The Parent Trap: An Interview With Annie Zipser—Mother to Hundreds
by Betsy McMillin
Eleven and eight years ago, my two oldest kids had the great fortune of attending Stone School Co-op Preschool. The teacher of the 4s class was Annie Zipser. I knew I liked Annie the first time I met her. She was honest, and totally in tune to my kids, all the kids. There was no smarmy, play-to-the-parents-to-win approval. The approval of Annie came from the kids, and they loved her. She treated them seriously and with respect. She knew exactly how to mesh fun and learning with the fact that the kids were the most important people in her world, without putting them on a pedestal. She was insightful to their needs and knew exactly how to relate to them. Annie has been with the Stone School Cooperative Nursery since 1989.
Apparently she still does all that.
I caught up with Annie (pictured right in the sunglasses), and after 20 years at Stone School, she is still relating to and teaching kids with her serious yet fun, amazing, humble style. I asked her a few questions, and here is what she had to say about preschool in general, preschoolers, curriculum and how to best teach little kids.
What has the biggest change in parenting styles that you have seen since you began teaching? What do you think is the reason?
I am not sure how to answer this. I guess I will start by saying that I have always taught in college towns, first in Madison, Wisconsin and then here, and I think that the type of parenting that you see in college towns is different than what you might find elsewhere. Many parents here are very well read parents who try very hard to parent “correctly.” There seems to be more of a definition of what you have to do to be a successful parent and more of a definition of what a successful child is. One of the biggest changes seem to be in how much the parents are expecting their children to accomplish. I am seeing a lot more pushing of children to read and memorize facts at an early age. It’s amazing to me that parents are now feeling that they have failed when their child isn’t reading in preschool.
I was having a conversation with my (almost) 4-year-old grand nephew last month. We were playing with dinosaurs and he was telling me that the Stegosaurus (which he insisted was a “Gosaurus”) was a herbivore. After he told me that, he had his stegosaurus roar at me and take a bite out of the dinosaur I was holding. He’s absolutely correct that a Stegosaurus was a herbivore but I am not convinced that he understands what a herbivore is. I think that using the correct language is fantastic but it needs to go hand in hand with concept learning. It isn’t a race or a competition that you will win if your child knows more than someone else’s child.
I think that the school system is requiring more and more of their kindergarteners and this is scaring the parents into trying to cram as much knowledge into their children as they can. This need is what has me reworking my curriculum. I have more parents who feel that the younger children entering kindergarten (those who turn 5 in the fall) are the ones who need the pre-k programs so that they can be competitive with the older children.
What is the biggest skill that parents overlook when preparing their children for preschool/school?
The kids really need to feel confident in themselves. They need to feel that they matter and that their thoughts are important. Let them make decisions for themselves…not all decisions, but ones that they can handle like what clothes they will wear or what book they want to read. Answer their questions seriously and encourage their curiosity. A confident child can come into the classroom and experience new things with curiosity and less fear. A confident child is one who is ready to learn. One of my major goals in the classroom is to enable the children to be confident and curious. As a teacher, self-help skills are also great things to have in the kids.
What advice do you have for students training to be preschool teachers?
Make sure that your love of children is what is driving you. You aren’t going to get rich doing this but you will have a great time .
What advantages does a co-op type preschool have over a traditional preschool, besides the obvious parent involvement? I am not sure that there is an answer to that one. Both types of preschool are good and both meet needs. I would hate for parents to add not being able to assist (because they have to be at work) to their list of things to beat themselves up over. I love the co-op because I get to know the whole family and the school belongs to everyone. I think it’s great for a child’s self-concept to know that their family thinks their school is so important that they go also. It tends to make them very excited about school.
What is the most difficult challenge teachers face when dealing with parents? It would either be convincing the parents that we do know what we are talking about and are doing what we are doing for a reason or on the opposite end of the spectrum, that we are human and that our word is not law. Right now, it’s trying to find a way to let parents know that their child is being prepared for kindergarten…even in a play based classroom and that their child will not enter kindergarten at a disadvantage. There is a lot of hidden curriculum going on in a play based classroom.
When dealing with children? Convincing the kids to follow the rules/exist in the classroom without making the rules be the classroom. Understanding what the kids mean rather than what they say. Making sure the curriculum fits everyone.
You are a frank, honest yet warm, caring teacher who relates well to little kids as well as parents. Has their even been a topic or situation that you could not broach with a parent? Not really… although sometimes I really have to force myself to address some things with parents. I really hate making parents cry. I have had parents get in touch with me years later to let me know how their child has turned out. I really like hearing things like that.
What advice do you give parents to ready their children for preschool and have a successful year? Enjoy your child and listen to them…but remember that it’s not a democracy, sometimes you have to push them to do new things. Don’t choose a preschool if you don’t feel comfortable there. Remember to praise your child. It’s too easy to correct them when they do things wrong and forget to tell them when they do things right. Don’t worry if their clothes don’t match or if they aren’t perfect.
Stone School Co-Op Preschool has been a successful preschool for 56 years, 20 of which you and Miss Barbara have been the teachers. What do you see as some of the biggest reasons for its success? I think a lot of it is because we are all so happy to be there. Barbara and I are both doing what we love and it’s easy to have a good program when you are doing what you love.
What would you change? I would love a bigger parking lot (ours is 4 cars big and makes drop off unique)…and more time each day with the kids. The other things are the usual teacher wants…more time to get ready, more help, I could use more hours in my day. We are currently piloting a new program where families who can’t do all their assists are paired with a family that can do more assists and would like a lower tuition. The non-assisting families pay more and the paired assisting family gets a reduction in tuition. It’s important that we are able to change in this changing economy.
You mentioned you are making up a new curriculum… what are some of the changes? We are looking at changes we can make to the pre-K to make it work for the younger children. The number of families holding back their children an extra year has declined and families are eager for the younger 4s (summer and fall birthdays) to get the “enrichment” that the pre-k offers. I am not comfortable with having the younger kids sitting at a table and working on writing letters, so I am looking at how I would change my curriculum so that I have one that is appropriate for older and younger 4s. It’s still in the early stages and hasn’t really been discussed much beyond a first meeting, so I think that that is all I want to say now about it.
When my oldest daughter went to Stone School, you shared some observations about her and her personality with me that have stayed constant. You very much saw the type of person she was and learning style to a T and it hasn’t changed. How often do you think this happens, that children remain constant in who they are as four year old’s and how they learn? I actually think that we are born with our personalities and that while we may get socialized and seem to change, our core being remains pretty much who we are. I think all parents want their child to be the child that everyone wants to be friends with and who is talented and on the honor roll etc…. and I know that there are many of us who just want to go home at the end of the day and do something quietly by ourselves. It’s fine to be surrounded by others when you have to be but it’s also fine to be happier on your own. I think one of the main things I say to parents at conferences is…”look at your family. I am sure you will find someone else in your family with a lot of the same character traits that your child has…and they have grown up to be a stable adult.”
When it is clean up time, you call out “What time is it? to which the children happily get to loudly yell “CLEAN UP TIME!”
You reply with “What do I want to see?” Again, kids yell “THE BEST CLEANER-UPPERS IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD!”
Have you ever figured out how many times over the past 20 years you have said that?
About 200 times a year for 22 years…you can do the math, I am not sure I want to know. What I do know is that the kids never fail to live up to expectations….and I have really good cleaners in my classroom!
Note: A huge Parent Trap thank you to Annie for finding time in her incredibly busy schedule to do this interview. Thanks to her also for remembering who I was, and my two kids she taught. After teaching roughly 500 kids, you might think names and face would get a bit fuzzy after 11 years. Not only did Annie remember us well, she was still using the bookmark my now 15-year-old daughter made when she was four and had Annie was her teacher. Now that’s the sign of a teacher who loves the kids.
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