For 42 years, Maryann Walker Jernigan, first-grade teacher at The Children’s School, has nurtured and challenged our students. After this school year, she’ll start a well-deserved retirement.
Before she leaves, we sat down with her to find out why she became a teacher; how she went from teacher to assistant head of school to head of school; and what she’s learned along the way.
The Children’s School is a school that honors childhood. What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Clinton, N.C., and then we moved to Raleigh. In Clinton we lived on a street that I could just roll back and forth and I could walk to school. I had to go across the creek to get there. But you know, I could go play in the schoolyard. We had a lot of freedom.
I had a really happy childhood. I just had my own little garden and I had a dog. I could walk over to my granddaddy’s house and I could walk downtown, which had a courthouse and about 10 shops. I remember going to the movies and it cost a nickel. I remember watching “Old Yeller” and it was so scary for me that I cried in my dad’s lap.
When my family moved to Raleigh, we lived close to the elementary school and the junior high school. Most of my student life, I could walk to school and play on weekends in the school yards.
When did you decide that you wanted to teach?
Never! I was not a child who liked to sit and listen. I did because I was very good, but I also looked out the window a lot. I remember absolutely saying I would never be a teacher because I would never do that to children.
How did you become a teacher then?
I finally got into teaching because (my former husband’s) mother had an extra house where she ran a daycare. I taught there and that’s the first time I ever did anything like that.
And at the same time there were a lot of good things going on in education.
I was reading about the British Infant Schools that were starting to pop up. I connected with Elliott Galloway as he was just starting The Galloway School. I went to see it and what was going on there, and that intrigued me so I decided to possibly go back to school and get my masters in early childhood education.
At the same time, I heard about a workshop at Paideia that was all about teaching by doing. It was just everything that I wanted to do. I had only taught in this little day care center, but I could tell that the way (the daycare center) taught was not the way that I was going to teach. I went to that workshop, and I met Kathryn Whitaker (one of TCS’s first two teachers).
We were there for two weeks together and one day she turned to me and said, ‘have you ever thought about teaching?’ And I said, ‘well I’m considering that,’ and she said, ‘well, I need an assistant teacher to work with me at The Children’s School.’ I said, ‘oh well that might just be what I want to do.’ And so she said, ‘well, I’ll talk to (founder) Lila McDill because she’s head of the school and she’ll give you a call.’ So I literally talked to her on the phone from Paideia and got the job, which is great. I think I signed my contract over there (at Paideia). That turned out to be a really good thing for me.
What were your first years at The Children’s School like?
I was at the Druid Hills Presbyterian Church from September to March. It had two big giant rooms. We had kindergarten through third grade in one room and fourth grade through sixth grade in the other room. When the school moved to our Tenth Street location, Kathryn Whitaker and I had the kindergarten and first grade in what now is the front office and Roz’s office.
I think it was just several years later, Lila decided to have a second and third grade and so I became the lead teacher for the second/third grade. It was really teaching hands on. It was just exactly what I wanted to do. And you know, I learned a lot. I had to really run to catch up. I was also going to Georgia State at the time where I was working on my masters in early childhood education.
How long did you teach before you left TCS the first time?
I taught for about five years and then I decided I was going to go do something else. You know, I was going to do something totally different. Maybe I was going to be a landscape architect?
I started paddling and canoeing. I was doing a lot of hiking and I got a chance to go to Outward Bound so I grabbed it.
You left for about two years and then you returned. How did you go from PE teacher to assistant head of school to head of school?
My friend Margaret (Wynne) – I had taught her son – called me and said, ‘we’ve made enough money from the taco stand (TCS’s biggest fund-raiser in our early days). Would you like to be the PE teacher?’ And I said, ‘yes, that sounds good.’ I taught P.E. part time for several years and that is when I convinced Lila McDill to let me begin the outdoor education program and took my first group to the Okefenokee Swamp. I was working part time as P.E. teacher and at the same time I was hired to be a part time P.E. teacher at Paideia. I taught in the mornings at Paideia and the afternoons at TCS.
And then Eve Poling called me and said that Lila was leaving and that she (Eve) was going to be principal and that she would do it if I’d be assistant principal. I took the job and continued teaching P.E. until we could afford to hire someone else.
(Eve and I) were doing everything: building and grounds, finances, getting people to come to the school, advertisement, curriculum, insurance.
We worked beautifully together for seven years. We both believed in that kind of partnership. I continued to expand the outdoor education program, oversaw curriculum, building and grounds and insurance.
After Eve left, I became principal. I had just gone on maternity leave and had (my daughter), Audrey. I said, yes, but I mean I had a brand new baby less than six weeks old!
A lot of things were happening in the school: we had achieved our first accreditation and began receiving our first foundation grants. We were seeing people from foundations all the time.
We got our first big money to build the library building and the buildings that now house the 3’s/4’s. I ended up having to do a lot of work with architects on what we wanted. I learned a great deal and was pleased to see the final construction. We received an award from the mayor for our construction because it fit beautifully into the community.
I finally left my job as head of school when I found myself with a two-year-old daughter, a husband who had major heart problems, and a newborn baby. The board gave me a year’s leave of absence, and I decided six months later to take time to support my family. For me that was the right decision. I ended up working part time at Cliff Valley ( then a preschool ) when my children wanted to go to school.
When my youngest was ready for first grade, my oldest child was already at TCS. Marcia Spiller asked me if I knew anyone who might teach first grade, and I accepted the job. That first year back, my son was in Wilma’s class and her son was in my first grade/kindergarten class.
You also started our outdoor education program. Why did you think it was important for us to do?
My parents were not outdoorsy at all. I got to be a Brownie and then I got to be a Girl Scout and had my very first camping trip, and just loved it.
I was really into outdoor education and figuring out how students could learn from experience in the outdoors. I wanted to teach recreation skills and help children gain confidence in their ability to persevere, even when they were learning new skills and exploring nature. I also wanted to introduce students to the ecosystems of our state. Georgia is just so fantastic because we have a swamp, we have the beach, we have the barrier islands, we have the mountains. We have beautiful rivers. It’s just a wonderful place to learn in every way possible, and I had benefited from my outdoor education working with Georgia State’s Touch-the-Earth program and my Outward Bound experience. I just thought we’ve got to do that for our children.
And all you had to do was see the confidence it built – a connection with nature. It was just a way that everybody learns.
You’ve taught first grade for 25 years. What do you love about teaching first grade?
I like the fact that most of them can tie their shoes, and they’re learning to read and write. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing children unlock the mystery of learning to read and put their thoughts and imagination into words. First graders are excited to learn about the world and they meet every day with an excitement to learn. They are learning to move from being the center of the world to becoming a part of a community.
So much is opened up for first graders. I mean just like, ‘oh I can do this now.’ I mean, they just sort of bloom and that’s really fun to be part of that.
What are your plans for next year?
It’s totally wide open. I will give myself a year to figure out my plans. I know I’m going to paddle rivers and hike trails, read good books, exercise, and take care of myself.
I love working out in the gym, and I haven’t been able to do that much lately. And then I like yoga, even though I’m not very good at it. And of course, I will walk my dog in the woods.
(My son) Walker and I like to take trips together. Audrey now lives close by, and I will spend time with her and her partner. I will go to Cumberland Island every time I get a chance,and then I’ll probably volunteer for some causes that I really care about.
What do you wish for TCS in the future?
I hope life can get back to where children can all be together and go on field tips and outdoor trips. I love children learning by doing so I hope TCS will continue encouraging that kind of education. Obviously, I hope the outdoor ed program survives and then grows to include younger children.