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Teacher Marks 40 Years with Local Preschool

It might seem like play, but those who work with Ms. Gloria – or Gloria Turner, who is celebrating 40 years of teaching preschool at the Falls Church-McLean Children’s Center – say it’s much more.

A big voice came from a tiny girl on the playground, tipping her head back to see her playmates from beneath her bright pink sun hat.

“It’s dinnertime!”

But they were fully engrossed that afternoon in watching a delivery man back his truck into the parking lot, and slipping their arms into the little diamond-shaped slots in the fence that surrounds the playground to shake his hand. Ms. Gloria heard the dinner bell, though, and stepped into the sandbox for her meal.

It was cake, the little girl said, a pasta and strawberry cake, but to the untrained eye it looked much like sand compressed into a form and dumped onto a plate. Ms. Gloria said she needed a fork, and crouched down to unearth a little yellow shovel from the sand. With plate in hand, Ms. Gloria joined the group still marveling at the massive truck and asked her class what might come in a truck that big, all the while bringing the shovelfuls of sand up to her mouth in her dinnertime pantomime.

It might seem like play, but those who work with Ms. Gloria – or Gloria Turner, who is celebrating 40 years of teaching preschool at the Falls Church-McLean Children’s Center – say it’s much more.

The teachers at the center supervise their charges in activities that, while fun and engaging for the children, teach fundamentals like early math, science, and language skills.

Falls Church-McLean Children’s Center Director Elizabeth Page said preschool education is a field whose challenges may not be immediately seen, even by those who aspire to teaching careers. It takes training to understand the needs and development of children; low wages for teachers at many preschools, she said, further trouble the working environment.

“Loving kids is nice, but it takes a lot more than that,” Page said.

For these reasons and more, turnover is common, which makes Turner’s decades as an educator all the more uncommon.

Turner began her career in Arlington County in 1966. She taught in a school for the Head Start Program, designed to promote the education of children from low-income families. She worked there for six years, three of those years as a lead teacher. After Head Start, she took an eight-month break from preschool teaching, which ended when she accepted a position with the Falls Church-McLean Children’s Center and returned to the classroom.

Turner said that when she began teaching at the center, the school mainly served low-income single mothers. Turner was a single parent herself; she is the mother of two boys who are now grown and have children of their own. While the backgrounds of the students taught at the center have changed over the years, the school was founded to serve low-income families, and that remains the school’s mission. 60 percent of the students at the school come from working-class backgrounds, and the rate their families pay in tuition is based on the family income. The full rate is $365 a week for 2 year olds, and $335 a week for 3 – 5 year olds, but some parents pay as little as a few dollars a week based on their earnings. The private non-profit preschool, founded by faith groups, opened 44 years ago, and has operated out of Lemon Road Elementary School on Idylwood Road for the past nine years.

When asked why she has been a preschool teacher for so long, her answer was simple: “Working with the kids.” She finds it rewarding to watch the children in her care grow and thrive. She fondly recalled one of her students, an adopted girl from Vietnam, who had no language skills – not even in Vietnamese – when she came to Turner’s classroom. She left with those skills. Now, Turner proudly reported, her former student is pursuing a career in law enforcement in Washington, D.C.

Page estimated that Turner has taught about 1,000 students in her time at the center.

“That’s a lot of kids to get started in the right way,” Page said.

Page praised Turner’s desire to continue to learn through seminars and workshops, some of which Turner herself has led. The education, Turner said, has helped her meet challenges like working with children with special needs. Learning, she said, is a key component to being able to teach.

“You have to be open to all the learning,” Turner said, and it comes from not only the classroom, but the children. Flexibility and the desire to work with children are important characteristics for aspiring preschool teachers as well, as is the understanding that “you’re never going to make the big bucks,” she said.

Turner’s particular style of teaching, Page said, is one marked by a firm and loving approach. She is able to be supportive of both families and their children in a balanced way and through her years of teaching is still patient and devoted, Page added.

The center honored Turner this summer with a reception to celebrate her service to the school. Her response was modest; she didn’t want a party, but if one was to be thrown she insisted it be done at the center so as not to inconvenience parents.

Several of Turner’s former students, some as old as their mid-30s, attended the celebration. Parents of the children Turner had taught came by as well.

For other teachers in their 60s, such a reception would have been a retirement party. In Turner’s case, it was just a milestone celebration for a continuing career with no end in sight.

“As long as I can get out of bed in the morning, I can do it,” Turner said.