Beloved Wedgwood Co-op teacher leaves legacy in wake of retirement
Sandi Dexter and family
People have been asking Sandi Dexter what she's going to do when she retires.
"I don't know – a hundred and five things!" she responds. It's a valid question, given that this dedicated teacher has given so much time, energy and heart to her students over the past 31 years at Wedgwood Co-op, a parent cooperative preschool in northeast Seattle.
Sandi knew from a young age that she wanted to teach. Her first experience with cooperative preschool was as a parent. "I found out about it and called my friend and said, ‘We should do this,' and we did."
Sandi entered an infant co-op with her daughter Katie in 1973. It was located in the old Broadway School and operated through Seattle Central Community College. "I was hooked immediately," she says.
The teachers were Jean Lorimer and Gloria Meyer, whom she calls "two of the most amazing people who have ever done co-op work." She still talks to friends she made in that class and some of them get together about once a month. She remained involved in co-op until both of her kids went to elementary school.
In the meantime Sandi began taking classes in Early Childhood Education at North Seattle Community College. Soon after, she began substitute-teaching preschool at The Children's School, and the year after that, in 1982, she started teaching 3- to 5-year-olds at Three to Get Ready, a private in-home preschool in View Ridge. She was still going to school, and began attending state conferences where she picked up new ideas.
The following year, 1983, Sandi was given the opportunity to teach the Toddlers class at Wedgwood Co-op. "It was just great," she says, "because for many kids it was their first experience and their parent's first experience being in a co-op or a preschool. They were just over the moon with everything, and that was pretty wonderful."
After a few years, during which she also taught at other co-ops, Sandi applied to teach the 3 to 5s class at Wedgwood Co-op. She started teaching that class in 1989. Says Sandi, "I so loved the opportunity to work with kids who would remember me from Toddlers. It was ideal. And I liked teaching at just one school."
Sandi notes that singing was tough for her when she started teaching.
"The first day that I did a Toddler class and we sat down at circle, I looked around and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, they're all looking at me!' It took me a while to overcome the thought of ‘singing in front of people.' I came to realize I wasn't performing – we were doing this together. It was about participation."
Sandi is creative, inventive and extremely organized in bringing her ideas to the classroom. "It's so important to be prepared," she notes. During class, she is totally present. Patient, engaged, inclusive and highly observant, she draws children in with song and books at circle time, making them feel that each time the class gathers she has something wonderful to share (which, of course, she does!).
In tune with her students' emotional and developmental needs, Sandi truly honors children's creativity. She did away with art aprons in her classroom after watching students turn away from the art area because they didn't want to wear the apron. "I feel it's important to have freedom of movement."
Over the years, Sandi has developed unique keystones of the Wedgwood 3 to 5s curriculum. Two of these are the Potlatch events and Special Weeks program.
A potlatch is a ceremonial feast of the First Nations of the northwest coast. At Wedgwood Co-op, Potlatch began as a potluck during school in the 3 to 5s class and, over the years, developed into an evening celebration to bring communities together.
"Potlatch really stems from my interest and love for the art and cultures of the First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest," Sandi says. Seeing that these cultures are so rich, and yet Native Americans seen in books, media and even the classroom are almost exclusively representations of Plains Indians, she thought, "The kids in this area need to know about the people who live here."
Soon after Potlatch became an evening event, Sandi heard about a dance group and called the Fulmer family, who were part of that group. Through their generosity and personal relationship with Sandi, they continued to visit Wedgwood Co-op for Potlatch each winter for 20 years.
Once dinner is cleared away, the dance group members don their regalia, as do the Wedgwood students. The students wear paper button blankets they've made using shapes from traditional First Nations art of the Pacific Northwest. The procession begins and together they perform a dance that they learned earlier in the week.
"It's a special honor to learn from these wonderful people. Potlatch has been incredibly important to me because it's something that's part of the culture of this area and it's important for kids to know about that," Sandi says. "You go down to Pioneer Square and you look at some of the utility covers – some are beautifully designed ovoids and U-shapes. They get a little bit of what it means [because of what they've learned.]"
In every Potlatch program, Sandi prints this Makah saying:
"We welcome your arrival, and in the spirit of friendship, love and respect, and wishes for good health, we anticipate that when we leave we will know each other better and will have an increased mutual understanding. It is time that people with different backgrounds and ideas should see into each others' lives. There is just one earth and we are all on it together."
"To me that's really what it's all about – that we may look alike but we are not all alike. We all have different family traditions and cultures. To highlight that when kids are so young will, I hope, give them tolerance of differences. Potlatch is one of those experiences that sticks with some children for a lifetime."
Special Weeks happens most weeks throughout the year in the Wedgwood 3 to 5s class. Each week celebrates a country, state or region in which a student's family has roots.
"Before [Special Weeks] got started, people would say to me, ‘I love your school but I want to go to one that's more diverse.' I kept thinking, I can't change the demographics," says Sandi.
"The catalyst was a student whose dad had just done a summer sabbatical in Italy. She brought out all these coins and postcards and said, ‘For my special week I want to show the kids all this stuff.' And I said ‘We could "go" to Italy for the week.' She got excited and said, ‘We could have spaghetti!' and she went on and on. That's how it started – with one kid."
"Many parents learned about their own family culture because of the Special Weeks," says Sandi. "Now it's instilled pride in their family culture and that's become part of the family tradition. Getting to learn from [the families] makes it so rich. One mom said, ‘I felt like I got to know my grandmother all over again.'"
Parents often bring a snack with foods typical of the Special Weeks destination, and it was parents who eventually added a mini-museum – a collection of artifacts photos, books and costumes relating to the country or area the class is "visiting" that week. Toward the end of the school year, an International Festival celebrates all of the places visited throughout the year with special dishes and song.
Lifelong love of learning
Throughout her career, Sandi has stayed on the leading edge of early childhood education. She's brought many ideas back to her classroom from state conferences and workshops with leading lights in early childhood education, among them Bev Bos and Tom Hunter.
She points out how the Internet has enabled the sharing of ideas among early childhood educators: "It's not that you would quit taking workshops or going to conferences, but people are sharing so much out there."
Sandi has gone on to lead workshops of her own for early childhood educators, and hopes to continue this in future. In 1996, she wrote a book called Joyful Play with Toddlers: Recipes for Fun with Odds and Ends.
"I love the trend now that we recognize, at least in preschool, that it's not about academics. It's about learning through play and experiences. That's been the joy – providing the environment and experiences for kids to learn in an incredibly joyful way."
Together Sandi and the Wedgwood Co-op community have created for many children what one parent calls "the foundation for a lifelong love of learning."
"The parents bring so much to the program. And I certainly couldn't have done what we've done all these years without parents giving their all. Co-op is such a great model because children know, ‘My education is so important that my parents are involved.'"
One parent commented, "Sandi gave our family an amazing introduction to what it meant to be a parent of a school-aged child. Her focus on community and her constant energy and involvement was a model for how to be engaged with our kids."
The gifts have been many, including recognizing the impact she has had on the lives of young children. "Having the opportunity to see their joy and growth and emotional, physical and intellectual development makes a huge difference. I hadn't thought about what I'd get out of it – more what I was going to give, but you get so much back."
"It's been incredibly rewarding and utterly delightful, almost without exception. I still get Christmas cards from people whose kids are married now. It's really wonderful because of that community. We say, ‘Once a part of Wedgwood; always a part of Wedgwood.' For many people that experience is forever a part of them."
"I told a new teacher, ‘You are so lucky to be doing what you're going to do.' Because I really believe that. Although I'm retiring, I'm not tired of teaching. I'm going to focus my energy on my grandkids. I want to be part of their lives before they grow up."
Colette Janning is a freelance writer and editor and mom to two. Her two sons had Sandi Dexter as a teacher at Wedgwood Co-op for a total of three years and she served on the co-op board.