Catherine “Cathy” Dorey loves to see the spark of learning. And she gets to see it daily, as the Teacher of the Year for G. W. Carver Educational Center.
Dorey works with the very youngest children at Indian River School District’s early learning center, called Transitioning Our Toddlers to School (TOTS) a free, award-winning program for children ages 3 and 4 with special needs. Besides everyday learning, TOTS includes access to screenings and services, like physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.
“She has the youngest students in the district, and when you walk in, you immediately hear the laughter of the kids,” said Dorey’s supervisor, Audrey Carey. “And knowing that they are getting such a strong foundation for learning and that it’s all wrapped up in an environment where they love learning,” it’s what any parent or district would want.
This is Dorey’s first year at Carver, but she brings decades of experience. She was previously IRSD’s deaf services teacher and a longtime second-grade teacher at John M. Clayton Elementary School and the former Frankford Elementary School. Originally from the Washington, D.C., area, Dorey has taught everything from Maryland to Delaware, from children’s daycare to teenagers and adults at Delaware Technical Community College.
In her youth, Dorey used to help her own mom with classroom prep. As a high schooler, her senior project was to teach art twice weekly at an elementary school that didn’t have enough funding to hire an art teacher.
Dorey graduated in the hearing and speech sciences from University of Maryland. She has a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University (plus enough random credits for another master’s). Dorey settled on the Delmarva Peninsula for her husband and arrived at the Indian River School District in 1994.
“I love what I’m doing,” Dorey said. “They make me laugh, and I’m fascinated everyday by the different things — at all levels I’ve taught — when a child suddenly gets something.”
TOTS starts at age 3, before preschool even begins.
“We’re immersing them in all kinds of cognitive skills, social/emotional skills … making choices … turn-taking skills,” Dorey said. “And then they get another year in preschool, so that’s two to three years before they even step into kindergarten.”
Here, teachers and specialists help identify any delays or learning disabilities, so children can enter kindergarten ready to learn.
“So that’s an important part of our work here: early interventions. When you have a child that enters kindergarten with a delay, they’re already behind, so … how much more efficient is it to attempt to close that gap before they walk through the kindergarten door?” she said.
TOTS is free for children with delays who need an Individual Education Program (IEP). “Typical peers” can also pay tuition to attend, and they help model “typical behavior” for their classmates.
Dorey has built a supportive family environment inside the classroom.
“That’s what I love about a classroom atmosphere. You’re nurturing all these little minds, and you’re helping them nurture each other,” she said.
It’s never too late to help your child grow. Parents should talk to their babies, at all ages, so kids soak up language and social cues. When playing or doing a task, let them think and share first, rather than immediately anticipating their needs, she advised.
“You ask him a question, and you wait. To me, that’s the biggest thing — no matter what their ages are — to interact, talk to them, ask questions, and wait,” Dorey said.
Parents should engage in conversation, use eye contact, read to kids, and let them read aloud. Also, let children make choices, like which game to play, or which shirt to wear.
“Just building a child up, spending a lot of time letting them know how proud you are of them, and letting them be proud of themselves,” which she said builds confidence.
Dorey’s classroom might look like playtime, but that’s how youngsters learn. Kids play, but she adds ideas, shapes, counting and vocabulary to the conversation. Then kids start using that same vocab with each other.
“We get to use the previous layers to build the next layer,” Dorey said. “At every grade level … building that strong foundation ensures that they don’t struggle later on.”
Parents can also learn at the IRSD Parent Center, located right down the hall. There is a food pantry on Fridays; free classes on parenting, from healthy cooking to college scholarships; and a new thrift shop, providing work experience to other district students.
“I love that we’re supporting the whole family,” Dorey said.
Delaware is really focusing on early childhood, so IRSD is expanding TOTS and related programs. Learn more at the updated website www.IRSDearlylearning.net or by calling (302) 732-1346. Some screenings and applications can also be submitted online. Children can join TOTS as soon as they turn 3, anytime during the school year.
At a special ceremony on April 30, Indian River School District will celebrate all 16 Teachers of the Year and name the overall honoree. In winning her first Teacher of the Year award, Dorey credits her colleagues, administration, support staff and her classroom paraprofessional, Alisa Hassler.
“I am who I am because of who I work with, all the people that I’m surrounded by. This is not something that we do all by ourselves. It’s a collaboration … it’s a huge support system,” Dorey said.
“There’s no competition. We’re all here because we want children be successful,” she said.
With three of her own kids now in college, Dorey’s typical parenting efforts were refocused this year into the TOTS program.
“I’m proud of what my students are doing, and happy where I am, happy with the people I am working with,” Dorey said.
By Laura Walter