Phyllis Newman, Mitchell Elementary preschool teacher

Profile and photos by Jo Mathis/AAPS District News

Phyllis Newman was born and raised in Ann Arbor, the daughter of the late Dr. Rev. A.J. Lightfoot Jr. and Mary C. Kidd-Lightfoot. She attended Haisley, Forsythe, and Pioneer High School. After graduating from Pioneer in 1979, she attended Washtenaw Community College and Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a CDA and a bachelor’s degree in education. She met her husband, Dale W. Newman when they were students at Forsythe, and the couple married in 1985. They have two sons, Christian and Jordan, and a daughter Bethany, all graduates of AAPS.

Newman has been with AAPS since 2002.  Before that, she directed her church’s childcare center for more than a decade.  Her hobbies include reading, traveling, baking, word puzzles, sewing, movies and spending time with friends and family.

What inspired you to become a teacher? In 1977 my niece was born with spina bifida. As I learned about her birth defect and her needs while cuddling, playing, and interacting with her, I fell in love with and was inspired by her strength, struggles,  and resilience.  And I always seemed to have a way of connecting with kids while babysitting and working as a Sunday school teacher.

Why preschool? Each teacher has particular gifts for certain age groups and grade levels, and mine happens to be early childhood. I have a great love for and connection with this age. Their honesty (sometimes brutal!)  curiosity, never-ending energy, and conversations that can be hilarious make them a pretty awesome group of kids to hang around with.

If you could give new parents three pieces of advice regarding those first three years of a child’s life, what would they be?

  1. Enjoy your little ones—even the times they cry or have a tantrum. You will think back when they become older, and laugh and share with them about their moments which seem to be forever when you are in the thick of it, but truly are just a moment in time.
  2. Try hard not to solve their every problem.
  3. Really listen and talk to them. They are pretty insightful.

In your  15  years in AAPS, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about teaching? About learning?  In my 15 years in AAPS, this quote from Maya Angelou sums it up for me:  “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” Learning is ongoing and constant and that is part of being a teacher. That doesn’t mean it is always easy,  but it can be exhilarating.

Describe an average workday. My day begins around 5:40 a.m. I get dressed and have time to enjoy breakfast, time to think, and drink my one cup of coffee. I arrive at Mitchell about 8:20 and begin prepping the classroom (chairs down, name tags out, sanitizing the tables, letter carpets on the floor).  I then check to make sure I have my small group materials complete and ready, and prep my laptop so I can quickly click to what I need.

Around 8:50, I and my co-teachers greet our children outside during drop-off by bus or parent. The day begins with assisting children with possible boot/shoe issues, and a few reminders of what’s next for our students such as picture attendance, finding their nametag, and signing in. After about 10 minutes, the class cleans up and prepares for breakfast, with students helping by setting the table. We all sit family-style at the tables. Children serve themselves and we have conversations. Once most of the class is finished with breakfast, the class brushes their teeth and my co-teacher and I are sitting with children while they have book-look time. Sometimes we read a book by request or just observe children sharing books together. We then have our morning meeting which is when singing, dancing, counting, learning letters, building relationships and social skill lessons take place. After the morning meeting, we go outside, and this is when we really try to help coach the children on working through getting their outside gear on, which can be quite a process. Once we return inside, we divide into two small groups.

When students are finished with small groups, they begin planning for choice time with me at the table.  Choice time is for an hour during this time I am interacting, facilitating problem-solving skills helping to extend their play, and working on individual goals in planned areas. We transition from choice to family style lunch again students help to set the table and server themselves. At this time students are recalling where they played and what they did with me as well as co-teachers as we sit at the table with them for lunch. After lunch, the students go to art, music or PE. While they are at a special, I race to prep the room for rest time, which includes cleaning up after lunch, sweeping and rest mats down. Once they are resting, I have time to take a break eat lunch, work on the next week’s lesson plan, and reflect or have a short meeting.

The end of the day consists of snack, stories or time outside, then transitioning for dismissal. Then I walk with students to the bus or parent pick-up along with my co-teachers. Fridays we do not have students,  but the whole day is spent in teaming, planning, meeting for IB lessons, professional development, prepping the classroom for the next week, staff meetings, conferences with parents and more.

What is the best thing about working at Mitchell Elementary?

  1. Learning about the IB program and the responsive classroom training
  2. Meeting the friendly, welcoming staff and principal.
  3. Seeing prior students in almost all grade levels makes me feel like I’m pretty young!

Is there much difference between working at Mitchell and at your previous school, Westerman Preschool & Family Center?  The biggest difference is physical space (smaller) and incorporating the parts-responsive classroom with preschoolers.

What advice would you give to a first-year teacher?

  1. Take one day at a time.
  2. Ask questions.
  3. It’s okay if you bomb a lesson. Pick yourself up reflect and try another approach, or scrap it.
  4. Form relationships with your students, their families, and your coworkers.

Favorite websites: Pinterest, Amazon, Teachers Pay Teachers.

What is the most rewarding part of teaching? Witnessing the incredible growth of my class socially, emotionally and academically. Also when students see you outside of the classroom—such as at the grocery store—and seeing how amazed they are that you do not live at the school. I love the look of ultimate surprise and questions and statements such as: “How did you get here? Where did you come from? You’re my teacher!”

What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher? That being a teacher is rewarding, but also very challenging at times. Teachers are always finding ways to keep students engaged and teachers continually learn and grow as well.

How do you recharge?  Take a lot of deep breathes, enjoy having quiet moments (disconnecting), and being with my family.


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  1. I love Miss Phyllis, she taught a few of my grandkids at Ann Arbor Preschool and she always had a smile on her face and my grandkids loved her, so that meant alot to me. Continue to make a difference with our children. Thank you for being an Awesome Teacher!!!

  2. Congratulations Phyllis. Those children are fortunate to have such a caring teacher. Best of luck as you continue your career. Shelley Reaves Thorn -Cable’s cousin.

  3. How wonderful for you, Phyllis to be so recognized for your hard work and commitment to young children. You have always been a wonderful teacher. Keep up the good work. Pat Horne McGee.

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