What Makes A Good Nursery School?

mama-to-mama1111This post was supposed to be about picking out holiday gifts for teachers. But something else happened. My mind drifted and I started thinking about a woman, a nursery school teacher, who my kids adored and who taught me a lot about little children.

So now instead of advising you on picking out a gift FOR the teacher, I’m going to advise you on picking out the gift OF the teacher.

My three went to what was, perhaps, the perfect nursery school. The first time I visited, I was shopping. I was on the prowl for a place run by people who got the value of play and who didn’t take themselves too seriously. I understood that my son was almost three (not 13) and I wanted them to get that too.

I didn’t want to be stopped at the door by a teacher (policewoman) who forced me to say goodbye on the spot, nor did I want my son applying to M.I.T., early decision, between circle time and snack. I didn’t want the flash cards or the push to be smart or clever.

Nope, I just wanted a place where he could have fun and socialize with other people who liked to ride big wheels and paint at an easle, too. If it wasn’t too much trouble, I was hoping he could to learn how to sit in a circle, take direction from somebody else and have a chance to use glitter, because that was not going to be happening at my house again any time soon.

Since he was my first, I didn’t know I was supposed to sign him up for pre-school the day of his birth. Apparently, I didn’t get the memo. And even if I had, I would have tossed it. That was definitely not my style and I didn’t want a pressured, competitive atmosphere for him — or me, for that matter.

He was THREE (almost) for Pete’s sake. Who were these people? Unfortunately, there seemed to be a lot of them, and I wasn’t thrilled by the vibe I was getting as I earnestly conducted my search. After checking out several schools, I was feeling a little desperate and annoyed by all the rules and the “We’re so much smarter than you,” attitude of some of these so-called teachers.

So when I walked in to Mrs. Brown’s school that first day, I knew immediately that this place was different. Right away, I was knocked out by the amount of  “art” on the walls. They were literally covered with the unique and imaginative paintings of children. It was beautiful!

She greeted me with a warm smile and gentle hello. The next thing I knew, this 60-something, grey-haired woman was down on the floor at circle, playing her guitar with gusto and belting out her slightly off-key version of “The Wheels on The Bus.”

She was totally into it and completely unconcerned about who might be watching or listening. Her focus and concentration on those little three and four-year-olds was as intense and laser-like as Dr. McDreamy’s when he’s performing neurosurgery. She was THERE!

She had that calm, friendly, “come on in and play awhile” air about her and it was irresistible. Her affection and respect for these tiny pre-schoolers was obvious. They felt it, and responded, and it was awesome to watch.

I was intrigued and impressed, but still had my questions. Not so fast, I thought. I was still feeling the sting of some of the horrible places I had visited where the kids had to perform, and memorize, and impress the-living-daylights out of everyone.

Somehow, I screwed up my courage and blurted out my bottom line: “I’m not comfortable just leaving my son here the first time. We’ll have to visit together first, maybe several times, before he’ll be okay staying alone.” I said this in my most challenging tone of voice expecting an argument about letting go, or the importance of making a quick exit, or the need for separation.

But she just nodded her head, looked at me with the most serious expression and said, “Oh yes, that would be fine. I had one mother who needed to come for six weeks before she felt comfortable.” Wait, I thought. Did she say the mother needed to come for six weeks before she felt comfortable? Does she have my number that fast? That it’s me and not him that needs time to get used to this idea? And she had said it with such understanding and no judgement at all. Hmmm.

She knocked me off my tough-guy stance even more when she added, “And we have an open door policy for parents. You can drop by for a visit whenever you want. We always love to see you.”

So I decided to take her up on her offer and my son and I stopped by for a visit. And since my children are 7 years apart, we ended up staying for years. Many mornings I would start out dropping someone off in room 1 and wander into room 2 and end up helping out for a couple of hours. I always felt welcome and loved the feeling in that place.

Mrs. Brown knew her stuff when it came to child development and set a tone of competence, kindness and warmth that her eclectic group of teachers was quick to pick up on and follow. I learned a lot just watching her do her thing with the small fry.

I haven’t seen her in many, many years but I can conjure up her face, laugh, and words of wisdom in a flash. What stands out most though, when I think about this gem of a teacher, was the way she treated everyone associated with her school — be they student, teacher, sibling, or parent — with the same level of dignity and respect.

She met the children at their level. She never talked down to them, rolled her eyes, brushed them off or gave them an answer that was condescending or rushed. She took their questions seriously and always answered them thoughtfully.

But Mrs. Brown was more than a top-notch, if not master child educator. She was a mother to us all. To the little ones who were having their first experience away from home, and to those of us who were trying hard to learn how to be mommies.

She welcomed us all into her world and generously shared her knowledge, wisdom and experience. Somehow, those of us lucky enough to have “stopped by for a visit,” always left feeling bigger and stronger. And that dear mamas, is what you’re looking for.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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2 responses to “What Makes A Good Nursery School?”

  1. Michelle

    This is perfect! You have no idea how helpful this was to me. As the deadline approaches to make a decision, I just didn’t know how decide between the beautiful, uber-serious and somewhat scary Montessori where all the kids come out reading and totally unchallenged by traditional kindergarten OR the sweet, local playschool that no one has anything negative to say about and is described by everyone as an incredibly nurturing place! Phew, decision made! Thank you!

  2. Elaine Bultman

    Ellen —
    I was one of Ethan’s (lucky) teachers those many years ago!
    Just talked to Yvonne tonight (1/3/11), and she mentioned that you had written about her; LOVED reading this, and it’s so right-on!
    I have often thought of you and your blessed Ethan, and remember when you left for NY/(Wash DC?), and how sad I was to see you go.
    Always admired you. Thought you were one of the nicest, most centered moms out there.
    My three (23, 21, 18) are all in college now.
    And I am teaching high school.
    Congratulations on all your accomplishments! Thanks for a nice bit of reflection!

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