Bobbi Burns is a teacher. But every day, she says, she learns something from her students.
That’s impressive. They’re 3 to years old, at Stepping Stones — Westport’s public pre-school.
Even more impressive: Burns has been teaching for 50 years.
She began her educational career — and started learning from children — at a New Jersey school for youngsters with significant emotional and behavioral disorders.
Special education was in its infancy. But she enjoyed the challenges of problem-solving, the chance to make a difference — and the new knowledge she gained every day.
Yet as she worked with troubled 13-year-olds, she wondered: What if we could get to them when they’re 3?
She got her master’s degree, moved to Connecticut, and pivoted to early elementary education in Newtown. Their preschool was a model for the state.
Excited by the possibilities, Burns earned certification as a reading consultant, and in administration and supervision. She added a doctorate from George Washington University, where she supervised student teachers.
As she finished her coursework, she saw a flyer for a position at Tufts University. The school was world renowned for early childhood work. The deadline was that day. Hastily, she sent in her application. She got the job.
After 3 years, she was recruited by Bright Horizons Children’s Center. She developed curriculum, trained teachers, and talked to parents all over the country. It was rewarding work.
But after 7 years, Burns missed direct contact with youngsters. In 1995, Westport was looking for experienced teachers. She’s been here — including the last 17 at Stepping Stones — ever since.
She never expected to teach this long. But she’s not ready to stop. The biggest challenge, Burns says, is her knees. It’s tough getting on and off the floor.
Teaching keeps her young. She loves finding out how to reach every child in a different way. The collaboration with colleagues like psychologists, speech and occupational and physical therapists, social workers, fellow teachers — and parents — is invigorating. “We all help each other,” she says.
And she believes more firmly than ever in the important of preschool.
“There’s so much attention now to social and emotional learning,” she notes. “But that’s always been true of early childhood education. We teach them how to make friends, take care of themselves and others, how to learn, how to be curious, how to be part of a community.”
Westport is a high-powered place. There are high expectations, and plenty of stresses. Burns gives the district high marks for recognizing those issues, embracing ideas like mindfulness, and prioritizing social and emotional growth.
Most preschool teachers never get to see the fruits of their work. Former students seldom go back to Stepping Stones. For Burns, the rewards are intrinsic. She knows she has had an impact, at a very significant time in a youngster’s life.
Occasionally, she’ll see a parent of a former student. She still remembers one who said gratefully, “You changed the trajectory of my child’s life!”
Teaching through COVID was tough, Burns admits. But she and her Stepping Stones colleagues powered through. Their students were safe. They grew, and learned.
And of course, Bobbi Burns learned right along with them.