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Austin Chronicle Teaching the Teacher

What One Can Learn From 30 Years of Preschool Wisdom

By David Garza

JUNE 26, 2000:  What makes a preschool day of learning complete after the ABCs have been sung and all the blocks are back on the shelf? Some hip-shaking boogie, of course. Not just a cute little song and dance to calm the children down, mind you, but a real beat-heavy boogie. That's part of the philosophy that has kept the vivacious Rosemary Russell Vines cheerful and sane as a teacher of three-year-old children at St. George's Episcopal School for a full 30 years, anyway.

Since her colleagues and former students celebrated her three decades of service to Austin's youth last month, she's had some precious time to recall all the lessons that a class of three-year-olds can teach. And with all that she's been through, she's still especially proud of the dancing."I'm just trying to enjoy myself," she says of her approach to teaching. "It helps the job; I'm not staid. We put on old funky records and boogie on down. I have a pair of tap shoes that I put on, and I'm not afraid to!"

Miss Rosemary, as her students call her, relishes in teaching her tech-savvy kids by using reliable tools of the past, from old British vinyl records to reel-to-reel projector systems. One activity that always fascinates the kids, for instance, is when she shows storytime film strips (instead of videotapes) and moves the projected images all over the room. When she shows the story of Clifford the giant red dog, she makes sure the kids get the feel of how heavy and goofy the dog really is. "Oh look, he's fallen into the sink!" she laughs.

But as engaging and effective as Miss Rosemary is now, she actually landed the job at St. George's in 1970 without knowing that teaching was what she wanted to do. Originally from Oxford, England, Vines first moved to Austin in 1959 to marry a pilot she'd met back home. After traveling for several years in the South Pacific with their newborn son Kelly, the couple returned to town for good in 1966. Four years later, Vines received a call from a friend who worked at St. George's. She had heard Vines singing in a church choir, and she thought her vibrant personality could brighten up the school.

In a matter of days, "Miss Rosemary" was born.

"But when I started, I wasn't really into children. My friends used to babysit, and I thought, 'I don't want to babysit,'" she says.

As lucky as the kids at St. George's were to have Miss Rosemary in their class, she was equally fortunate to have been placed in a class full of three-year-old children, which she considers to be the perfect age for learning.

"I enjoy them very much," she says. "I don't want to teach older kids and I don't want to teach younger kids. The twos are a little savage still, and the fours are getting a little too ... I don't know ... the threes are right where it's at."

And the threes are where it's at, she thinks, mainly because they've just developed distinct personalities and are ready to learn the basics of how to function in groups and larger society. While Vines is delighted if a child in her class can learn to write his name or read a short word, she is much more concerned with focusing on the basics of socialization. So by dancing, singing, and sharing, she hopes to show her children how to respect each other and get along. "If you've got all that, then you can learn to write your name."

It's almost impossible to say exactly how many students Vines has tapped with and taught in her 30 years, but she figures it must be somewhere near 300: "Ten students a year for 30 years." Over the span of her career, she says, she's seen the personalities of children change from those of highly dependent creatures to sophisticated little adults.

"They're so self-sufficient now," she says. "When I first started, the three-year-olds were babies. Now, my threes are like the four- and five-year-old kids used to be back then."

For the most part, Vines can only guess at the paths her students have taken as they have entered adulthood. She remains convinced, though, that the majority of them have gone on to lead productive and successful lives thanks to the fundamentals they learned while in her care. She also believes very strongly that a solid preschool experience like the one she creates can provide an invaluable advantage once the student matures into later childhood.

"I think it's a proven fact, because we've had children who have gone on to elementary school, and their teachers say that they can always tell the children who came [from] St. George's," she boasts.

So what of the children who shine as youngsters but lose interest as they move farther along in school? Vines believes that many teachers at the junior high school and high school levels can learn from the techniques and attitudes of their preschool counterparts. Though they have much stricter guidelines and limitations on time and material, Vines still thinks they could do a little more to encourage the spirit and fun in learning.

"You ask a group of preschoolers how many of them can sing, and they all jump. Ask a group of junior high kids, and they just say, 'Well, I suppose.' Somewhere along the way, they've lost that interest. They've lost the spontaneity."

So maybe all teachers can't jam out in class and profess their undying love for Queen and Toni Price. But with her bright eyes and knack for the unexpected, Miss Rosemary Vines has decided that she will continue to teach for several more years and help shape the lives of the smallest, most promising Austinites. As she rides her silver 18-speed bicycle through Hyde Park every morning on her way to school, she must watch all the grown-ups around her, people she may have taught in the past, knowing that her ever-present smile makes their rockin' worlds go 'round.

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