who haven’t eaten breakfast.
“And it’s a given fact that about 50 percent of any classroom is filled with children who come from a single-parent home.”
Frustrating as those trends are, Christensen said it makes him keenly aware of his role in the school and in the students’ lives.
“I try to be that constant in the kids’ lives – that person they can count on every day,” he said. “That is one of my goals. I’m retired, and I’m only here 4 1/2 hours a day, but I am here every day.
“It’s important that I am.”
Christensen said he’s blessed to have long ago found a rewarding career and a calling – and he still feels that way.
“I haven’t made a million dollars, I didn’t build a skyscraper, but I’ve helped make a lot of kids’ lives better,” he said. “Not everybody can say that.”