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‘Let the children play’: A Wichita kindergarten teacher looks back on 37 years in the classroom

cindy deutsch photo.jpg
Suzanne Perez
Cindy Deutsch recently retired after 37 years of teaching, most of it in kindergarten classrooms in Wichita.

Cindy Deutsch, a longtime kindergarten teacher at Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary in Wichita, talked with education reporter Suzanne Perez about the joys and frustrations of teaching — and the students she’ll never forget.

Cindy Deutsch retired last month after 37 years in the Wichita school district.

Most of that time was spent teaching kindergartners at Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary in east Wichita.

Deutsch talked with education reporter Suzanne Perez and The Range about the joys and frustrations of teaching — and the students she’ll never forget.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

PEREZ: Why did you want to become a teacher?

DEUTSCH: I have always loved children, and I value play a lot. … I would play teacher when I went to my aunt’s house or at my home. I just loved to make up worksheets and play those with myself or a little friend that I had.

What has changed over the years regarding play in kindergarten?

In my second year of teaching, we received so many materials about developmentally appropriate practice, the importance of the sand and water table and how that helps children with sensory learning. And blocks, how it teaches engineering skills, and the importance of all this play… Now it’s, I feel, developmentally inappropriate practice, where they’re sitting too long, being taught how to read instead of being able to play in a natural way and learn that way.

Courtesy photo
Cindy Deutsch poses with one of her students after a kindergarten graduation ceremony in 2017. Every year on the last day of school, she addresses each student and tells them she loves them.

What else has changed?

When I started teaching kindergarten it was half-day, but we had the same standards. Now it’s full-day. We started with chalkboards and later went to white boards, and now Smartboards. … We started with having a phone only in the office, so if you needed to call a parent, you would need to do that at a break time or after school. Now we have a cell phone on us at all times, where we can even call from recess. We had, at one time, no computer room at all. Then we went to a computer lab, and now every student has their own iPad.

With the intense focus on accountability in education, teachers are testing and using data screeners more at all grade levels. How did that impact you and your kindergartners?

I always say this little phrase: We weigh the cow and we weigh the cow, but we don’t have time to feed the cow, because we’re weighing the cow so much. And the cow isn’t getting fat. In English language arts we are now testing 21 different entries that I’m (recording) for standards, whereas when I started teaching, it was four entries for reading.

We didn’t have children reading (in kindergarten) as we do now. I think it’s very possible, and my students were able to read. But I think the play being replaced with reading is not advantageous to children.

I had sand and water tables that my students would get to play with, and puzzles, and I had an outdoor courtyard, which was so fun. One parent said her son would sometimes come home wet, but she would laugh because she was so glad that he was having fun in kindergarten.

How about the students themselves? How have they changed?

I don’t see a difference in the way kindergartners come into the classroom. Some years I have students that have more behavior problems or less behavior problems, but they still are the same. They still love to go to kindergarten. They love to play. They still want to be loved and valued.

What will stand out the most for you as you look back on your career?

The relationships that I’ve built with so many parents and students that continue to this day. There’s never a week that goes by that I don’t get a text from a parent, or talk to a student that I’ve had in the past. It just is something so important to me. This last week, we helped a former student and his parents move to another house. I tutor some kids that I’ve taught in the past. The relationships that I’ve built, I just really value.

I also loved watching how the children would grasp a concept … As part of the Core Knowledge magnet, we talk about heroes and important people who have helped shape our world. I would always teach them about Jane Goodall, how she observed chimpanzees for many years. The chimps would take a bamboo twig and put it into a red termite hole, and then pull out the stick and eat the termites off the stick. So then we would go out to recess, and I would see children find a stick and find an ant hole. Without me saying anything, they were learning these applications and trying it themselves. I just thought that was so fun.

If you could pass on a bit of wisdom to other teachers, what might that be?

I would like them to continue to let the children play, and know the value of play in every classroom. Do puzzles, continue with blocks, have a dramatic play center. Even though the administration might not value it, it is important.

Over the past few years, educators have become a sort of political punching bag, with concerns about masks, transparency, and the teaching of race and history. How did that make you feel?

It is disheartening that people don’t trust the teachers anymore. I feel that we’re micromanaged a lot, where we’re told exactly what we’re supposed to be teaching, when we’re supposed to be teaching it. When I started teaching, we were given a lot more leeway with the curriculum, putting in our own things that we’ve developed that we feel have helped the children. But that has been taken away from teachers.

As I recall, you have a special end-of-the-year tradition with your kindergartners. Tell us about that.

At the end of the year, I always would tell the children, “Erin, I love you. I will always love you. … I love you, Vance… I love you, Christian.” I used to only say, “I like you. You’re my friend.” But then in 2007 I had a student who was killed in a car accident along with his grandparents and his uncle. …. And it hurt me so badly that I knew I didn’t just like my children, I loved them. From then on, I always said, “I love you.” … Daniel’s picture always hung on my bulletin board, and it was the last thing I took down before I retired and packed up my room.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.