'Teacher Ellen' celebrates 20 years

Island Cooperative Preschool teacher Ellen Carleson works with students Rowan Schick, Finn McCallum and Annika Toma on a nut hunt in fall leaves during class Monday. Carleson is celebrating 20 years at the school. - Staff Photo/Brad Camp
Island Cooperative Preschool teacher Ellen Carleson works with students Rowan Schick, Finn McCallum and Annika Toma on a nut hunt in fall leaves during class Monday. Carleson is celebrating 20 years at the school.
— image credit: Staff Photo/Brad Camp

As the 3-year-olds scramble to form a circle around the blue alphabet rug, Ellen Carleson takes the hands of two students and leads the group with her crisp, yet gentle voice.

“Thank you for this day,” she sings as the children’s arms swing back and forth in unison. “Thank you for this day.”

Carleson, affectionately known as “Teacher Ellen” at Island Cooperative Preschool, celebrates her 20th year as head preschool teacher and parent educator today. Carleson’s anniversary also marks the 71st year of Cooperative Preschool parenting support classes in Washington.

“When I started I never thought I’d be here 20 years,” Carleson said. “I couldn’t imagine it. But it is really exciting to reconnect with the adults that these children have become.

“When I get to meet them (again), and they’re college age, that’s pretty amazing. They really haven’t changed that much since being four.”

Carleson, who teaches more than 40 students in five different classes, dreamt of becoming a teacher.

“I knew it was something I always wanted to be, but I didn’t do it directly because I went into music and drama instead,” Carleson said. “My major focus was being a professional singer.”

After having two children and moving to Bainbridge, Carleson turned her focus to becoming an educator.

“My son’s preschool teacher (in Seattle) was Teacher Betsy, and I just thought she walked on water,” Carleson said. “To think that I could be ‘Teacher Ellen’ and that I could have the same impact on parents and children was really exciting to me.”

A friend introduced Carleson to ICP, and she soon became head teacher, taking over the parent education program affiliated with Olympic College.

“It’s a holistic approach,” she said. “It’s the family approach to early childhood, because the parents are learning alongside the children.”

Even her husband, David, became her pupil when the Carlesons had their third child.

“It was very interesting for me to teach my husband parent education and to have him in the class,” Carleson said. “That was kind of challenging because he had been an educator for 20 years so he knew what he was talking about.”

Balancing motherhood and teaching also forced Carleson to make sacrifices to fulfill her duties as an educator.

“There were some sad times when the teacher rules had to surpass the mother role,” Carleson said. “I remember (Rachael) crying at the Mother’s Day tea party because I couldn’t sit beside her to have the tea because I was busy taking care of everything.”

Carleson also made sure her daughter was exposed to a range of teachers and teaching styles while at ICP.

“We’re a lot about kids learning to be self-sufficient or self-efficient,” Carleson said. “They learn to hang their coats up and wash their hands – and do it pretty independently.”

For many parents, it was Carleson’s ability to connect with every child that brought them to ICP.

“There was a certain affinity,” Laura Hegarty said of her daughters’ introduction to Carleson. “They were automatically comfortable with her. She drew them right into the classroom.”

Hegarty, who had moved from Colorado with her family, heard of ICP through word of mouth.

“Teacher Ellen was talking about learning and alphabets and all that, but we weren’t studying,” Hegarty said.

Hegarty enrolled her daughters Alexis and Sophie in ICP in fall of 2006. She joined the ICP’s board of directors the same year, and now serves as president.

“I knew that there was a real solid foundation then at the preschool,” Hegarty said. “I think the longevity and the continuity just shows her commitment to the program and to the students and to the preschool.”

Through the years, many students have gotten “hooked” on Carleson, co-teacher Tifanie Mitsui said.

“You hear all the things about getting down on their level and listening to them and looking in their eyes,” Mitsui said. “You see Ellen doing that every day.”

At the end of every class, Carleson says goodbye to every child with a song.

“It’s building trust,” Carleson said. “It’s building that love relationship, which is what I think is critical. You learn when you’re in a relationship. The relationship you have with the kids will really impact whether or not they’re going to be effective learners.”

Whether students sit in Carleson’s lap or on the rug, every child gets a song.

“It’s a little personal, physical connection with them which is really special to me,” she said. “Not all of them sit in my lap, but by the end of the year, everybody does.”

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