Middletown Life Q & AApr 04, 2019 01:05PM ● By J. Chambless
Gina Robinson, previously the principal of the Cedar Lane Early Childhood Center, was recently named the new principal at the Cedar Lane Elementary School.
To Gina Robinson, who recently became the new principal of
Cedar Lane Elementary School in Middletown, education begins with
relationships, but is strengthened through the proper and deliberate
application of sunshine and joy. As she began her transition from her role as
principal of the Cedar Lane Early Childhood Center to her new role, Robinson
spoke with Middletown Life about
those who inspired her, the building blocks of elementary education, what the
future of education may look like, and those whom she would invite to her
Q.: At its finest, education plants the seeds of inspiration. Introduce me to a teacher or an adult figure who inspired you as a child. Who comes to mind for you?
A.: My parents were my first inspiration. They instilled in me a love of reading. I was an early reader, and I always had books with me, wherever I went, and my parents encouraged that in me. I can remember my favorite Christmas present being The Babysitter's Club series. I also loved school and learning. Probably the most inspirational teacher for me was Mrs. Dougherty when I was at St. Elizabeth's High School in Wilmington. I had the privilege of having her twice -- in my freshman and junior years. She was the first teacher I had who treated her students as equals, not just as a group of high schoolers. She respected us not only as learners, but as people, with respect and care. I will always remember her for that.
Were there other teachers who inspired you on your journey to becoming an educator? Do you ever look back at what they taught you and apply those lessons now?
I had a really negative kindergarten experience. I had a teacher who was very mean and negative, and I can remember my fellow students and I receiving big black Xs on our papers, and a stamp that read, “You can do better.”
In the first grade, my teacher was Mrs. Brady, who was the complete opposite. She was rainbows and sunshine, and she made us love to be in school. She made every one of us feel special. I can remember being sent to the principal's office once that year for running in the hallway, and when I returned to the class, I was sobbing. Mrs. Brady held me, and told me that it was going to be all right. I thought that if I was ever to become a teacher, that's the kind of teacher I wanted to be.
When did you decide you wanted to become a teacher?
Not until late high school. Until then, I had plans to become a lawyer, and all of my college applications indicated “Pre-Law.” A personal experience I went through around that time steered me away from law. My parents told me, “You love kids. Why not education?” I agreed with them that this was the path that I was supposed to be on. I always was around kids. When I was little, I lived in a neighborhood with all boys, and they all followed me around, and I read to them from my books. They called me “Mother Hen.” All of those experiences I had when I was younger made me realize that it made total sense to become a teacher.
You're currently the principal of the Cedar Lane Early Childhood Center, but you're about to transition into becoming the principal of the Cedar Lane Elementary School in April, when Melissa Stilwell becomes the new principal at Lorewood Elementary School. In what ways do you feel these positions dovetail with one another?
At the Early Childhood Center, it's an opportunity to work with the youngest learners and encourage them to engage in active learning, not just sit at a desk and absorb information. I want to bring that same component to the elementary school. It's so important, especially for our first and second-graders, to move through their learning.
My son is a first-grader, and I don't ever want to hear him say that school is boring. That's going to be my goal at Cedar Lane Elementary School – to make sure that this sense of active learning, playfulness and fun comes through while the students are learning.
It's safe to assume that many of the students at the Early Childhood Center are going to follow you over to the elementary school, beginning next school year.
The Early Childhood Center actually feeds to four different elementary schools, but many of the students at Cedar Lane Elementary School came through the Early Childhood Center, so I already know a lot of the kids and their parents already.
One of the many programs taught at Cedar Lane Elementary School is the “Seven Habits of Happy Kids.” It's part of the “Leader in Me” program that's become a gold standard for learning in the Appoquinimink School District. Describe the program's importance in the development of a child.
It empowers students as leaders. I've already been in talks with the elementary school administration about ways I want to empower our fourth and fifth graders. For example, we want to create a welcoming event for our first graders, and we would like to have fourth and fifth graders plan that event – to introduce the first graders and their families to their new school, perhaps create their own video, and coordinate school tours.
It's about empowering those students to know that their voice matters, to have them understand that we as teachers and administration care about what they say, and that we believe that they can use their voice. It's about showing the kids their own power.
I want to look at what you believe are the fundamental building blocks of elementary education. What's tops on your list?
I strongly feel that the base building block of education is through forming relationships. Students have to feel safe and secure in their environment and trust their teacher before learning can truly begin. It is my role to empower teachers to be the leader of their classroom, and show their students that they are safe. That's a big problem in our society today; kids don't always feel safe in their world, so making a student know that they are safe – and that people believe in them – is crucial, because they can't begin to learn until they know they are safe in their classroom.
Once they feel secure, then they're ready to be empowered as learners and as leaders.
I hear that you welcome every student when he or she arrives at the Early Childhood Center.
That's 292 students this year. You're about to go to a school that has over 900 students.
I believe in knowing every student's name, and knowing their families. They have to know that they are seen, and that they are loved, and that we're happy that they are there.
Cedar Lane Elementary School is the largest elementary school in the Appoquinimink School District, and it sits in perhaps the largest-growing region of Delaware. In grades 1-3, there is a 22 to 1 student to teacher ratio, and in grades 4 and 5, it's a 26-1 ratio. Within these parameters, how can you still strive to achieve an individualized education? How can the individual student be noticed?
It starts with the teacher taking the time to get to know each student. I'm a big advocate of small-group instruction, where every students is with a teacher in a small-group setting, every day, for reading and math. If you're at a table with only six students, you can have better conversations and gear their instruction to what they need. That's where a teacher really gets to see what his or her student needs to learn.
It then extends to a comprehensive team – a school counselor, a school interventionist, a school psychologist and parents. Everyone needs to be fully invested in getting a system in place to help make sure that students don't fall through the cracks. Our teachers meet twice a week at professional learning communities, to collaborate as a team and look at what each individual student needs, so that we can help them meet benchmarks and release their abilities.
In many ways, education should be reflective of the society it belongs to. Do you ever stop to consider what elementary education will look like two decades from now? In what ways do you see education evolving, against the backdrop of a changing society?
I think elementary education will become more individualized, to each child, involving technology. I don’t every student will be sitting in a school building. I think there will be a lot more students learning differently from home, connecting to their teacher, virtually, and having their own set learning path.
We're seeing more and more families make different choices for their children's education, and I think that the public school system is going to have to keep up with that, and meet those needs.
But won't that changing approach to education also have an adverse effect on a child's ability to develop social skills?
Absolutely. It is a concern. The society would have to be really advocating for smaller learning communities, more after-school activities, more sports. I don't necessarily think that's the best way for public education to go. I just think that it could be a path that it ends up going.
I'm an advocate of public schools. I think schools are where kids should be. We need to teach students to problem solve, how to work well with others, and I think that's hard to do sitting behind a computer and not interacting face to face with people.
Let's return to inspiration. In addition to being leaders, school principals are advocates and cheerleaders. As you transition into your next role, how will you continue to inspire the students you reach, and how do you ingrain that philosophy in the school's teachers?
My goal will be to bring sunshine and light to the school. If the teachers, the families and the students see that on my face every day, and if they see that I'm happy to be here, that feeling is very likely to pass along to them.
It starts with that greetings that I do every morning. I need to set that model for teachers and staff, in order to make kids feel welcome here. Our job is to know our students and their stories. I am the one who gives everyone – teachers and staff – the wings to fly, and to empower them to make the best decisions for their kids, at the moment. We have a superb and happy staff at the Early Childhood Center, and I look forward to bringing that next door.
What is your favorite spot in Middletown/Odessa/Townsend?
My home in Middletown is my favorite spot that I share with my children and my husband. My second-favorite spot is Meredith Middle School. It's where I started my teaching career, so for the last 17 years it's been a major part of my life, as a teacher and as a parent. Also, my church meets there, so you could say I've been at Meredith every day for the last 17 years.
You decide to have a dinner party. Who would you choose to invite to sit around that table?
My grandmother Mimi, a little-bitty Polish lady who would make you laugh and drive you nuts at the same time. I would also invite Reese Witherspoon. She doesn't know that we're best friends, but we are. She helps empower women, and I respect her for that. I would also invite Michelle Obama and Jesus.
What kinds of food or items are always found in the Robinson's refrigerator?
I try to be a healthy eater, so I always have roasted sweet potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and strawberries, and none of my children eat any of it, so there's always more for me.
– Richard L. Gaw