Denise Giuliani started her career as a kindergarten teacher in 1976, the year Microsoft registered as a company, “Bionic Woman” debuted on television, figure skater Dorothy Hamill won Olympic gold, and the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report” premiered on PBS.
How things have changed over the 37 years since – especially for teachers in Missoula County Public Schools.
Gone are the chalkboards, overhead projectors, VCRs and rotary telephones.
Teaching tools these days include iPads and interactive whiteboards – even for the youngest students – and the students often are the ones giving lessons to teachers about how to navigate a cellphone or a computer.
Through the years, Giuliani has helped usher in full-day kindergarten in Missoula and a more rigorous learning curriculum for 5- and 6-year-olds.
“When I first started teaching, for the kids it was more about the experience of being here, of learning how to make friends and to get used to a big school,” Giuliani said.
“It’s evolved now to where these kids are reading, have a list of sight words with an expectation that they will recognize at least 32 words.”
As she brings her career to a close in these last weeks of the academic year, Giuliani, who has worked at Paxson, Lewis and Clark and Rattlesnake elementary schools and took time off to raise her own children, said it’s been a thrilling experience to have been part of the dynamic changes within the kindergarten curriculum.
And there have been challenges aplenty.
Kindergarten is not mandated by Montana law and was a relatively new offering for Missoula children when Giuliani became a teacher.
“It started in 1974 here, and the philosophy was to promote the academic, social, emotional and physical well-being of a child,” Giuliani said last week before her Rattlesnake students trundled into class.
As the years unfolded, the collaborative approach – kindergarten teachers conferring with other teachers – became a more purposeful curriculum with a focus on literacy.
Then, six years ago, when the district implemented full-day kindergarten, came even more rigorous standards.
Although the longer days mean more planning, they also mean teachers have the “luxury of time” to present more academics in and around the traditional play and social time that is critical to kindergartners’ development, Giuliani said.
The stepped-up program does have its challenges.
“We are assessing kids earlier for development and we have high expectations,” she said. “For some kids, they can handle it. But it is still really important for a teacher to handle kids who are struggling with a little extra care, compassion and awareness, and for teachers and parents to know that not all kids will reach the benchmarks – there are late bloomers.”
On the plus side, she said, “we are more aware of kids who need a little extra support and we identify them earlier on.”
Creating a balance between the old tried-and-true teaching methods – such as circling up and reading stories aloud – and the allure of high-tech learning tools is essential, Giuliani said.
“Five- and 6-year-olds still need to have hands-on learning and time to muck around in the block area and housekeeping area,” she said.
Another challenge has been the change in family structure over the years.
“I think families are under a lot of stress,” Giuliani said. “They are so busy, with moms and dads working multiple jobs, and in some cases, single parents raising kids.
“That has become more prevalent and that definitely has an affect on the kids. You can definitely tell the kids who get a lot of support at home, and you can tell the kids who have been read to.”
“The kids that have been read to have the ability to sit and listen, as opposed to the kids that have been exposed to violent television and video games,” she said. “I see how those experiences directly affect their ability to focus and relate to their peers appropriately.”
For the uninitiated, teaching kindergarten is far from being a glorified baby sitter.
It’s a job that sets the path for a child’s love of learning, academic success and healthy social interactions, Giuliani said.
“It is a wonderful age, where the kids are filled with excitement and enthusiasm – about everything,” she said.
While kids are kids, and will always be so, Giuliani said she is curious about how the modern world’s technological wonders will shape the next generations.
“I do think we will see a lot of brain changes, of how kids perceive the world because of technology,” she said. “I think we will see great development and a lot of fine motor skills and problem-solving skills.
“I can’t help but think they are still 5-year-olds, but how they look at the world is already so different. These are kids who are used to instant action – gratification – and because of that, as a teacher, I have to be right on. If the computer doesn’t pop up right away, you have to be ready with a poem in your pocket to keep their attention.”
Although the younger teachers in the school have helped Giuliani navigate some of the new technology, over the past 30 years, the longtime kindergarten teacher relied too on a universe of old-school teaching tools she honed.
She talks in rhymes, strums the guitar and sings songs about following directions, uses yoga postures to promote focus in her young charges, and asks them riddles to keep their whirring brains on task.
Taking care of Missoula’s youngest students has been an honor and a privilege, Giuliani said.
“I’ll miss the kids and the families, and my amazing colleagues – and seeing their dedication and work ethic and how committed they are to doing their best every day,” she said.
Giuliani’s eyes filled with tears as she gazed around her classroom, taking in the sights of the life-sized colorful cloth palm tree aglow with lights, windsocks the children created hanging from the ceiling, the giant animal alphabet, a cozy rocking chair, the cubby holes for backpacks, and all the other nooks and corners filled with interesting and curious things.
On one table sat a bulging scrapbook filled with class pictures, candid photos, and cards from parents and students Giuliani has collected through the years.
“I’ll miss the feeling of coming into this room,” she said. “I’ll miss that feeling that every day is a new day and you start over and you have an opportunity to make a difference.
“I’ll miss setting things up and staging an environment. And I’ll miss one of my favorite things at the end of the day, when we sit in a circle and close our eyes and pass the talking stick, and the person holding it shares something that they remembered and was special to them.”
For her students, no stick is needed to call upon their special affections for their teacher.
“Mrs. G is such a good teacher,” Eli Hammitt said. “She has fun stuff to do in class, she even has a computer with fun games on it.”
“She’s kind,” said Shannon Kane.
“She does fun crafts,” said Chloe Helvick, “and she’s really nice.”