Mr. Thudin is retiring
The world of elementary education has changed a lot since Randy Thudin stepped into his first classroom 38 years ago, wearing brown double knit pants, a light brown sports coat with a shirt and tie, along with two-tone brown- and orange-suede shoes.
It was the fall of 1973, and Thudin had been hired to teach sixth grade in Carlton, a job he would do for the next 15 years. He earned $7,300 for his efforts that first year.
"I had 32 sixth-graders in that first class," Thudin said. "We were wall to wall."
Salaries have gone up since then; class sizes have (mostly) gone down since the '70s. In most classrooms, blackboards were replaced by whiteboards which are being replaced by smart boards. Standardized tests have become increasingly important and more time consuming for schools, which can be penalized for even one group of students who fail. And two-tone suede isn't fashionable anymore.
Now Thudin is retiring, after working as principal at Cloquet's Washington Elementary School for 16 years.
"It's even changed in the last decade," Thudin said, stressing that he wasn't saying the changes were uniformly good or bad. "When I started, special education programs were so small. Is that bad, does it mean we weren't meeting the needs of our kids or that there weren't so many kids [who needed special education]? Is it environmental exposure or the pressures that kids face today?"
Thudin - who coached two or three seasons of sports every year when he started teaching - cited sports as an example of the increased pressures kids face today.
"When I look at the years I was teaching in Carlton, we did have summer baseball," he said. "But it was so low key. A sport happened during its season, but that was it. There was a definite end to a season and even a break before the next season started. Now kids can play 12 months of a sport, and many do."
Perhaps that's why Thudin ranks his morning recess duties as one of the things he'll miss most - because kids are just kids at recess.
"I watch the kids on the playground in the morning here," he said. "I really enjoy that. Watching them be kids and playing. They don't have to be organized; there's probably 50 groups out there, some kids playing alone, but they're all organizing their own little things."
Thudin lights up when he talks about his job.
"I know one of the things I will miss the most," he said. "In a lot of districts, you don't hug kids. Part of that is the day and age. We're very careful here, but kids know they can get a hug here. I can get 50 hugs in a day. And yes, I make sure there are always other people around, but that contact, it's important."
He gestures at a growing stack of drawings and messages on his desk from students.
"That part, I know I'll have withdrawal, when I'm not getting my kid fix every day."
While the kids are at the top of the mental list of "Things I will miss versus Things I won't miss" that Thudin has been developing in his head lately, the adults in the school also rank right up there.
Thudin praised the staff at Washington repeatedly.
"I think the people here are awesome," he said. "Close to 45 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch, so there are a lot of needs. But our teachers, our staff, they're awesome. This is such a giving building. Connie [Connie Hyde, who has been hired as the new principal] is going to love being here."
It's a family thing, after all. And what a big family: 600 kids, 50 adults, plus a matching number of parents (and grandparents).
"We're family for about 200 days a year," he said. "I will miss that."
100 percent Carlton County career
Although he graduated from Proctor High School (Class of 1968), Thudin spent his entire educational career in Carlton County.
He didn't exactly plan it that way. In fact, he didn't initially plan to be a teacher or work in education.
He went to school to be an accountant.
That lasted a year, then Thudin realized he needed a job that involved being around other people. After pondering his options, the young Thudin switched to an elementary education major with a coaching minor.
As noted before, his first job was teaching sixth grade at Carlton's South Terrace Elementary School.
That first job lasted just one year fewer than his last.
After a dozen or so years of teaching sixth grade, Thudin said he started thinking that he didn't want to stay in the same classroom for the next two or three decades. So he went back to school at night and over the summers for three years, and got a master's degree in administration, with a specialist focus on superintendency from the University of Wisconsin Superior.
The principal at South Terrace Elementary, where Thudin had spent his career, had announced he was retiring while Thudin was still getting his master's degree. He applied for the position, but the board decided to go with someone who was already licensed. As a result, when he did get his license, Thudin realized he was not going to get to stay in Carlton if he wanted to become a principal.
"At that time, Cromwell was hiring an elementary principal in Wright," he said. "So I went for it."
Thudin was at Wright Elementary School for four years - the school was K-6th grade - then for one year he was the K-12th grade principal.
"You have to deal with everything from high school graduation requirements to kindergarten roundup," Thudin said.
Luckily, Barnum was advertising for an elementary school principal. Thudin applied and was hired. He worked there for three years.
"I loved what I was doing, but Cloquet and Proctor each had an opening, plus Barnum was looking to fill the superintendency," he said, adding that he applied for all three positions. "I remember I had the two teaching interviews the same day: at 7:30 a.m. in Proctor, then I came here [to Cloquet] for a 10:30 a.m. interview.
"You talk about your ship coming in, not too long after that, I got offered both Proctor and this job."
He chose Cloquet over his alma mater and he's been here ever since.
The best things come in pairs
Thudin hasn't done it alone. In fact, he's had a fellow teacher at his side throughout.
By the time he graduated from UMD with a teaching degree, his wife, Elaine, had already been teaching in Hermantown for a year.
They were married that summer.
"We met in high school typing class," Thudin said. "Sat side-by-side. She was a junior; I was a senior. Although we will celebrate our 39th wedding anniversary in June, we've been together for 44 years."
Between the two of them, they've been involved in elementary education for close to eight decades.
Elaine knew she wanted to teach from the beginning.
"At that time, a girl who went to college was either a secretary, teacher or nurse," Thudin said, noting that things have come a long way since then. "But she really wanted to teach and that's what she did. While I was on the five-year [college graduation] plan, she did it in three."
Elaine taught in Hermantown for 10 years. She and Randy had three daughters - Carrie, Lindsey and Amanda - and she wanted to go part-time for a while and Hermantown said no, so she took a job in the Esko School District.
In her 29 years there, Elaine started Esko's developmental kindergarten program and taught kindergarten as well, before applying her skills to Title One teaching (her current job).
Esko Superintendent Aaron Fischer said Elaine deserves a lot of credit for Esko's high reading scores.
"She is an amazing educator who has provided leadership on our reading committee and provided first rate instruction to her Title One students," Fischer said. "She will be missed and many students would tell you that she made a difference in their life."
Elaine's last day in Esko is set for June 8; Randy's is set for June 29.
The couple has both challenges and adventures to look forward to in retirement.
Their eldest daughter, Carrie, is expecting and they are looking forward to the birth of their first grandchild this summer along with some relaxing vacation time at the cabin in Moose Lake as well as places like Florida and Hawaii, Randy Thudin said.
However, the Thudin family has also been battling health issues. Last August Randy was diagnosed with prostate cancer but had surgery in October with good results, he said.
Now Elaine is fighting cancer. Their two youngest daughters came home from California so they could help their very determined mother, who is still working half days in Esko despite being quite ill from the disease and alternative treatment.
Randy said he's looking forward to starting this next phase of life together with the woman he's been side-by-side with since typing class in Proctor.
"I believe she will come through," he said. "Hopefully we will have lots of years to see what doors open up ... and more grandchildren."
For anyone considering education as a vocation, Thudin offers simple advice.
"Make sure you're not doing it for the money, or because you think you have the summers off," he said. "Yes, the schedule changes, the intensity changes, but you need to be committed to being able to do what needs to be done, whether that's taking a class or figuring out what you're going to tweak in your classroom.
"It's not a 7:30 to 3:30 job, not if you're going to be good. But it is a very rewarding field. And it's definitely not boring," he added, laughing.
It's a field he's definitely enjoyed, throughout every phase of his career.
He said being principal has been a treat, and far from the old stereotype of doling out punishment 90 percent of the time.
"Maybe 20 percent of the job is discipline," he said. "But no two days are ever the same. That's what I love. Four out of five days I can come in and what I have on the calendar doesn't happen. It's crazy, but it's fun crazy."
It is fun, challenging and soul-satisfying work.
"I have been blessed," Thudin said. "I really feel this has been my mission work. We have kids who come to school, who are needy. Not everyone comes from stable homes. I don't need to go to Africa or Mexico. This has been my mission field."
Funny that he should say that.
When asked for his thoughts on the departing principal, Cloquet Superintendent Ken Scarbrough talked about Randy's "mission."
"Mr. Thudin has devoted many years to the students, staff and parents in our community," Scarbrough said. "I have appreciated Mr. Thudin's experience when working on school matters. More importantly, I believe Mr. Thudin has a heartfelt mission to do the best he can for his students."
As much as he's looking forward to retirement, Randy said the day after Labor Day will be a strange one.
"It will be the first time in 56 years that I will not be heading to some kind of school," he said.
Staff, students and parents at Washington School will host a retirement open house for Principal Randy Thudin from 3-6 p.m. Wednesday, May 16 in the Washington School media center (aka library).