Joan Harper is Seaford"s 2000 teacher of the year

By Lynn R. Parks

Joan Harper"s students are out of school for the summer. But they are not out of her thoughts. "Children do lose [knowledge] over the summer," said Harper. "And the most disadvantaged ones lose the most." I tell them over and over, "Go to the library, go to the library." I keep my fingers crossed that they will do it. But for some, I know they won't."
Harper, a first-grade teacher at Central Elementary School, is this year's teacher of the year for the Seaford School District. According to Mellie Kinnamon, director of personnel for the district, it is that concern for her students that makes Harper an exceptional teacher. "Joan is a very dedicated, very caring person who has the respect of her peers, the parents and everybody in the school system," said Kinnamon. "She represents excellence in teaching; she represents all that is good about teachers." Not to mention the fact that she is modest. "The teachers I work with are wonderful," said Harper. "They are the hardest working and the most conscientious. Any single one of them deserves this [award] as much as or more than I do."

Heart's in the first grade
Harper, 45, grew up in Fair Hill, Md., and graduated from Mt. Aviat Academy, a girl's school in Fair Hill, in 1972. She earned a bachelor"s degree in elementary education from Salisbury State College (now University) in 1975 and a master's in elementary education from the same school in 1987. She and her husband John, a salesman for Amvac, a farm chemical company, have three children, Laura, 21, a student at Salisbury State, Julie, 19, at the University of Delaware, and Kyle, 17, a student at the Howard T. Ennis School, Georgetown. Harper began her teaching career 23 years ago at Hurlock Elementary School, Hurlock, Md., where she taught first grade for three years.
After the birth of her first daughter, she and a friend started the Wee Care day- care center in Hurlock. Later, to give her more time at home, she started the Lucky Clovers pre-school, for children age 2 to 5. In 1987 she went back to public school, accepting a first-grade teaching position at Maple Elementary School, Cambridge, Md.
The family moved to Seaford in 1988. But not until 1994 did she begin teaching in the Seaford district. "I wanted first grade, so I commuted to Cambridge until a first-grade position was available in Seaford," she said. First grade is where she still is, and where she is likely to remain. "I love the enthusiasm of first graders," she said. "I love their eagerness to learn. I like how everything is new to them. And I really enjoy seeing their transformation into readers. January is usually the magic month, when suddenly they are readers. After 23 years, that is still a pleasure to me." It also helps in her teaching that, after instructing so many 6- and 7-year-olds, she knows what they are like.

"I can tell what"s going through their heads," she said. "Children change over time, because people change and the community changes. But the heart of the 7-year-old stays the same." That does not mean that her teaching methods have stayed the same. With the advent of video games and cable television, children today 'seem to have less self-discipline' than when she started in education. "It is a challenge. They have to be taught how to listen, how to sit still," she said. "How I wish I could get them away from that television, could take them outside to look at the flowers and hear the birds."
It is her back yard, painted in June by roses, lavender and lilies and alive with songbirds, to which Harper turns when teaching exhausts her. "I love first graders, but they are very demanding," she said. "They have a lot of needs that can sap your energy."
Also tiring, she said, are the many demands that are put on teachers and the fact that many people feel that educators aren"t succeeding in their jobs. "Teachers have gotten a bad rap," she said. "Most are very caring people, very dedicated. People just don"t understand how far we take the children. Some children start out school with a huge deficit already. We get them reading. We get them writing. Think about what we accomplish."
Harper is not impressed by recent state efforts to measure teacher accountability by students" scores on standardized tests. "Certainly we should be accountable, but we always have been," she said. "We are accountable to ourselves and we are so conscientious, that is enough." As for the tests themselves, "they will put a lot of pressure on little people," she said. "Children develop at a lot of rates. Some may not be ready to read in the first grade, but that does not mean that they are dumb. To subject them to the pressure of a test, that is very stigmatizing. And I am not sure that standardized tests are the best measure of ability. Why can't the teacher just be trusted more? We are with them a lot. We are trained professionals and hard-working people."
Harper offers the following advice to those who are considering a career in teaching:
"You have to have a true love of children. You have to be willing to work very hard. You have to have a good sense of humor , you will encounter some of the strangest things, you just have to laugh." "You have to be aware of a lot of different approaches to teaching; don't get stuck in any one way because people learn a lot of ways. You have to be organized, a good manager and have clear objectives in mind." "The children have to know that you are the boss, but they also have to know that they are loved and that they can be relaxed and comfortable." "And you have to make it fun."
For those who feel they can master all the requirements, there are great rewards, she said. "A teacher can do no wrong in the students' minds," she said. "They just think that you are the greatest. Nowhere else can a plain old person become a queen. In the classroom, you are queen for a year."