After a renowned legacy of inspired learning and songs of joy, Samish School is in its twilight year. As young mothers in 1985, Pam Sinnett and Jody Guenser opened their private preschool and kindergarten with the intention of staying close to their own young children and fostering a unique educational experience.
Their unit-based curriculum had children back and forth between their classrooms, exposing the students to a broad variety of topics. These were specialized by a range of deeply held passions for music, culture and every subject in between.
Former student, Natalie Conlan grew up to become a student teacher at Samish School and then became a parent herself. Her child returned to the same classroom where his mother had learned to learn. Conlan remembers being one of her beloved teacher’s first students.
She would go on to teach at the school and later homeschool her three children. “I was so upset when the rest of the world wasn’t like Samish School … I still am a little bit,” she said. “I have so many memories of the music. The music is what really stuck with me.”
Song produces the sticky and emotionally connected learning Sinnett is known for. If we sing what we’re learning the chances of recall skyrocket. “For all of my units, I have songs,” Sinnett shared, “If we’re teaching three-year-olds photosynthesis, for example, you put the information in a song or a rhythm. Then they’re not memorizing words, they’re memorizing sounds and repeating those sounds and patterns.”
Sinnett loves songs as much as she loves storytelling. And when she wanted to garner the children’s attention in a transition from one subject to the next, singing was the perfect segue. Music became her most natural tool in the classroom. “Why not do what everyone loves?” she asked.
Experiential ways of learning were also instrumental to Samish School’s methodology. “There’s a saying, ‘If it’s not in your hand it can’t be in your brain,'” Sinnett relayed. “With young children they have to have some way to touch, manipulate, take apart and put something back together, in order to get there.”
Their unique early childhood education style developed from shared roots. Both Guenser and Sinnett graduated from Western Washington University with degrees in education. Guenser began teaching at the middle-school level. By the time she began having children of her own, she decided to forgo childcare and take time off from teaching. A few years later, around the time her eldest was preschool age, a colleague started a preschool in Ferndale. “And that’s how this all began,” Guenser remembered.
That’s where she met Pam who had come to teach music at the same school. When the school they’d been teaching at closed, the women decided to open their own school.
Up until about five years ago, there were two classes offered in the morning and two in the afternoon. A 7 a.m. – 4 p.m. schedule of team teaching was rigorous and yet there’s a sense from both women that their passion for their students and the school’s families kept them going all those years. When children went to full-day kindergarten throughout the school district, the team teachers culled their teaching again to two morning classes.
They gradually began to move toward a pared back schedule knowing that retirement was a possibility. The decision to close their doors, however, was difficult, especially when all their former students began to call and eagerly encourage them not to go before their own children could experience the magical environment they’d created.
Through all their years of teaching, they maintained a pact. “We’ve always said we would begin and end the school together,” Sinnett said. As much as the teachers’ commitment to the school and each other has been the focal point of their days, as their stamina has begun to wane, there’s less and less of that contagious spirit left over at the end of the day for family. “All of my energy still goes toward teaching while I’m in school,” Sinnett said. “That transition to giving my energy back to my own health and family and to where I live … it’s time for that change and to pass the torch.”
Sinnett would like to continue to offer her song time to different area schools and is interested in the possibility of working with animals as a form of therapy for others. Guenser and Sinnett will take the next year to divest and clear out the old and make space for what new experiences lie ahead.
Guenser recalled, “The inspiration for me was having a preschool, not just a childcare center, so that became our focus. Her cultural studies and creative dramatics got the students to stretch their theatrical wings while language development was another central aspect of her teachings. “Pam loves music, science and math,” Guenser expressed. “I love cultural studies. I’ve always been fascinated by our similarities and differences.”
Guenser believes as a teacher that, “If we teach our children to embrace differences as a thing of beauty, perhaps there will be less fear and hesitation in engaging others that are different than we are.”
Being able to combine Sinnett and Guenser’s different passions into one school was the perfect template to compliment the team and one another’s expertise. “What has made us successful in our team teaching is we both have very similar and clear expectations of what we hope to impart to the children and our focus on family,” she said.
The ebb and flow, exchange of ideas and the deep respect and friendship they have with one another is still palpable. One thing’s for certain, the community will miss them, and the children who’ve sat in their classrooms will remember them, for evermore.
There is a retirement party for Pam Sinnett and Jody Guenser scheduled at the Squalicum Boathouse in Bellingham on Saturday, June 24, 2017
from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Former and current Samish families are welcome to attend.