Education, Feature

Lessons from five decades teaching preschool

Preschool might look simple. In some ways, it is.

Nan Wexler of Homewood has more than five decades of experience teaching the littlest students. She currently teaches at FCC Weekday Preschool in Flossmoor, where she has been for more than 10 years. Before that, she taught for four decades at the Anita Stone Jewish Community Center.

“We start out with free play, then we have a group time and hear stories and songs, have a snack and then go outside,” she said. “That’s how we spend our morning.”

The mission, too, is apparently simple.

“The main thing is to teach them that life can be OK away from mommy,” she said. “What knowledge they pick up on the side is great, but that’s the main thing.”

But getting to that goal is not always a simple task when working with 11 observant, intelligent, inquisitive individuals per class who represent a range of developmental stages and diverse interests.

Nan Wexler helps one of her students don a dress during free play time recently at FCC Weekday Preschool.
(Eric Crump photos/H-F Chronicle)

“They’re adorable and they’re smart and their minds are fantastic,” she said. “It never stops being exciting.”

And challenging. Although the 2- and 3-year-olds she teaches are within a few months of each other in age, they come to preschool with very different abilities and levels of development.

Some are able to carry on conversations. Some are less verbal. Some arrive ready to play. Some are emotional at being separated from their parents.

Wexler said she makes lesson plans for each week, but she always has to be ready to depart from the plan and respond to what the kids need.

“They’re very, very different. To accept them as individuals is a very important thing for a teacher to do,” she said.

Her approach involves allowing students as much freedom as possible while providing necessary guardrails to keep them safe and help them learn appropriate limits.

If a group of kids are going down the slide, sometimes landing on each other, she will stand near to make sure no one gets hurt, but as long as they are laughing, she lets them have fun. The focus of preschool is not about sitting still and staying quiet.

“They need to use their bodies as well as their minds,” she said.

Boys, for instance, have a tendency to play a bit rougher with each other than most girls, and sometimes a boy will glance at her to see if he’s gone over the line of acceptable behavior.

That’s one thing that hasn’t changed much during her career.

But she has noticed some changes among girls, who seem to be more assertive than they were when she started teaching at the now-closed Anita Stone Jewish Community Center.

“They are more determined to have their own way,” she said. “But they still want to dress up like princesses.”

The attention to children as individuals with distinct needs is something Wexler thinks the broader education system would do well to heed. She said there are educators who are actively re-evaluating the current system.

One of them is her daughter, Bobbi Wexler Macdonald, who is a senior partner at Education Reimagined, an organization that promotes a new learner-centered approach to public education.

Her other daughter, Evie Wexler Plofsky, also became an educator. She is on the faculty of Governors State University, teaching early childhood education. 

Her surviving sons, Ron and David, went into business, Ron into real estate and David into sound technologies. Her youngest son, Michael, was an artist and actor who was killed a when he was struck by a car in 2015. The theater in the Homewood Science Center is named in his honor.

“My girls followed me into education,” she said. “I’m the only one that’s stayed in the classroom because that’s the only place I wanted to be.”

As she approaches 90, she sometimes gets asked whether she’s thinking about retiring. The answer is an emphatic “no.”

“I hope I never have to give up teaching,” she said. 

Dallas Collins, director of FCC Weekday Preschool, said Wexler is treasured. She was sorry to see Anita Stone center close, she said, but was grateful Wexler came to Weekday Preschool when it did.

“We were lucky to get her,” she said.

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