Three local educators — two in early childhood and one in grade school — have made education their passion. And for that, they've been honored among the Women in Tyler, an annual recognition of women doing remarkable things in their community.
Betty Edwards, Mary Ann Girard and Christy Roach have all humbly accepted the honor, while declaring that the recognition motivates them to do more.
Educators, community members and government leaders have for decades looked for more effective ways to improve the way children are being taught. In recent years, other industrialized countries have outperformed the United States, particularly in math and science.
A significant impact on how well a child will perform academically depends on what happened in the first few years of life.
The local educators say that means that every child needs a community of support to provide a foundation that will cultivate cognitive and social skills. In other words, they must train the brain.
“They are better prepared for school if they have that foundation,” said Mrs. Edwards, executive director at North Tyler Day Nursery. “The early years are real crucial.”
Mrs. Girard, executive director at Champions for Children, added, “We do not understand as a society that the first eight years of life, in many cases, make it or break it for children.”
BETTY EDWARDS, A CHAMPION FOR SINGLE MOMS
It's evident at North Tyler Day Nursery, where Mrs. Edwards juggles duties. At midday, the nursery is quiet, as children lie down for naps. While a staff takes a break, she oversees a classroom.
“A director wears many hats,” she said.
The small facility isn't pretentious, but it has everything it needs. What is important, Mrs. Edwards noted, is that the children are taught social skills, with a goal of not only preparing them for grade school, but also a productive life.
The nursery was established in 1939 under President Franklin Roosevelt's Public Works Administration to provide day care for working mothers. It was later moved to Texas College. By the late 1990s, it had moved off campus, just a few feet away, to a quaint building near an apartment complex.
North Tyler Day Nursery is a nonprofit agency, supported by United Way, private donations, and through fundraising.
After graduating from Texas College in 1964, Mrs. Edwards was hired as a playground supervisor at a school. She later went on to teach home economics in Chireno. After integration, she returned to Tyler to work with the Texas Agrilife Extension Office before returning to early childhood education, working as a director at a local day care center.
Upon joining the nursery 18 years ago, Mrs. Edwards took additional classes in early childhood education at The University of Texas at Tyler.
She said throughout her life there were plenty of people who supported her and made it possible to get an education. It was only logical that she'd make a career out of giving others the opportunity to get one also.
“A lot of people, they helped me to get an education to get to where I am today,” she said. “I feel that it was a need to stay in this profession.”
Mrs. Edwards' husband passed away when her children were young, so she understands the plight of single mothers. She reaches out to them and encourages them to be involved with their child's education.
“I just let them all know that regardless, if you are a single parent, you can make it,” she said. “You can go to school to get an education, and we express that a lot to our parents. You never know what is going to happen in life.”
Seeing young children display good manners and soak in the lessons of the day makes for a job well done by the staff, Mrs. Edwards said.
“This is what drives me every day,” she said. “These kids, they need the stimulus that I can give and all of the staff members can give them on a daily basis.”
In addition to social skills, children there learn about health, including where fresh fruits and vegetables come from.
At 71, Mrs. Edwards shows no signs of slowing down. Her love of children and passion for education won't allow it.
“I love people and I love helping them,” she said.
MARY ANN GIRARD, CONNECTING BODIES AND BRAINS
Her introduction to early childhood education was by chance. When her children were preschool age, she needed a job to help pay for their tuition.
She applied for a position at their school as a teacher and was hired. Before, she'd had 18 years' experience as a social worker, but had quit to stay at home with her two sons while living in Atlanta. Even then, she loved working with children.
“Children fascinate me, particularly young children, because they are so uninhibited,” she said.
Looking back, Mrs. Girard said her mother was her inspiration.
“She read to us every night. She read fabulous stories,” she said. “I watched my mother stretch herself. She took us to art classes. She'd get excited about simple things.”
Mrs. Girard is known for developing therapeutic techniques that are used throughout the state. She understands the problems of education today. She said the focus needs to be on helping children to think for themselves. This includes the use of physical activity, free play, listening to children, allowing them to use their imagination and a focus on the individual child's learning style.
“We are over-stimulating and under-exercising,” she said. “We don't implement the research. We may know it but we don't know how to apply it or we don't choose to apply it.”
Mrs. Girard helps teachers apply activities that connect the body with the brain, such as a program called Brain Gym.
While funding or expanding programs is a step in the right direction, the future of education in America depends on doing things differently, she said.
“I think that if we emphasize how children learn and use the information and research out there on how children learn, it'll be OK,” Mrs. Girard said. “But if we give a lot of money to programs that think that the way children learn is worksheets and more rote learning, then it is going to be a terrible waste of money and resources.”
The self-described shy educator has always enjoyed what she does.
“The legacy that I would like to leave is that learning is fun,” she said. “Learning is easy if we honor the child and understand how children actually learn. Somehow or another we made it into the 21st century without all of this technology but I'm not sure we're going to get out of the 21st century because of it.”
CHRISTY ROACH, MAKING OVER THE PRINCIPAL'S ROLE
Her mission as an administrator is to use her love of education to impact children in a different way, beyond the classroom. She greets students every day, receiving hundreds of hugs.
“I want to leave a legacy; maybe not necessarily at this school but a legacy for children,” she said. “I want them to remember their principal.”
Less than two decades ago, Mrs. Roach realized her passion while in the workforce. She'd held jobs at various places before going back to college.
Not only did she decide to teach, but she decided to teach at the school that was just a couple of blocks from the home where she grew up. During her student teaching at The University of Texas at Tyler, she would end up at Douglas Elementary. She hasn't left since.
“I fell in love with the community again,” she said. “It brought me back home because I would pass my old house every day.”
She was hired as a third grade teacher. Then, Mrs. Roach went back to college to earn a master's degree. She became an assistant principal, and finally, principal.
“I really believe this is the plan for me right now,” she said.
The job of an educator is challenging and most new teachers are overambitious, Mrs. Roach admits. While they expect to tackle issues outside of curriculum, such as social children coping with economic or health issues, there is no way to prepare for it.
“What I wasn't expecting is that it was hard as it was,” Mrs. Roach said.
Understanding diversity and individuality is important for the education of children, she noted. She grew up learning Spanish first and was exposed to a diverse Tyler.
“We all come from different places but the expectation for all children is the same,” she said.
Mrs. Roach looks to programs at the school that “benefit the whole child” like clubs and the first jobs program. It addresses every aspect of developing a child and preparing them for the world.
“We call it adding value to a child,” she said. “My role as a principal is to ensure that each child has the same opportunity on this campus. ... We're not raising children. We're raising adults.”
Education is a part of everyone's life. No one is exempt. However, teachers, with low salaries compared to other professional occupations and acting as “true nurturers,” may not always get the glory they deserve.
“How did that doctor become a doctor?,” Mrs. Roach asked. “Through education. Everyone in their respective fields began with education.”
Sometimes, understanding an individual's passion may not be obvious. Mrs. Roach said to find it, people have to do some soul searching.
“Find what you can be devoted and committed to,” she said. “Surround yourself with people who are also passionate.”