As volunteer and retired teacher Tim Adams leads a group of fourth graders in a reading of the classic children’s novel “The Island of the Blue Dolphins,” the students come across a passage about a pack of feral dogs.
Tim asks them if they can imagine what an angry dog might be like. Sending his point home, he starts to do an impression of a snarling canine. His lips curl back behind his teeth, and he manages to hold the snarl for a second or two before breaking into a smile. He asks the students to do their best impression. They’re hesitant at first, but Tim is encouraging, and they gamely make an attempt, smiling as they do so.
Those who know Tim as a volunteer in our Literacy Program at El Dorado Elementary School say he goes above and beyond to help students not only master reading but make sure they’re having fun. Tim buys or checks out from the library new books that interest specific students, shows children related videos and digs up research that expands upon the story they’re reading. And of course, he’ll act out the book when necessary.
“He has a really great demeanor with them,” said Larissa Kenny, a literacy specialist at the school. “He talks to them in a very respectful way and in a curious way. When he asks questions you can tell in his voice that he actually really is wondering, ‘Why do you think that? How do you think that could be?’”
Tim worked as an educator in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years, first as an elementary school teacher and later as an adult education teacher (he kept working with elementary school students as a volunteer for a nonprofit field trip program) until he retired in 2011. After traveling abroad and enjoying his retirement, he said he felt a need to serve the community again. While he experienced burnout in his teaching career, he missed working with students, and he felt he could put his skills to use.
“As a retired volunteer, I knew I could feel idealistic again,” Tim said.
At the beginning of the year, Tim worked one-on-one with several students in Alex Peck’s fourth-grade class, including children who were reading behind grade level. When Tim learned that one of the students, Dominic, was fascinated by blood, he went out and found a Seymour Simon nonfiction book about the human heart. That instantly won the 9-year-old over.
“He became thrilled to see Tim every week,” Mr. Peck said.
Dominic went up nearly two reading levels working with Tim, according to Mr. Peck. “They had a really great relationship,” the teacher said.
“He knew more about blood than I did,” Tim remembers. “I was really impressed.”
Then, Tim started working with two small groups of fourth-grade students at or above grade level. These are the students who receive the least amount of support, according to Ms. Kenny. Some are shy, and they can easily fly under the radar and miss out on receiving the attention that can help engage them and get them to the next level.
“Those kids still want adult interaction,” Ms. Kenny said. “They want to feel like, ‘Hey, I get some special time too.’”
As they read a book, Tim asks students to think about what might happen next in the story. He’ll ask them if they think the main character is making the right decision at a critical moment or if they can relate scenes in the book to their own experiences. While Tim is playful, he takes this time there seriously. Tim reads each chapter ahead of his session so he knows exactly what will happen in the story, and he prepares material to match the timeline of events.
On the day he read with the students about feral dogs, he had also prepared material about the constellations (because soon after she encounters the wild animals, the main character is lost at sea and must use the stars to guide her). Tim arrives to school early each week so he can do extra preparation before he sits down with the students. This is the kind of thing he loves about volunteering.
“I have time to prepare the lessons that I never had as a teacher,” Tim said.
Tim is soon embarking on his next adventure as a retiree. He said he’s becoming an expat, and he plans to travel to Europe. That means he’s saying goodbye to El Dorado Elementary School, at least for now. He says he’ll miss the students and the teachers he worked with, along with the principal and school staff who were always welcoming at the front office.
Tim said volunteering has allowed him to experience teaching the way he always wanted to, and he recommends the experience to others.
“Many retirees might think they’re better off now: no alarm clock, no commute, no responsibility,” Tim said. “If they volunteer, many will discover that they can do everything they once enjoyed, and none of what they disliked.”
While Mr. Peck is sad to see Tim go, he said having him at the school has been invaluable.
“I’ve been extremely appreciative that Tim Adams has been a part of our classroom,” Mr. Peck said. “It’s been such a phenomenal experience.”
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