When it comes to making learning an adventure, Tabatha Rosproy is the leader of the pack. Each day she guides a group of 16 inquisitive, energetic four-year-olds through lessons and activities in an unusual location for such a lively bunch—a retirement community and nursing home.
Her innovative approach led her to be named the 2020 National Teacher of the Year, the first early childhood educator to receive the prestigious national teaching honor. Rosproy doesn’t take that lightly. The preschool teacher for Winfield Early Learning Center in Winfield, Kan., says, “I’m there as a guide. I’m a partner in their learning.”
Teaching and learning have radically changed this year, as educators must figure out innovative ways to teach and support their students outside the classroom during the COVID pandemic. Rosproy aided that work in Kansas, serving as a co-chair of the educator task force that helped compile the state’s continuous learning guidance, even as she continued teaching her own preschool students.
“America’s teachers have undertaken heroic efforts to continue serving their students’ remote learning,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which runs the National Teacher of the Year program. The selection committee includes National PTA President Leslie Boggs.
“Tabatha Rosproy embodies the spirit demonstrated by so many teachers, caring for her students and leading the Kansas educators who helped to develop the state’s continuity of learning plan,” Miller added.
The Art of Teaching
Rosproy knew early in life that she wanted to be in a helping profession, and that dream was solidified in high school when she volunteered to help preschoolers learn Spanish.
“It was the first chance I had to watch teaching happen,” said Rosproy. “I loved seeing the teacher move around the room and interact with her students in ways that led them to their learning rather than just delivering information. It was the first time I saw teaching as an art form.”
She knew then that was the career for her. Rosproy went on to Kansas’ Southwestern College and obtained a bachelor’s degree in unified early childhood education, including special education and typically developing students. For the past decade, she has shaped young minds with an eye towards developing the whole child.
The South Carolina-born, Kansas-bred Rosproy counts Dr. Becky Bailey among those who have inspired her as a teacher. Bailey, founder of Conscious Discipline, a company dedicated to creating positive environments for children, families, schools and businesses, is a pioneer in social and emotional learning. “Her research and work with children in helping them to understand and manage their emotions changed my life,” said Bailey.
“Ms. Tabatha,” as her students call her, knows firsthand the importance of early childhood education. She points to research that shows ages zero to five are the most critical in a child’s brain development. While 32% of four-year-olds are enrolled in a state-funded preschool program, millions of others go without an early childhood experience.
“If we don’t get involved in children’s lives when they’re young, we just further that education gap and the likelihood of academic and social struggles later,” Rosproy said.
Learning to Love and Respect
As the lead teacher of the full-day preschool program, Rosproy comes up with countless ways to creatively help her students learn and grow. She gets extra help from the retirement community’s residents, who are called “Grandpa” and “Grandma” by the children.
“There’s no love like a grandparent’s love,” Rosproy said. “We have incredible people who have lived so many years and they get new purpose by sharing their experiences with our preschoolers. Their stories are not lost. And our students benefit from them.”
The volunteer grandparents join the children for a variety of activities, from reading to dance parties to field trips. They even accompany the students when they get their class pictures taken—a big deal in the life of a preschooler. And they get to know the children by name, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and bond with them.
One grandma noticed a girl who struggled with learning to count, so the woman asked Rosproy if she could spend one-on-one time with the child to help her improve. “They are part of the fabric of our classroom,” Rosproy said of the volunteers. “There’s nothing that they don’t want to do with us.”
She said the children’s love for these volunteer grandparents far exceeded what she ever expected. The intergenerational relationships are a win-win for everyone: They give the older adults purpose and the children joy. “The residents light up the same way the kids do,” Rosproy said.
The daily interactions also help the children learn how to hold conversations and connect with people in general, no matter their age or abilities. And, Rosproy said, kindness and empathy for others have skyrocketed among the preschoolers.
Thinking Out of the Box
Desaree’ Groene, principal of Winfield Early Learning Center, said Rosproy’s creativity and love of people contribute to her success as a teacher and leader. “She pours her heart and soul into education,” Groene said. “She is courageous and will fight for the things she believes with no regrets or apologies.”
Rosproy also thinks outside the box and makes memories with her students, Groene said. Rainy day? No problem. Recess will still be outside. “Ms. Tabatha” keeps a collection of rain boots, raincoats and umbrellas for the children so they can go outdoors to splash in the puddles. And she’s right there with them for all the fun.
“My husband likes to joke that I’m like a child whisperer,” Rosproy said. “Kids love it when adults interact with them like another child would. Don’t be afraid to look foolish when you play.”
While Rosproy invests a lot of time in her students, she does the same with their parents and families. She goes beyond using the standard surveys to get to know them. “I work really hard to make intentional and meaningful connections with every family at least once a week,” Rosproy said.
She learns the names of family members and celebrates events and milestones in their lives, such as the arrival of a new pet or baby. Rosproy follows the advice a friend gave her years ago: Remember that every interaction you have is either a deposit or a withdrawal. “Never make the first interaction a withdrawal,” said Rosproy. “Make deposits into the savings accounts of your relationships.”
Champion for Early Education
Although the coronavirus pandemic has hindered her ability to travel across the country as Teacher of the Year, Rosproy still plans to use every opportunity she gets to raise awareness about the value of early childhood education. She wants to work with stakeholders to make publicly-funded preschool available to all children.
The importance of such an education is priceless: Children learn critical skills such as how to regulate their emotions, interact with peers and solve problems.
So, she’ll keep planning a host of open-ended activities geared toward play and exploration for her students, help bridge the generation gap in her classroom and build relationships with as many families as she can along the way.
“Every teacher I’ve connected with has poured into me as an educator and become a piece of my story,” Rosproy said. “Every person you interact with— something about them rubs off on you.”
Barbranda Lumpkins Walls is a freelance writer and editor in Alexandria, Va.