By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor
Wendy Blackman grew up in Lincoln Park, the only daughter of Rodney and Nancy McKay. Her father worked for American Airlines in the heavy freight area before passing away at the age of 35. Her mother then raised four children on her own, working in various medical and dental offices in the downriver area throughout the years. Blackman credits her mother’s strength and perseverance as key factors which have helped shape and guide her through her own life and career.
Blackman graduated from Lincoln Park High School in 1984 and eventually went on to earn an associate’s degree as a childcare professional from Washtenaw Community College in 2011.
Blackman became a single parent in 1983 when her only child, Amanda, was born. In 1995, she married her husband of 27 years, Don Blackman, and they lived in Garden City until 2005 when they moved with their grandchildren to Pittsfield Township. Together they raised their grandchildren, Hannah and Aidan, who attended AAPS from preschool through graduation in 2020 and 2021.
Blackman’s work in childcare began when she spent two years volunteering in her grandchildren’s AAPS Head Start classroom. When they moved into elementary school, she decided to work as a substitute paraprofessional. In 2009, she was offered a long-term substitute teaching assistant position at the preschool. Because she enjoyed the work so much, she decided to enroll in classes at WCC to earn her Child Development Associate (CDA) certificate in hopes of securing a full-time position in a Head Start classroom. In 2010, a full-time position became available for a general education teaching assistant at the preschool, which she happily accepted. This year she has taken on the role of lead classroom teacher because of a vacancy the school was unable to fill. Principal Kristin Crowe says Blackman has more than met the challenge.
How did you pivot from teaching assistant to lead classroom teacher?
It really came down to a staffing issue. While I do not hold a teaching certificate (yet), I do meet the requirements to sub as a teacher in the district. I am still pursuing my options to earn a degree in early childhood education.
Does the job intimidate you?
No. Because we operate with a co-teaching model at the Westerman Preschool, there isn’t much difference between being the lead teacher in the classroom and being the co-teacher in the classroom. We work jointly as a team developing lesson plans, leading small group activities, connecting and engaging with the students, taking anecdotal notes, and conducting parent-teacher conferences.
Also, I have worked with some amazing lead teachers over the years who have encouraged me, treated me as an equal, and allowed me to grow in my profession, even though I don’t hold a degree.
Did you feel up to the task at first?
At the beginning of the school year, I really thought I was just getting a classroom up and running until a lead teacher could be hired. I met virtually with families for their initial home visit and established goals for their children. I had the mindset that I would be in the lead position for a short period of time. By October it became clear this was turning into a long-term substitute position, so I had to change my mindset to, “This is my classroom. This is my official first year of teaching and these are my kids. What do I want for them this year? How am I going to get them there?” And then I had to move forward.
Principal Kristin Crowe admires your “child-first” approach. Can you elaborate?
Several years ago I attended a workshop with Charles Applestein based on his book, “No Such Thing as a Bad Kid.” His philosophy stuck with me and I use it every day. Education should not be a one-size-fits-all model. This concept has to start in preschool. You have to look at each individual child and their family. See what tools they have available to them, learn what their goals are for themselves and their children. I want my students to know it is okay to make mistakes, we all make mistakes, but that is how we learn. There is nothing they do that can’t be corrected or undone. Children don’t choose their life circumstances, so regardless of what they are dealing with outside of school, in my classroom, they know they are loved, capable, and valued.
Describe an average workday.
I am awake by 5:15 and go through my morning routine. I like to sit and drink my coffee for about 30 minutes while doing a sudoku puzzle online to get my brain engaged. Then it is 100 percent work mode. I am usually in my classroom by 7:30 a.m. getting everything set, making any copies, and gathering materials for the day’s small group activity. The students begin arriving at 8:15 and I am ready and available to greet the driveline students while my co-teacher, Holly, helps bring in our students from the bus. We are in our classroom and eating breakfast by 8:40. Next, we have our greeting time, go to the gym, have a small group activity and then the students make a choice of where they will play for the next hour or so. Next is a large group reading or music and movement activity. We eat lunch, then get ready for our rest time. After rest time, we are outside before coming back in for quiet activities like games, puzzles to finish out our day.
What’s the most challenging part of the job?
Definitely the beginning of the school year when you have a new group of students and you are learning what makes them tick. Strategies that work one year, may not work the next year so there is definitely a learning curve at the beginning of each school year.
The most satisfying?
The look on a child’s face when they accomplish something they were sure they were not able to do.
What’s the cutest thing one of your students said recently? One of my students was looking a little sad, so I asked him if he needed a hug, his response was “ Uh, yeah! I’m three!” Of course, what was I thinking?
What’s the funniest question you’ve been asked? “You have a house?” They really do think we live at school.
Is it difficult getting the kids to keep their masks on?
Not at all. Wearing a mask is the norm for these kids. Don’t get me wrong, we have a couple who need reminders occasionally, but for the most part, they do really well and even remind each other to put their masks on when they are done eating.
What makes teaching at Westerman unique?
Having the majority of your grade level experts all in one location is pretty amazing. Our ancillary staff is very much a part of our teaching team, and they bring a wealth of knowledge and strategies into the classroom which benefits all the students.
How do you keep students engaged?
You need to take time to listen to them while they play, to connect with them. You have to be flexible and don’t be afraid to be silly with them. When an activity or lesson isn’t working or the students are extra wiggly, change it up and keep moving forward.
How does this job compare to others you’ve had?
I have worked in a distribution warehouse, in a medical office, and at a non-profit as a fundraiser and special event planner. Teaching preschool is by far the least stressful and most rewarding job I have ever had hands down!
How do you spend your summers?
My husband and I like to camp with friends. I also enjoy getting out and walking with my neighbors, reading, or tackling a home improvement project.
What’s most exciting about your life right now?
My grandchildren are figuring out what they want to do with their lives and making adult decisions. My husband and I enjoy watching them navigate through life.