Diana P. Hill
I came to this seat in the College of Education on my own two feet driven by the goal of making high quality Early Childhood Education accessible for all children. Young lives matter because the lessons of the first five years are imprinted in a child’s heart even when their brain has pruned the neurons forming these lessons. The early years form the child’s emergent identity and set the course for all further learning.
Young children have always been a part of my life; they live in my heart and soul. While I come from a family of six, as the baby of the family I spent many hours playing alone, and then riding the hills and woods of our farm alone. My first nephew was born when I was ten, and successive summers in my teen years were spent caring for children in their homes. My mother was an English teacher, my dad an educated dairy farmer. We learned the spoken, written and well-read word. We learned the lessons of life, the forest, and the power of hard work.
I selected the University of Vermont where I could become a teacher, be close to home, and have access to the great outdoors. As a UVM education major I viewed myself as atypical. Starting my freshman year in a Braille program, but found it too rigid. My junior year was in Norway at Voss Folkhogskule learning the language and culture and observing Ungdoms Skule (elementary school). Upon returning to UVM, I completed my methods courses through a program called American Primary Experience (APEX). This was an innovative cohort program in 1979 of interated content and constant classroom experience. The energy and learning found in that attic classroom where APEX classes were held were was inspiring. One day a professor to dress up as Piaget and we interviewed him. This was true experiential learning. But I was not ready to teach. My student teaching was a disaster.
Student teaching was at Williston School in a first/second combinations class. I was so frustrated with public schools' inability to help needy children and every day was an exasperation. A small thin boy was thrilled the morning he came to school having eaten breakfast. As it turns out breakfast was 6 donuts and he was wearing his daddy's belt to hold his pants up. There was no breakfast program, four sets of bureaucracy to jump through to get him help, and I was an idealistic college student who saw that this was no way to change the world. I may be the only student to receive a B in their student teaching. I was firmly committed to having nothing to do with education. Needless to say, my college years were a mixed up time of emerging from a small town girl to discovering the world and the people in it.
I graduated with my class, and went to Lake Placid to work at the Olympics for a few months. That was surely fun and memorable, but not career building. Then my house mate asked if I wanted to drive across country with her...why not? We drove to the Northwest, I visited a brother in Berkley and had a part-time job at Skyline High School in Oakland, and by the time I arrived in Tucson to visit a UVM friend the car was done. Jobs at hotels, waiting tables, and caring for elderly quickly became unsatisfying. I could not return to my family's Connecticut dairy farm with nothing to show for myself and there was no job prospect there. An epiphany occurred one day. I looked myself in the eye and said, "this flaking around has to stop. You are your best when working with children. That is your life's work. Get on with it and stop goofing around." I opened the paper and here was a job offer at Adventure School, a preschool.
Walking into that school I entered the rest of my life. Early Education was the fit for me. I loved the energy and innocence of young children. This long established school was filled with fabulous mentor teachers who taught me and then went on to found schools of their own. I joined the local affiliate of NAEYC and found more inspiration. The learning from UVM was quickly put to work as we taught children as they played. We followed their interests and built the learning into their activities. It was APEX all the way.
I met my husband in Tucson, and we had three children. As a mom I stepped out of full time employment in Early Education and served on the Foster Care Review Board, Young Audiences, substitute teacher, and served on the board of the parent-cooperative preschool my children attended. Tucson Community School is now nearly 70 years old. It is a school built around parent participation, outdoor play, and experiential learning. Those were 10 magical years at a school where families stay connected for a lifetime. I did return to public school for a short stint as a Kindergarten assistant so my children could attend a school district with high educational standards and involved parents. Once we were able to move into that district I accepted a job as the director of Tucson Community School.
I served nine years as director and began a long relationship with NAEYC. Leading the school through 3 NAEYC accreditation procedures, 8 trips to the national conference, and presenter at local and national conferences it was a satisfying experience. We even built an addition to the school. I expected to retire from this lovely small school, but when asked to become principal of the Kindergarten - Fifth grade division at Green Fields Country Day School I accepted. I was ready for a new challenge and our children's college tuitions were growing so a higher salary was pleasing. This job was daunting. Independent schools ask much of their employees and I was excited to add form to this young Lower School. Green Fields was founded in 1948, but the Lower School was only 4 years old. The ideas of experiential learning and teaching to the whole child are very much alive here. Working with a fabulous faculty of recovering public school teachers I had three great years with Green Fields, but I missed young children. This job was not advancing my purpose in life.
The University of Arizona has a strong education department, but prior to 1999, it had no Masters program in Early Education. As an experiential learner myself I could not visualize myself benefiting from on line course work at University of Phoenix, nor could I afford a hybrid course with Bank Street or Pacific Oaks. So when the U of A started an ECE Masters program in 2000 I signed up. I had been inquiring about such a program for years through SAzAEYC (Southern Arizona Association for the Education of Young Children) and "when the squeaky wheel gets greased you better roll with it." So I took one course in the fall, two this spring, and the six-credit Southern Arizona Writers Project the following summer. As an excited part-time student, my work as a principal was done, so when the University offered me a graduate assistant position to finish my program in two more semesters I jumped at it. I finished the Masters in 2013, and started a PhD. A medical issue took center stage that first year, but these last two years have been rich with coursework, teaching undergraduates, and supervising teacher candidates.
So here I am, 57 years old, no longer a principal or director, and back at school. In my 35 years in Early Education I have attended and presented at many conferences, lead boards, taught teachers, visited schools, and lead schools. In the work of Reggio Emilia inspired schools, Montessori, and play based learning I see the power of experience and relationships. APEX gave the eyes and heart to recognize high quality programs. I am eternally grateful to the academic and life experiences that continue to support my learning.