As a kindergarten teacher, Julie Sugarman is well acquainted with being pulled in different directions all day. While she and her best friend and colleague, fellow kindergarten teacher Mary Ruppert, were trying to figure out how to help their tiny students learn to communicate and solve problems effectively, they collaborated and came up with a system and subsequent children’s book, “Rexy and the Four Steps of Friendship.”
“Over 20 years ago, I came up with the concept of the Four Steps to Friendship. Like many teachers, I was constantly being tapped during the day with students telling on each other. ‘She took my pencil! He cut in front of me!,’” she says. “While trying to come up with an effective way for students to practice problem-solving, I took the old adage, ‘Use your words’ and gave it a meaningful process.”
When Ruppert arrived at The Rhoades School, where Sugarman was already teaching, she brought her 3-foot-tall dinosaur puppet named Rexy with her. The two women became fast friends and eventually created their program, children’s book, and also incorporate cartooning and a play based on the same strategies.
Sugarman, 66, still teaches kindergarten at The Rhoades School and is the music academy director there. She lives in Cardiff with her husband, Alan, and they have two adult sons and three grandchildren. She took some time to talk about her and Ruppert’s book and their methods helping young children learn to communicate effectively.
Q: What made you decide to become a teacher?
A: I grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., when girls were not allowed to attend kindergarten. By the time first grade rolled around, I was eager to go to school. There was a great deal of prejudice, both racial and religious, in Knoxville, making my early educational experiences unpleasant. From a very early age, I learned what not to do as a teacher. Too many hours as a child were spent in a dark, brick closet because I “talked too much.” It was not unusual for me to have to stay after school alone because I had difficulty spelling. My teachers were not very nice and humiliated me by throwing away a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” book that I could read, calling it “trash.” Hence, I emphasize empathy, being attuned to learning difficulties, and the use of teaching materials that draw on each individual student’s interest in my classroom work.
Q: And why kindergarten?
A: I enjoy wearing many hats and, especially in kindergarten, we have to consider the multiplicity of things that each individual student must learn and how he or she best learns them. Schools should teach students many skills, not just academic ones. Learning to work both independently and collaboratively, developing both a work ethic and a love of learning, gaining the capacities for self-control, and getting along with others are all skills to be taught alongside and in interaction with academic ones. Kindergarten is a special time for parents and students and watching the enormous growth academically, emotionally and socially is extremely rewarding.
Q: How did you meet your colleague, Mary Ruppert?
A: I was fortunate enough to meet Mary, my best friend, colleague and partner on our book, when she substituted at our school 24 years ago. I immediately went to the administration and suggested that they hire her. We have been working next door to each other ever since then.
What I love about Cardiff ...
My husband and I have lived in Cardiff for 35 years. We love that we can walk to the Cardiff Seaside Market area and feel a sense of community or quickly drive on State Route 101 in Encinitas, Leucadia or Solana Beach. It has been exciting watching North County grow without losing its old-school beach charm. I love living in Cardiff. It fits with my love of nature and our community is friendly and appreciative of the surrounding natural beauty that we get to enjoy every day.
Q: How did the two of you become friends?
A: We easily became friends because we share the same teaching philosophy and creative spirit. We try to understand each other by putting ourselves in each other’s shoes. Also, we make time to talk with each other and spend time together outside of school. We make our own friendship a priority and model that for the students. We also try to keep our sense of humor. It helps tremendously. We try to not take ourselves too seriously. We think it helps the kindergarten students to see that it’s OK to not be perfect.
Q: What led you two to the idea of a children’s book about friendship?
A: When Mary began teaching at Rhoades, she brought Rexy with her, a 3-foot tall dinosaur puppet. Rexy morphed into a typical kindergartner with all of the enthusiasm and challenges a 5-year-old has. Rexy quickly and naturally evolved into a daily routine we called “Rexy and the Four Steps to Friendship.” We quickly realized that everyone enjoyed and benefited from our routine and identified with the back stories of Rexy and his daily conflicts and struggles. Rexy became a lovable addition to kindergarten and our daily practice of the Four Steps to Friendship led us to the idea of writing a book.
Q: What are those steps?
A: The concept of the Four Steps to Friendship are to use your words (and make eye contact while using a friendly and loud voice); use your words again; move away; and then ask for help from a trusted adult.
Q: What are some examples of the ways you instruct children on how to successfully resolve conflict and problems?
A: At the end of August, all of the incoming kindergartners attend a camp at our school for a week and this is where they get to know Rexy. He enters the room on the first day, just like them, and has a backpack, snacks, and lots of worries and emotions. His backpack is too heavy, he misses his mama, he uses a very loud voice, he’s worried that he doesn’t know how to read, do math, or print in lower case letters yet. Listening to Rexy overact gets the kids laughing and helps them relax. With our guiding questions, the students start to help Rexy figure out his emotions and to problem solve.
We introduce the idea that we all have back stories, or things that happen to us at home before we come to school that sets the tone for the day. We talk about how we all have emotions, and the ways in which we control our emotions is something that we practice in kindergarten.
Over time, the students recognize Rexy’s back story and they begin to reflect on their own behavior. Communicating freely with one another comes naturally to the students from watching our interactions with Rexy.
Q: What has your work taught you about yourself?
A: It is important to practice being flexible and to realize that there are many ways to do the same thing. If you stay connected to yourself, families, students and staff, you will always be exposed to exciting ideas and possibilities that motivate you to plan and think of new methods and to master new skills.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: I once was given the advice to “make magic in your classroom.” Make lemonade out of lemons. Do something in your classroom that you have always wanted to do. Make time to reflect on how the day went and what the students need for the next day. View each day as a special time to definitely make a difference in a person’s life.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I would enjoy being a professional detective.
— Lisa Deaderick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune