Westerman Preschool and Family Center teacher Elisabeth VanVliet spent her own early childhood years in Canton before moving a few times and eventually attending late elementary through high school in Dublin, Ohio. She is the oldest of four girls. Her dad spent his career at Wendy’s International and her mom is a special education teacher.
VanVliet then moved back to Michigan to attend Eastern Michigan University and never left the state.
She completed two of her three student teaching experiences in AAPS at Eberwhite Elementary for special education and Westerman, for early childhood. Once she started applying for jobs, she knew Ann Arbor was where she wanted to be.
VanVliet says she was fortunate to land at Westerman as an early childhood special education teacher right out of college and 12 years later, she still feels lucky that she gets to do what she loves as a job.
VanVliet is an avid reader, enjoys volunteering, is decent with power tools, and is teaching herself to crochet. She is most content when outside in the middle of the woods on a hike with friends or out on a walk with a podcast. She lives with a bunny named Fen (short for Fennel) who is slowly claiming her entire home as his own.
When you recall your first year of teaching, what memories stand out?
The first year of teaching was a blur in a lot of ways. I was hired the week before school started and walked into a classroom that had all the furniture and toys piled in the middle of the room. I didn’t even know where to start! I remember relying a lot on my teaching team to help me through everything from setting up the room to classroom management. My speech therapist at the time had a wonderful motto to “find the smile” when I was working with my kids and most of the memories of that first year were doing just that! From cutting up lunches into silly shapes to impromptu dance parties, to bike races in the hallway, we did a lot of laughing and growing together. I still rely on that motto daily.
What advice would you give to a first-year teacher?
*Consistency and structure need to be the basis of everything you do. Figure out a schedule and classroom expectations that work for you and your students, make visuals that reflect the schedule and expectations (and reference them often), and stick to them! Children need structure to feel safe and it increases independence across all areas.
*Find your people! Surround yourself with people you trust and can go to when teaching gets hard, you have questions, or you want to share something exciting.
*If something isn’t working, break it down! What small skill do you need to teach in order to make the bigger skill achievable for your students?
*There will always be a million things on your to-do list. Don’t let that keep you from being silly, tossing out the lesson plan occasionally, and having fun with your kids!
What inspired you to become a teacher?
I can’t pinpoint a time in my life when I decided to become a teacher. It was just always what I was going to do. It was the theme in my pretend play, I talked about it with friends at school and wrote about it when the writing prompt at school was “What do you want to be when you grow up?” By the time I was in fourth grade, I’d narrowed it down to special education at some level, and by high school, I knew preschool special education was where I wanted to be.
My mom teaches special education, so I knew that there were teachers who helped kids who needed a little bit extra or a different way to learn, and that was very intriguing to me. I found myself volunteering in self-contained classrooms at my elementary and middle schools, and by high school and through college was a respite provider for several autistic children and children with Down syndrome. I loved working in homes with families and finding ways that the children could increase independence and learn new skills. Continuing to do that in a school setting just seemed like the right choice.
I’m passionate about early education and early intervention. A child who attends preschool, especially a preschool that uses play as the primary method of instruction and intervention, is set up for a great experience to gain social and communication skills and increase independence. As a preschool teacher, I get to have a front-row seat in that!
I get to see a lot of “firsts” in my room: first words, first time using the toilet, first time seeking out a peer to play. It is incredibly rewarding, especially when you know all the pre-work that goes into them.
Is spending the day with energetic preschoolers sometimes draining?
Yes! Preschool is a demanding job physically, mentally, and emotionally. I go from running around the playground to trying to figure out how to teach a student to imitate a motor skill to helping a student work out some big emotions in the span of a few minutes. Other than my lunch, I’m with my students all day long and try to further maximize that time by being 100 percent present in what I do. I think something that most people don’t realize is that as a teacher you are on all the time. I’m constantly counting heads, making sure everyone is engaged, taking data, and planning the next day’s activities in my head. When you add in preschoolers you also add in that these are little humans that are just learning how to do things themselves! We do a lot of teaching children how to be independent in self-care skills, how to follow one-step directions, and how to engage with the world around them.
I go home tired more days than not!
How do you gauge success in your role as a preschool teacher?
I think one of my most important jobs as a preschool teacher is to teach my students that school is fun. They’re going to have a lot of different teachers throughout their lives, but often I am the first, and I want to set the foundation that school is a joyful place to be. When I hear that kids put their backpacks on and wait for the bus on the weekends, I know I’m doing something right.
Describe an average workday.
The wonderful thing about preschool is no two days are the same! We follow the same schedule throughout the day, which creates consistency and fosters independence, but what we do during that time changes based on individual students and their needs. All my students know our schedule song and often keep the teachers on track if we’re running late or we deviate from the routine!
Our daily schedule consists of arrival routines which vary from learning to walk down to the classroom, to taking off outerwear, to learning how to unzip their own backpacks. Each student has an individualized morning work task that is based on a skill they are practicing, we work on toileting skills and have an opportunity to start our day with a chunk of “work and play” time. Therapists push into our classroom
during this time to target IEP goals. We have a greeting time, have breakfast, go outside to play, and have a large group that consists of songs, social skill practice, and stories with props. We have more work and play time when teachers target specific students’ goals and students have a chance to play independently or with peers and practice the skills they’ve been learning. We eat lunch, have a rest time, and repeat the schedule in the afternoon adding in a small group time where we might explore
different manipulatives, practice following a teacher’s direction while doing a project, or engage in messy play.
While our teaching team keeps our classroom running, we have students who pop into our special education classroom for extra support during the day and students who spend time in the general education classrooms for parts of their day, It can be a revolving door at times, but I love the flexibility it offers to give students what they need.
What’s the happiest part of your day?
Whenever I’m connecting with my students by doing something they love. This is a different time of day for each student, it could be when I’m playing peekaboo under a blanket and getting giggles, or when I’m singing a silly, made-up song, or when I’ve got students in my lap and we’re reading a book together. I love making the time to connect and grow those relationships.
Which of your character traits makes you best suited for the job?
I think my consistency in routines, expectations, and directions makes me a good teacher. My
expectations and directions vary from student to student based on what they need/can do, but if I tell my students to do something, I’m going to follow through to make sure that it gets done. I’ve been told it’s also my patience, but I believe that’s really just my stubbornness.
Often I have to wait, watch, and encourage a student to try something themselves (which they don’t always want to do!) without stepping in and doing it for them. There is a fine line between being encouraging and enabling. My students can do so much for themselves when they are given the time and opportunity to try it.
What makes teaching at Westerman unique?
What I love most about Westerman is that I teach in a team. My classroom has multiple adults in and out of the room all day. If I break it down by job title, my room has a special education teacher, two co-teachers/teacher assistants, a speech therapist, and an occupational therapist, but the students know us all as teachers.
Being part of a teaching team means that we all have a responsibility for what goes on in the classroom and are there to support each other and our students. I love that we develop shorthand as the year goes on and can switch in and out of our assigned roles to best support our students’ needs.
What do you want people to know about Westerman Preschool & Family Center?
Our school serves children from birth to age 5 (pre-kindergarten) and has children from all over the Ann Arbor district boundaries. We feed into every single elementary school. Westerman has multiple different programs running out of one building. We serve children and families in our First Steps Programs, Early On services, Headstart, and GSRP classrooms, and we have early childhood special education classrooms and services that happen out in the community. I’m probably missing a few in there. It has a lot of moving parts, but what I love is that it is all early childhood focused and we have so many resources at our fingertips that “get preschool.”
What is the most rewarding part of teaching?
One of my favorite parts of teaching is celebrating the little wins. My students work incredibly hard to learn and maintain a skill and each step of that skill is cause for celebration. I find that noticing and celebrating the small things in my classroom has shifted my perspective of my own life and I try to celebrate little wins there too!
How do you spend your summers?
I spend a good chunk of my summer teaching extended school year (ESY) at Westerman. I love the slower pace in the summer and I get to do a lot of trialing ideas that I might bring into the next school year. I also go on a Habitat for Humanity trip with my dad every summer for a week. In the past few years, we’ve gone down to West Virginia to build ramps on houses to make them more accessible for homeowners. Past that, I spend a lot of time reading, hiking, and catching up on all the sleep I miss during the school year.