It’s a teacher’s utopia, a parent’s dream and it offers what every child deserves—a chance to fall in love with going to school. Desert View Learning Center, a small private K-4 school in Paradise Valley, began nearly 40 years ago when a few dedicated teachers hoped to create a place that would launch young children on the path to a life-long love of learning.
Piya Jacob has taught and directed at DVLC since the school first was formed. It’s one of those rare schools where teachers simply stay—four of her colleagues have taught there for the past 25 years.
This year, however, Jacob will begin the transition to retirement. She talks about why teaching children to read is a top priority, how parents have changed over the years and why supporting classroom teachers is key to helping young children learn and grow.
Talk about your own early school experience. Where did you attend school, and what was it like?
I attended school in New Delhi, India—it was delightful. It was an Episcopal girls school. In a culture like India, that [a gender-specific school] is more of the norm than it is here. My mother was the principal of the school, and it went up to high school.
What was it like going to school with your mother around?
I think it would have been awkward if I weren’t a good student; it would have been embarrassing for her. I felt sometimes that she bent over backwards not to show favoritism. There were times when you knew you had done the very best in the group, but you knew you weren’t going to get the first prize because you were the principal’s daughter.
How does Desert View differ from other schools?
We focus a lot on reading—fluency, comprehension. We don’t use textbooks; we use interesting books at the level that children read, whatever level that may be. In a lot of places, teachers address a class. Here, we address a child.
And you’re able to do that because the number of students in each class is about half the number typically found in a public school classroom?
Class sizes and a lot of parent involvement. We make it clear that to be part of this school parents need to sign on to coming in, and pitching in. If you have enough parents on board each morning—say, three or four parents and two teachers—you can get through a lot of children one-on-one reading, which is impossible to do in a large public school classroom.
You also incorporate the desert area around the school into the curriculum.
It’s what children who went to school here remember as the most vivid, joyful impression of their early school years. We have left it the way it is so that children have the experience of climbing trees and looking down on the world. They can create—out of some trees and some logs and rocks and whatnot—whatever their minds want to create. Sitting on a log is different from sitting on a chair.
How does that differ from the traditional recess experience on a school playground?
They are creating a strong, wildly imaginative world, which is not created by somebody else telling them what to play. I don’t think you can ever have a true environmental mindset if you haven’t been in the real environment. Because a playground with a rubberized play surface is not real world. Why would you save a tree if you’ve never been in a tree?
Your teaching career spans an entire generation. What have you noticed about how families and parents have changed?
Parents are less comfortable being parents now. They want to be their child’s best friend. That’s a very, very different type of parenting, very different. A lot of parents are much more permissive. Parents were much stricter when I first started teaching.
How does that affect the role that teachers play today?
Parents want their children to do well, but they don’t realize how much work that’s going to take if they truly want to have those good results. You can’t let your child play video games and watch television and expect they will do well in school. Some of that negotiation we have to teach the parents.
So that’s part of the teacher’s role now—to teach parents how to say no to their kids?
And to let them know that children can’t make all of these decisions at this early age. There are just way too many temptations now that weren’t there when I started teaching.
Teachers’ unions, politicians, government, parent groups—everyone has ideas for making the education system better. What’s the key?
Teachers have to be supported. Even in a school like this, where we have parents who are parenting with great consciousness and teachers who are well trained and dedicated. If the parent doesn’t support what you’re trying to do, you can’t make any headway.
Kids pick up on negative attitudes toward teachers—can it affect how well they learn?
If children hear you talking disrespectfully about the teacher, it’s hard for them to walk in the next day and listen to the teacher with any sense of polite attitude or the desire to please that person. Why would they, if they just heard you at the dinner table berating the teacher? At the end of the day we’re all here to help the child mature and go through school and do well.
Your thoughts on what your mother might say about your career?
I think she’d be pleased. I think she’d be so thrilled to know that I found my passion. It’s this connection that is very loving. You’ve loved a child, and their parents, and in some ways, it is like a family. Just a sweet school touching lives. Nothing could be more precious.
Multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint produces audio and video stories for RAISING ARIZONA KIDS and through her own company, Small Change Productions.