Neal knows most of the children from her first year of teaching—and they know her. "They know what my limits are," she says with a smile. "They know 'Melissa's not going to let us do this.' If it was another teacher, they would test the waters." Still, there are good days and bad days. "It really depends on how the kids arrive in the morning," she says. "Some kids who come in very active might need more one-on-one help, where other kids don't need as much. Some days, circle time may be chaotic. We may cut it short, have our snack, and get them outside. There are times they need to be out and running around, when being closed inside is hard. And then some days it's very quiet in there, and I'm looking around, counting heads to make sure everyone's in the room. They are, but they're playing with other kids, doing what they want to do."
      Neal, who finishes coursework this spring, says her experience at Bernice Wright will help when she begins looking for work in the field. "I work with children, I work with parents. I train student teachers, and work with the Jowonio team. All those different aspects—I've learned so much I didn't know before."
      Undergraduates from CFS 332, Foundations and Principles of Early Childhood Education, spend two days a week as assistant teachers in each classroom. "They're all focused on child development and many will work in a similar setting," Grimmer says. "Others are going into marriage and family therapy or family advocacy. So this is a great experience for them. They have a whole semester to learn, read textbooks, and then put that into practice."
      Kahsi Smith, a junior in the child and family studies program, spent last semester as an assistant teacher at the school. "I've worked with children all my life—I taught soccer and have four younger brothers and sisters—but this was my first hands-on experience in the classroom," Smith says. "Working on such a personal level with the children and their parents was a wonderful experience."
Teacher Suzanne Quinn leads her class in a song as students Siobhan, left, and Gun Ha enjoy front-row seats.
      Smith says the CFS 332 lecture Grimmer delivered each Friday had direct applications in the classroom. "Scharman was very clear on requirements and how to work with children," she says. "She taught us well. One week we'd learn certain things about playing with children. When we went into the classroom, if we were in a situation where a child wouldn't play, we knew how to get him or her involved in the activity."
      The combination of lectures and practical experience goes beyond knowledge gained from a textbook, Smith says. "Anyone can read about something in a book. You'll learn it, but if you don't experience it, then it doesn't have much relevance. I've gained a better understanding of how children interact with other children and teachers, and of the different developmental levels in children. I saw that my personality had a lot to do with how the children interacted with me."
      Professor Mellisa Clawson, director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Child and Family Studies, says the school is a tremendous asset to the department and an important part of the curriculum. "Observations at the school are required in a number of courses, including child development, prosocial and moral development, and language development," she says. "In all three courses, the observational component enables students to examine the practical implications of theory and research in child development."
      Clawson, who is faculty liaison to Bernice Wright, says the school is the first setting at SU in which undergraduates can work with young children. "Because the lab school provides a model early childhood environment, it is a wonderful setting for our students to learn how to interact effectively with young children and their families," Clawson says. "Later, our students take the knowledge and skills they have developed into the community when they complete internships at other preschools."
      Assistant teachers stop working at the school when CFS 332 ends, so the children have to learn new faces each semester. And children who attend the school four days a week see different student teachers every other day. "The student teachers change, so maintaining consistency is pretty hard," Grimmer says. "It can be a benefit if a child has a variety of teachers and styles to interact with—we know that different personalities bring out different qualities in children. But it can also be challenging to get used to different faces. We let parents know from the beginning about that aspect of the school."

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