Coming into a preschool as a new director can be both exciting and daunting, but starting a new director position during a pandemic? That brings a whole new level of unprecedented challenges. Luckily for families at Grace Preschool in Homeland, Tami James is taking everything in stride.
We sat down with the Baltimore mom of four to learn about how the preschool is pivoting in the face of COVID19, her vision for the school community, and how she is buoying her new team to prepare for their fall opening — no matter what they end up facing.
Meet Tami James, the New Director of Grace Preschool!
You spent the last 13 years teaching first grade at Gilman School and serving as their Director of Early Learning. How will that experience inform your leadership and vision for Grace?
I have been a teacher for seventeen years- the last thirteen were at Gilman School. Most of my teaching career was spent in a first grade classroom, and it is really true what they say, I am confident that I learned much more from my students than they learned from me. My students taught me how to be empathetic, flexible, and creative, all traits that are needed to be the Director of a Preschool.
I was also the Director of Early Childhood at Gilman, and I worked on creating the budget, worked with architects to design spaces for little ones, purchased curriculum, and did extensive research on developmentally appropriate practices. Not only did those experiences prepare me for my new role, but they also lit a fire inside of me and unleashed a passion for working with the youngest students and their families. I thought I would teach First Grade forever, but I am so thankful my career shifted and prepared me for this next journey!
What excites you most about your new role?
There are so many things that excite me about this new role! Six months ago I would have said that wearing many hats at one time was the most exciting part to me, but now, I am excited to guide Grace through the pandemic alongside the students, parents, and faculty! I think what excites me the MOST though, is taking over a program with such strong roots, with developmentally appropriate teaching, loving teachers, and welcoming community.
This is definitely a challenging moment for preschools. How did Grace transition to distance learning during the Pandemic?
When the Pandemic hit, I was still teaching First Grade, and I knew first hand how challenging it was to teach little children virtually. Grace’s previous Director, Barbara Blair, kept me in the loop as to what the teachers were doing. I was astounded by what they were able to accomplish with their young students!
The teachers Zoomed with their students and created teaching videos that were emailed to parents to use at their convenience. Even though teachers in most other schools did that as well, the teachers at Grace went above and beyond.
They gathered materials the kids would need for the week, provided pickup times for parents, and most often, they hand-delivered the materials to their student’s doorsteps. The teachers were concerned about losing the connection with their students and parents, so face-to-face distanced deliveries helped solidify that strong relationship.
My favorite pictures from Distance Learning at Grace have nothing to do with learning and everything to do with relationships. Teachers delivering Easter baskets to students, parents delivering teacher appreciation gifts to teachers, and a Kindergarten graduation parade are highlights of how Grace handled Distance Learning during the Pandemic.
We know that many parents are apprehensive about the fall. What plans has Grace put into place? What is your team working on this summer to get ready for fall?
We have been working hard to prepare several different scenarios for when we open in the fall! We have a plan in place for in-person learning, distance learning, and a plan for times when we are in between the two.
There will be new policies and procedures in place this year to ensure the health and safety of our students. Daily temperature checks, COVID screening questions, small class sizes, fewer transitions, and hourly cleaning procedures are just some of the changes that will be implemented. Additionally, a task force was formed, and this group is meeting throughout the summer to plan for the fall. Their goals include mapping out the curriculum for each age level and incorporating new methods of teaching that will be integrated into each unit should we move into a time of distance learning again.
Most importantly, this task force is restructuring their daily plans to incorporate community building, play, and communication more than ever. The only reason distance learning worked last spring was because the teachers had built strong relationships with their students and families. When our doors open in September, our primary goal will be to cultivate relationships and trust with everyone in the Grace community.
After a long time at home, kids may feel apprehensive about returning to the classroom this fall. Do you have advice for parents of anxious toddlers and preschoolers?
Kids may feel apprehensive about returning to the classroom. Parents will surely feel apprehensive about sending their children to school. Teachers will feel apprehensive about making sure they are doing what is right for their students. My advice is to name the feeling as apprehension, nervousness, even anxiety, and to embrace the feeling.
We have never experienced anything like this before, and it is okay to be scared. There are still so many uncertainties, which is scary in itself.
What I know for sure is that Grace is a wonderful place with loving teachers, and I have every confidence that students at Grace will be met with empathy, love, compassion, warmth, safety, and security. Transitions are hard, and this is a big one, but knowing that we are in it together gives me much peace, and I hope it provides peace for parents, too.
Grace is known for its tight-knit community, but getting to know families during a socially-distanced summer is tricky at best. How are you getting to know the community?
Grace’s tight-knit community is one of the things that attracted me most to the school. I have been welcomed with open arms, virtually, of course. I have talked to the teachers on the phone, and we have met in socially distanced ways. I have had the opportunity to talk to several different parents on the phone to make connections and to learn what they love about Grace, and I have held Zoom sessions to current parents to talk about reopening plans! I would prefer in-person conversations, but for now, we are all doing our best to make this new way of communicating work!
You hit the ground running on June 1st as the new director, so we’re sure that this summer is a busy one for you! Besides settling in at Grace, what are you excited to do this summer?
I am excited to Zoom less, play more, and spend as much time as I can with my kids! We have a pool in our backyard, and many of our afternoons are spent splashing around and being silly together.
What three things might families be surprised to know about you?
My husband, Barry, and I met in the Dominican Republic. Independently, we both moved there after college graduation to teach at an international Christian school in Santiago. We wound up getting married after two years and went on to teach there two more years.
My husband and I started our teaching careers together in the Dominican Republic, and for the last four years, we had the privilege of teaching together at Gilman as well! My son and my husband started their time at Gilman together, and it was an absolute joy spending the last four years together in one place.
I am an only child and vowed to have a big family. We have four children! Emma is 11, Dominic is 9, Amelia is 7, and Esther is 5. The girls will all be in the Lower School at Bryn Mawr this year, and our son will be in Third Grade at Gilman.
This article is part of our School Spotlight Series. In this series, we spotlight our partner schools to give you a glimpse into what learning looks like on their campus. To learn more about Grace Preschool, visit their directory listing in ourIndependent School Directory. Images were provided by the school. Want to become a school partner? Email us.