Mr. Pluger retiring, but still not ready to grow up
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – A couple of pairs of stuffed Mickey and Minnie Mouse animals in Jerry Pluger’s classroom at Sopris Elementary School are an indication that this teacher is still as much a kid as the kids in his third grade class.
“I’m just a very wise 8-year-old,” says Pluger, who has been to Disneyland 87 times.
He still remembers that first family trip at age 7 from rural Wisconsin to Southern California.
“That was back when $4.95 got you on all the rides, and a place to park,” he said with his distinctive third-grader giggle. “I remember standing outside and selling our extra tickets, and people would buy them just ’cause we looked so doggone cute.”
That youthful enthusiasm has stayed with Pluger his whole life, and through his 33 years teaching in the Roaring Fork School District Re-1 at Carbondale and Sopris elementary schools.
To teach third grade, you sort of have to be a third-grader, says Pluger, who will retire at the end of this school year at age 62.
“I just love the third grade,” he says. “I call it the window of opportunity, because kids aren’t worried yet about what they’re wearing or what groups to hang out with. It’s just such a fun age.”
Pluger has been a third grade teacher for the majority of his career. One year he taught first grade, and three times he stayed with his third-grade students for a second year, teaching their class for fourth grade.
It’s that kind of connection to young students that has made him one of those extraordinarily popular elementary school teachers.
In one corner of his classroom at Sopris Elementary hangs the group photos of all his student classes going back to 1977 at Carbondale Elementary School, where he taught for 23 years.
“I get asked to speak at high school graduations because the kids always remember me,” he said. “I’ve been at it long enough now that I have kids in my class whose parents I also taught.”
He even had the privilege of teaching his own grandson, Anthony, whose mom, Megan, is a preschool teacher in Glenwood Springs.
Another of Pluger’s daughters, Molly, lives in Seattle, as does a son, Josh, whose wife, Carrie, also happens to be a third-grade teacher. His other son, Jeremy, is a “continuing senior” at Colorado State University.
“That’s OK, it took me 10 years to get through college,” Pluger admits. “I was confused. They said teachers needed tenure, and I thought they said ’10 years.'”
After student-teaching in Wales, he and his ex-wife, Debbie, migrated to the Roaring Fork Valley where they had vacationed several times.
In the late 1970s, a male teacher in the elementary school was also rare. But it’s where Pluger said he felt the most comfortable.
“I just love watching kids this age develop a more mature sense of humor, and especially when they can get me to burst out laughing,” he said.
It was a special gift that former Carbondale Elementary School principal and district administrator Jim Phillips noticed, and admired.
“He’s just an incredible teacher, and has a love of children and a love of teaching that’s unmatched,” Phillips said. “So many kids still keep in touch with him, which is a good sign that someone made a difference in their life.”
What’s with the bathtub?
During his years in Carbondale, Pluger was infamous for having an old claw-foot style bathtub in his classroom.
“It was a great place for the kids to pile in and read books,” he said.
One year, a student fell asleep in the tub and Pluger didn’t realize it until after school, when one of his other students came running up to him in the hallway and said so-and-so was still in the bathtub.
“I had to call his mom up in Marble and say her son missed the bus because he fell asleep in the bathtub,” Pluger said.
One year, the school custodian had the bathtub taken to the dump after the school year ended because he was tired of moving it to clean, Pluger recalled. The principal told the custodian to go retrieve it, but it was too late. Someone had claimed it.
A smaller, inset-style bathtub still resides in his current classroom at Sopris.
“I can tell you thousands of stories. Just point to any kid,” Pluger said, motioning to the wall full of class pictures. “There have been a lot of fun times.
“Ninety-nine percent of teaching is getting the kids to trust you,” he adds. “Being able to get them to laugh at themselves, and laugh at their mistakes … that’s how you learn from those mistakes.”
After school is out next month, Pluger is planning a trip to the Pacific northwest to visit his children and grandchildren there.
Future travel plans include destinations such as the New England coast, Australia and Africa.
And, who knows, maybe another visit to the Magic Kingdom will be in order.
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