Jenny Hovelman: A long perspective on early childhood education

by Deborah Helsell

Board member of Orcas Island Children’s House

Of the countless changes the COVID-19 pandemic has forced local schools and childcare organizations to make in order to keep operating safely, the hardest one for Orcas Island Children’s House has been the retirement of teacher Jenny Hovelman. Beloved by children and staff alike for 25 years, the children she taught at the beginning of her Children’s House career are now nearly 30 years old!

So, it saddened the whole Children’s House Community to have teacher Jenny realize — partly from concerns expressed by her own family — that with the pandemic raging she should withdraw from direct physical interaction with preschoolers. She still has lots of insight to share, however, accumulated from her quarter-of-a-century long career. The historical perspective (and humor) she shares from working at the preschool is a treasure, as is her book of children’s quotations collected both as a record of students’ developmental stages and as a full-hearted appreciation of the amazing point of view of each new generation. The examples are equal parts fascinating, funny and exquisitely sweet.

Student J: All my mommy’s kisses are magic because she brushes her teeth every day!

Student D (after seeing J cry when saying goodbye to her mom): Hey, J and I are just alike, but with different people!

Student E: I’ll make you some cookies.

Student L: Can you make them low-fat?

Student E: I can only make them thin.

Teacher: Do you know how long ago saber-toothed tigers lived?

Student C: Um … 35 years ago.

Throughout the preschool’s 50-year span the continued involvement of people like teacher Jenny has been key in the development of Children’s House as it transitioned from a mom-organized playgroup in the late 1960s to the sophisticated, observation-driven educational program it is today, serving the diverse abilities and needs of Orcas Island’s youngest learners.

“I was originally hired to follow a biter,” laughs Hovelman, describing when, new to the island, she was hired in late 1996 to work with lead teacher Martha Inch. In those days the school was housed entirely in the historic Lavender Farmhouse. The class size was about 20 children, ages three to six. Messy projects took place in the kitchen, where lunches were also prepared.

“Kids could stand on a chair at the kitchen counter and knead bread dough,” Hovelman said. “It was fun. There were fewer restrictions.”

Student J: (holding a cookie sheet with gravel and rocks on it) I need to get these wet so they’ll turn into ladybugs!

Student K: I didn’t know rocks could turn into ladybugs!

Student R (moving a tire) I’m the strongest person in the world!

Teacher: Stronger than your dad?

Student R: No. My dad is number one. I’m number two.

When she started at Children’s House , Hovelman worked a split shift. After working a couple of hours in the morning, she would come back from 2-4:30 pm. Then she would load the kids who still needed care into her car and drive them to Kaleidoscope, which was just starting out and located in a trailer at that time.

In those days mealtimes were served family-style. The menu ranged widely from spaghetti to baked chicken wings.

“Then we would clean the kitchen with homemade herbal mist,” laughs Hovelman. “In those days there were still lots of families with one parent not working, so there were lots of parent volunteers. As soon as the kids finished eating, they would just get up and run outside. And it was the era when lots of people were reading the book ‘Summerhill,’ by A.S. Neill.”

The book chronicled the theory of the “democratic, free school” in Britain of the same name, and many people believed that children should just go free and explore.

“Changes were necessary in order to begin to teach responsibility,” Hovelman said. “People did not realize that kids are capable of much more than we thought.”

The teachers had each child draw a picture, and the pictures were laminated, becoming a cleanable placemat for each student.

“Then, if a child ran outside, we could tell whose place it was and go chase them. Teachers still had to clean the placemats,” she added, smiling.

In the late 1990s, under the direction of Terri Mason, Children’s House received grants and donations enabling the school to expand with the construction of the Infant-Toddler Center. This was a time when the results from a number of national studies over time had clearly demonstrated the relationship between access to high-quality preschool and later educational success. What followed were years of research by the state to determine exactly what quality preschool education looked like. Training programs were developed for local teachers with an aim to maximize student learning and to develop record-keeping which insured appropriate developmental learning for each student, and especially for students whose families struggled financially.

Preschool at Children’s House is unique and amazingly rich for young learners. The small class sizes allow meaningful relationships with teachers and allow the teachers to closely monitor the growth and changes in each of their students as they try out language, repeat expressions, practice and share scientific principles they observe in their families. They also develop the physical, fine motor and social skills they will need in grade school while being encouraged to explore, try out and practice different modes of learning in a supported environment. Their teachers look more like co-explorers than formal teachers. It is a precious time in life and children respond to these encouraging guides who cheer them on while gently directing their explorations.

Teacher Jenny has exemplified all these qualities throughout her long career. She clearly mastered the art of being supportive and affectionate while making learning irresistibly fun and interesting.

When asked about her favorite aspect of preschool teaching, she replied, “Personally, I always had a passion for developing a deep relationship with each child, and meeting that child’s needs. If a child is always getting a message they are not successful they don’t feel good about themselves.”

Teacher: I sure got dirty setting those tires up for the obstacle course.

Student I: That’s OK. Teachers are supposed to get dirty.