One day, while preschool teacher Debbie Martin was reading to her class, a little boy tied her shoelaces to the rocking chair she was sitting in.
When storytime ended, she started to walk away and fell.
“Whoops,” she said, and kept going without disciplining or acknowledging the boy.
“You have to be able to thrive on chaos” to work with preschoolers, said Martin, who retired this summer after 12 years with the Summit School District.
Since school ended, she said, she misses being in the classroom with kids.
“You’d think I’d want peace and quiet,” she said, “but I like the noise.”
Martin, 62, has spent more than half her life working professionally with infants, toddlers and preschoolers.
Before her 12 years with the school district, she ran the Summit County Preschool in Frisco for 12 years.
“I was born to be with kids,” she said.
Born in Oklahoma, Martin moved to Denver as a child. Her father was a principal, bus driver and coach, and her family is full of teachers. She knew from an early age that she had a “natural knack” with little ones.
She started babysitting when she was 11 or 12 years old, and later she attended Western State Colorado University in Gunnison and Colorado Baptist University in Denver and studied early childhood education.
Martin moved to Summit County 28 years ago with her husband, and they raised two children in the county.
As director and one of the teachers at Summit County Preschool in Frisco, she said she oversaw about 1,500 kids in her years there.
She briefly managed a child care facility in Vail, and for the next four years she ran a preschool out of her home.
In 2002, she started working for the school district in a special education class at Frisco Elementary.
Soon after that she became a preschool teacher with Head Start, the federal program that helps low-income families send their kids to preschool. In Summit County, Head Start children are integrated with tuition-paying children in the classroom.
“I was just really proud to work in Head Start,” Martin said.
She worked with Head Start for 10 years at Upper Blue Elementary and Silverthorne Elementary, where she started the preschool program.
Martin was always drawn to little kids because they are genuine, honest, open, free-spirited and simple, she said. “That’s the way I am.”
In the preschool classrooms, she was able to use her artistic side.
Amanda Georgeson worked with Martin for the last two years at Upper Blue Elementary and said Martin was creative with recycling materials. She would rescue laminate paper about to be thrown away to give to the kids to draw on or find tin foil for them to paint.
“She’s made me think outside the box,” Georgeson said.
Another teacher who worked with Martin described her as full of fantastic ideas.
Sharon Simon, an early childhood special education teacher at Silverthorne Elementary, said Martin would make paper with the kids by putting scraps of construction paper in blender and pressing it on a silk screen. The kids watched the paper go from solid- to rainbow-colored, and they made crafts out of it.
“She would do things that I would’ve never imagined that preschool would do with children,” Simon said, recounting activities that integrated developmental skills, stretched the kids’ imaginations and helped them become risk takers and question askers.
Martin also knows how to speak the language of the young kids.
“She is one of the most amazing preschool teachers I’ve ever met,” Simon said. “She’s able to communicate with kids in such a way that they feel respected as well as they understand what she’s trying to communicate.”
Martin made sure the children had books at home, said Sandy Hayward, who worked with Martin at Frisco Elementary.
And as much as Martin loved being with the kids, she loved interacting with their parents.
One of her favorite parts of being a preschool teacher with Head Start was the twice a year visits to the homes of her students’ families.
“I think it’s really important to get to know the family when you have a child in a classroom,” she said. “There’s so much to tell parents.”
She would extend parent conference time from the recommended 15 minutes to 45 minutes or an hour, she said, and she often met parents outside school at the park or library to show them fun ways they could teach and play with their kids in those settings.
Hayward said Martin was great about communicating with non-English speaking parents and making sure families from other countries were included in school festivities.
“They adored her,” Hayward said, and those families would bring Martin home-cooked dishes from their countries.
Simon added that Martin liked to participate at cultural events, like baptisms, with her students’ families, and if she felt that a child needed more help than what the preschool could offer, she would connect families with local outside resources.
Through both fun, exciting times and challenging moments, Simon said, “I was just amazed at how relaxed and easygoing she was.”