Janet Dadds doesn’t have to look far back on her 40-year career in education to find one of her more meaningful experiences.
It was only recently when she encountered a parent of a former student – a student now a freshman in college – at a grocery store.
Dadds remembered that the woman’s son was in Dadds’ class shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, and when she wanted to explain the situation to him, Dadds had laid much of the groundwork for that understanding.
“I use puppets that have letters, but there is a social aspect to them that goes far beyond the letters,” she said.
When the mother started chemotherapy, she said she was explaining to her son that mommy was going to be a little bit different, and that she was going to lose my hair, but she would still be mommy, Dadds said.
“And he said, ‘It’s OK mom; Ditto Dog says ‘Different is delightful,’” Dadds said, choking back tears. “To a five-year-old a puppet has life. So it wasn’t me saying it, it was my puppets, and those lessons stuck.”
Having graduated from Unionville High School in 1968, Dadds moved on to Wheelock College in Boston, before transferring to the University of Delaware, where she graduated in 1972.
She spent a year setting up the kindergarten program in Haverford Township before returning to her roots in Unionville, where she put her early childhood education focus to work on their burgeoning kindergarten program.
She then spent the next 35 years teaching kindergarten classes in Unionville schools before ending her career as a pre-first teacher for her last four years at the district.
And are kids any different now than they were in 1973?
“The only difference that I see in children are a decrease in manners and respect for authority,” she said. “And those are learned behaviors. Other than that, children are just as inquisitive. But kindergarten kids come in wanting to do a good job and wanting to learn. It’s the adults that shape their environment.”
Dadds said that as she came to work in her garden at home over the years, she found herself reflecting on her “garden of children” awaiting her at school.
“As I would be gardening in the summer, I would think; ‘this is exactly like kindergarten,’” she said. “Because some children grow on their own … other children need more fertilizer and more watering, they thirst. Some are just free and wild, other need a little more staking.”
“Staking” stops short of actual “discipline,” Dadds said, choosing instead to say a child needs guidance more than the whip hand.
“They need that shaping, something firm but kind,” she said. “And that is truly the basis of what formed my philosophy of kindergarten. I am the cultivator of that garden, and the whole premise is you want to keep out the weeds, and see what your flowers need to thrive. And you can’t do that if you don’t spend time in your garden.”
The more she spent working with children over the years, Dadds said, the more she knew what it takes to help children prosper. Using the works of her “guru,” Charlotte Garman, head of early childhood education for the state, Dadds learned about the “four L’s of teaching.”
“You need to live with your kids … and that’s knowing them and it tells them that this person likes me,” she said. “Find something to like in each child, laugh with your children, and then they’ll learn,” she said. “And I never forgot that, it was so true. And I would incorporate those philosophies into my teaching.”
She also learned to eschew a lengthy list of rules that each child is expected to learn and adhere to early on in their educational careers, focusing instead on a simple message that everyone can understand.
“My basic rule came out to be: in our class, we do the right thing,” she said. “nd the right thing could encompass keeping our hands to ourselves, saying please and thank you, inviting other children to play … five-year-olds need that nurturance and that guidance. How our children act is very much what we model for them.”
She was never a yeller, Dadds said – instead, she would chat with a student and try to find out what motivated their behavior rather than actively disciplining them.
“They’d shrug, and I would say, ‘what are those words?’ And they’d say, ‘I don’t know.’ And I’d say, ‘well, then you shouldn’t be doing it,’” she said with a giggle. “It comes back to say what you mean and mean what you say, and we’ll have a little fun along the way.”
Looking back on her career, Dadds said if she were to encounter a 22-year-old Janet Dadds, fresh faced and ready to conquer the world of education, it would be to develop a management system early on that works for her. And to make sure she shows the students that she is confident with what she says and does.
“I would say, ‘why do you do what you do?’ And I would say you need to give children roots and wings, you need to give them a way of being that relies on boundaries and consistency and fairness,” she said.
She can’t recall how many kids she thinks she’s taught over the years, but she reckons she’s made a lot of fish prints and gingerbread houses out of milk cartons – which she’s been doing for 32 years.
“If you times 23 by 34 years … thousands,” she said.
Dadds is married and lives in Exton in the home she has lived in for the past 34 years.