Santa Fe, New Mexico
She discovered that five-year-olds are incredibly exciting. They are growing and learning at astonishing rates and still think that their teachers are taller than Paul Bunyan, smarter than Albert Einstein, and are the best thing since sliced bread, even if they would not express it quite that way. During her career, she worked with children from all walks of life, in schools that were among the poorest in her city to one of the most successful, and not surprisingly, in one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in town. It did not really matter to her since she had two basic philosophies that drove her curriculum: take all children where they are and help them progress and to bring the world into her classroom. She has ice-skated across the carpet in order to show children who have never seen ice-skates what they look like and how they work. She has spent an hour taking desert children for walks under an umbrella, one by one, so they could hear the sounds of rain hitting the fabric. Neither of these are testable skills and some people may think they were a waste of time. However, she knows differently. She is well aware that the more that children have experienced, the more capable they are of learning and understanding.
Shari was born on a U.S. Army Base in La Rochelle, France, where her father was serving. The family returned to the United States in December 1956 when she was still a baby. In 1964, they moved from New York to Palm Springs, California, where she later graduated from Palm Springs High School. Following this, she completed the multi-subject credential program at University of California, Berkeley.
In 1978, she commenced her teaching career at Potrero Hill Head Start School, in San Francisco, CA. The school was located in the ghetto of the city and was part of the Head Start Program. Head Start was (and still is) a federally-funded program initiated during the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty in the mid 1960s. Its mission was to provide high quality early childhood education to low-income families. It also provided parent education and medical services. All of the staff, with the exception of Shari, was from the local community. However, this particular program was piloting a project to extend the kindergarten day for children in the neighbourhood and they needed a certified teacher for the program. She fit that need. The students came from some of the toughest housing projects in the city. In her class, she had a number of babies who had been born addicted to crack, the drug of choice at that time, and that was extremely difficult. What she learned that year was to control the class without screaming, but instead with a determined calmness and quiet.
She and her husband moved around for a few years as they worked to establish themselves, during which time they had two children. Shari was fortunate enough to be able to stay home while the children were young. When she decided that the time was right for her to return to teaching, she really was hoping to keep home-life and work in balance. The easiest way to do that was to work part time. The part time jobs available in their district were in kindergarten classrooms. Thus, she spent the next 20 years teaching kindergarten for the public schools in Santa Fe, New Mexico. When she was ready to work full time, she completed her Special Education credential, allowing her to work part time in kindergarten and part time in special education. At other times, she worked part time as a school librarian and as a kindergarten teacher. She eventually taught kindergarten full time.
In 2008, she took a leave of absence from Santa Fe Public Schools and spent a year teaching at Ivy Academy in Beijing, China. Ivy is an international preschool dedicated to incorporating Dr. Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences into their curriculum. The theory is basically the ability to understand and use language within a variety of disciplines and the ability to use numbers, which are only part of the picture of what makes a person “smart.” According to Dr. Gardner, there are seven or eight unique areas, including art, music, the ability to understand ourselves and others, the ability to discern how the world is structured, and the ability to use our bodies in creative ways. All of these together make up “intelligence.” We each possess all of these intelligences in varying degrees. Our education system, in general, emphasizes linguistic and mathematical intelligence and virtually ignores the rest.
Right before leaving the United States for China, she submitted her portfolio for National Board Certification as an Early Childhood Generalist. How thrilled she was upon her return to be notified that she had qualified for this prestigious certification! The work that she performed at Ivy and for the National Boards confirmed her belief that early childhood education is an intellectual pursuit for those who choose to look at it that way. Because she had found the rigour of the National Boards so rewarding, she became a candidate support provider for other teachers. Regrettably, the support program lost its funding and, currently, the group of NBCTs in Santa Fe is meeting to conceptualize new ways of providing assistance to future candidates.
She found that students in the poorer areas of town face challenges that are not an issue for the majority of the wealthier students. Among them are the following: lack of English, lack of quality pre-school experiences, little knowledge of books, numbers, and the alphabet, an inability to express themselves (even native English speakers in the poorer areas of the city are not as adept with language as their wealthier counterparts whose parents are invariably more educated), limited general knowledge, and the lack of intact and functional families to provide consistent emotional support.
Schools across her community are fairly equal in terms of facilities and materials supplied by the school district. The physical differences are in the additional monetary support that parents can provide to the school as well as the availability of parents to volunteer in the classrooms and with special projects.
In spending two years, part-time, as a special education teacher working with students in mixed (special education and general education) groups, there were no memorable experiences, other than all the paperwork – which she hated.
Dealing with public perception of teachers, especially elementary teachers, as being not overly bright, competent, motivated, or well-informed, was one of the hardest issues for her during her teaching career. Unfortunately, as the years passed, teacher bashing in the press and general culture seemed to grow, while at the same time the parents with whom she dealt seemed to respect her more and more.
She also found the structure of the teaching profession to be stifling. After reaching a certain competence level, she would like to have been able to expand her professional duties into leadership and policy making activities while remaining in the classroom, at least part time. Unfortunately, in order to participate and really be heard in those capacities, she would have had to enter the administrative end of the profession – and that held little interest for her.
Dealing with the “newest, greatest thing” became a little tiring. When an administrator decided that a new reading program, mathematics program, schedule, or whatever was going to solve all the problems in education magically, the teachers were expected to follow along like sheep. Despite the fact that few administrators had spent any time as kindergarten teachers, they, by virtue of their advanced degrees and higher salary, suddenly were experts on what should go on in her classroom.
Quality teaching comes from not only on having a solid grasp of content of what one is teaching but also on having a body of pedagogical knowledge. We need to understand how to communicate with our students, how authentically to evaluate their understanding and their ability to apply their understanding to new situations, how to determine the places where their thinking breaks down, for example. Politicians have come up with simplistic formulas that are far removed from the nuances of quality teaching.
In early childhood education, politicians have shown little understanding that the process of learning often looks very different from the desired outcomes. For example, if we want children to read effectively by the end of third grade, kindergarteners need to engage in activities that lead to their understanding of what they read. Baking cookies and seeing how the cookies harden as they cool, and smelling cinnamon and vanilla, and pushing the cookie cutter into the dough, is just as important to furthering their reading skills as knowing that the letter “c” makes the sound “k” in “cookie.” The easy, measurable skill is the letter “c” and so politicians have placed the emphasis on learning letters, sometimes before the child has developed all of the tiny, almost invisible, steps necessary to know “c.” What the politicians ignore, or do not know enough to ignore, is that brain research shows that, when a person reads the word “cinnamon” and has experience with actual cinnamon, parts of the brain related to the olfactory functions are activated. Thus, when she reads “cinnamon”, it is a much richer experience for her than when she reads “tamarind”, which she knows is used in cooking but with which she does not have much experience. Is it bitter? Sour? Sweet?
Building a wide body of experiences and general knowledge in developmentally appropriate ways has been pushed aside in favour of discrete and testable skills. It seems that the more politicians have been involved in education, the less we have actually been teaching. The field has been narrowed to teach the obvious, while more complex processes are being eased out of the way. Of course, the children who are most harmed by this are our children who come from homes that are impoverished and headed by parents who do not know how to grow strong learners.
Teaching is an art. Watching a true “artist” in the classroom is like watching an excellent chef or an orchestra conductor. An educational artist has developed what looks like an intuitive sense of when to push, when to support, when to be firm, when to question, and when to accept. After studying the science of education – the components of the curriculum, the theories of learning, and the techniques of pedagogy – the artist combines them in a unique way to produce a classroom of learners. An artist is not formulaic, but is responsive to what is happening with her/his students and is constantly adjusting. What works for one class does not always work for the next class. What makes sense for one student is not necessarily right for another. The “art of education” is the process of using a variety of tools, techniques, and approaches to elicit the desired effect…students who are learning, progressing, applying their knowledge, and demonstrating their knowledge.
Shari would tell teachers entering the profession that the number one skill they need to develop is classroom control. Without an environment that is reasonably calm, nurturing, and respectful, children and teachers cannot thrive. To do this, a teacher needs to establish consistent routines and a well thought out physical environment. She/He needs to think about transitions from one activity to another, how people move through the space, how materials can be both accessible and organized, what are the standards for behaviour and how that is communicated, and what happens when those standards are not met.
Unfortunately, early childhood education (and education in general), is going down a path that she found more and more restrictive, disturbing, and stressful. Therefore, at the tender age of 55, she decided that 25 years of classroom teaching was enough and she retired at the end of the 2011-12 school year. Currently, she is looking at ways to use the knowledge gained during her career to educate parents and teachers. She presented a workshop on children’s play at the state-wide PRO (Parent’s Reaching Out) conference in the spring of 2012. She is exploring such options as becoming a parent coach/parent educator. Since writing is a passion for her, Shari will continue to write, both on topics pertaining to children and other issues that interest her (or that will pay her!).
(This page was updated in October 2012.)