If there’s one thing Linda Maxwell wants people to know about preschool, it’s this: It’s a place where a lot of learning goes on.
“It’s not play group,” emphasized Maxwell. “There’s a lot of readiness preparation. There is a tremendous emphasis on language development; they learn colors, numbers and shapes, and numeral recognition.”
Maxwell, recently named Teacher of the Year at Frankford Elementary School, has been teaching pre-kindergarten for nine years. She had a career in sales and advertising before her family moved to Delaware when her son was 7.
She started volunteering at Lord Baltimore Elementary School, and the administration said that, because of all the time she spent there, she should consider substituting. Her first year as a teacher was with first- and second-graders, but after starting with pre-K, she knew she was where she was supposed to be.
“After I started substituting, they said, ‘You should get your certification and teach,’ and I swore I would not teach special-ed, because I lived and breathed it at home.”
Maxwell’s son had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism and had been the first student through Lord Baltimore with such a diagnosis.
“But I started with first and second grade, and the next year they gave me pre-school. And I loved it. I felt like I had found my calling.”
Teaching at the pre-school age is especially satisfying work for Maxwell, she said, because of all that goes into getting the students ready for kindergarten and beyond.
“They are little sponges. Everything you do has an impact, and they want to learn. And it’s OK to make a mistake and to be excited about coming to school.”
In Delaware, pre-K is not mandatory. Parents who are interested in the program through the public school system must have their children screened before the start of the school year. The students who receive priority for spots in the classes have been identified as having a learning deficit or being in need of early intervention to ensure they are ready for kindergarten.
Oftentimes, Maxwell said, the challenge is trying to find a balance where she is engaging every student at the level they need. Many of her students are ELL students, or English Language Learners, who might not have adequate exposure to the English language before starting school.
“It’s fun, and a challenge. And every morning I get up and I am happy to go to work. Pre-schoolers are constantly having ‘a-ha’ moments. Some get it the first time and some get it the 70th time, and some never get it. The challenge is keeping the ones on the top engaged while not losing the ones on the bottom.”
Maxwell said development in the pre-school year is very apparent once the school year is close to over.
“This time of year, they really start to make progress, and it gets really fun. Every September, I wonder how I am going to do this, and by the end of the year, they are little students. They know how to walk in the hallways, find the bathroom and sit in the cafeteria. The growth in pre-school is phenomenal.”
Jocelyn Reinke, a Project VILLAGE teacher who has some students that overlap with Maxwell, said she is proud of her colleague’s selection as Teacher of the Year at Frankford Elementary.
“She totally deserves it,” said Reinke. “She is all hands-on. And there is a lot of prep time that goes into this age level. It’s nice to have pre-K receive recognition, because a lot of times they think we just play.”
But it’s not all work and no play, Maxwell admitted. The love for her students comes across as she talks about them, and the joy she gets from being a teacher is measured in more than a paycheck. She added that she is “humbled” by her Teacher of the Year honor and proud to join the ranks of some of those who have been chosen before her, although teaching, and all its glory, is not exactly what she had expected.
“The day they gave me the award, I wore ivory pants, and I got tomato sauce on them. And then somebody threw up, and I had vomit on my shoes. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, this is my 15 minutes of fame!’” recalled Maxwell with a laugh.
“It’s nothing like what I expected. I walk around with tomato sauce on my pants and vomit on my shoes, and I eat lunch off a plastic tray. But this was my calling. I am not just a teacher. It’s a defining part of who I am.”