A Whole New World

On paper, the path from cake decorator to preschool teacher probably looks more like a pretzel than a straight line. How does one contemplate the leap from fashioning frosting rosebuds to running a classroom of tiny tots?

That’s the way it happened for Patricia Martinez, better known as “Miss Pat” to the staff and students at The Children’s School at Claremont McKenna College. Martinez, who retires on Friday after two decades with The Children’s School, found her way to the classroom while working for the Chino recreation department. She started out teaching cake decorating for the city after her second child was born, but when a position opened up to teach tiny tots for the department, “my boss encouraged me to apply for the job,” Martinez said. “And that really started my career with children. I took all my classes and earned my credentials.”

When Martinez started that job, there were 11 children enrolled in the part-time program. But by the time she left Chino to work in Claremont six years later, the program had more than 200 children and a full teaching staff. Enrollment was so competitive that a lottery system had to be used, with some parents lining up for numbers as early as 4 a.m. during enrollment periods. Ultimately, the program expanded into Chino Hills.

Its success speaks to Martinez’s philosophy on teaching children, and ultimately to the reasons she found her niche at The Children’s School, and why parents have enjoyed working with her. “I loved the kids, Martinez said, “and I ended up with a team that also loved kids and was happy to come to work every day. I really think that teaching preschool is a gift.”

It’s a warm afternoon at The Children’s School and parents sporadically wander into the preschool cottage where Martinez has worked these past few years. Looking for the sign-out clipboard, they exchange hellos and smiles with Martinez as light filters in the big windows, illuminating bulletin boards and walls decorated with tissue paper flowers, water color drawings, and glitter-backed sea creatures crafted from construction paper. Certainly there is no shortage of hands-on activities at The Children’s School to keep little imaginations occupied.

Director Janet Dreyer says that in her years with The Children’s School, Martinez has become a “well-loved and highly respected” member of its community. And perhaps more importantly, she has thrived under the enormous responsibility of helping both children and families make the transition from the home environment to the school environment. ” In many cases, these children are having their first experiences outside of their immediate family,” Dreyer said. “And Pat has been wonderful about helping parents and children extend their families into the school family. She’s been able to reassure the parents that their children are in a safe and nurturing environment,” says Dreyer. “It’s one of her greatest strengths.” Adds parent Karen Goldstein, whose three children have all been under Martinez’s care at some time, “she has a class where children are crying like crazy for the first two to three weeks of getting adjusted. But Miss Pat has all the patience in the world,” Goldstein says. “She’ll just comfort the kids and they’ll stop crying within five minutes of the parents leaving. As a mom, I always knew that everything was going to be just fine.”

Ironically, in her early motherhood years (she has a daughter and two sons), Martinez didn’t personally believe in preschool for 2-year-olds. “I thought children should be at home with their mothers,” she recalls. “But it only took me three days (teaching preschool) to figure out that the three hours a day a toddler is in preschool is good for them. I saw that they were ready to be with other kids, and experience art and puzzles and physical activities outside of the home.”

Of course, the success of that experience is profoundly connected to the approach. “My philosophy,” says Martinez, “is that children learn though their experiences, that they can’t enjoy the process unless they feel good about themselves and trust their environment. I’ve always wanted to give them the confidence that, hey, ‘I can do it, and I want to do it.’ ” With that comes building their socialization skills, such as learning how to say goodbye to mom for just a few hours a day while they explore new interests in the new world.

When she leaves The Children’s School this month, it won’t mark an end to her work with children. Already organizing a mental to-do list that would give Santa a run for his money, one of Martinez’s goals is to design a workshop for teachers utilizing her experiences in the classroom. She hopes to do this in Washington state, where she and retired firefighter husband, Tom, own property. Once they get settled there, there’s also a world of volunteerism to tap into.

“I’m thinking of volunteering in hospitals or in an airport,” Martinez says, smiling. “And then of course I’ve always thought it would be neat to be a docent at the zoo.”

Saying goodbye to her current life won’t be easy. “I think of each parent who has brought a child to me as a personal friend,” Matinez says. “This job has been such a joy. I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work for kids. I’ve learned to love the children-just watching them explore and processing all this new information. But I also feel like I’m on a hang-glider at the edge of a cliff, waiting to fly into this new season of my life.

“I’ve wondered at other times whether it was time to retire,” Martinez says. “But this year it feels right.”