Local kindergarten teacher reflects on decades of service

Charlene Serra - Photo by Paul Balcerak
Charlene Serra
— image credit: Photo by Paul Balcerak

If watching after kindergarteners is supposed to be hard, no one ever told Charlene Serra. The Sylvan Christian School kindergarten teacher has been at her job for nearly three decades. What’s more is that when she started her career in the early ’70s, kindergarten was nowhere on her radar.

An art teacher by training, Serra came to Kitsap County in 1971 for a stint with the Central Kitsap School District. After multiple jobs that included teacher’s aide, long-term sub and full-time second-grade teacher, she took a hiatus and spent time being a mother.

In 1978, she was back on the scene as an aide at Sylvan Christian and in 1979 she took the helm of Sylvan’s kindergarten program — a post she’s held ever since.

We sat down with Serra recently to discuss everything from the differences in public and private education to her unique curriculum to the rigors of an all-gluten diet.

Question: How does it feel to be nominated for Community Spotlight?

Answer: Totally surprised. I didn’t know there was anything happening and so I was surprised and confused because I don’t know how I got it. I don’t know how I got there.

Q: What made you want to become a teacher?

A: I decided that I wanted to be a teacher when I was in seventh grade. My goal was to be an art teacher and I envisioned me being an art teacher in junior high and high school and once I graduated from college that was still my goal because (art) was my major in college.

Q: What made you want to teach kindergarten?

A: I think because the door was opened by God and it fell into my lap. I was in a position where I needed a job and it was offered and I took it and if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have known what I missed. This is a very fun age. The kids are very excited about learning and they’re very energetic and when the light bulb comes on, their whole body lights up and it’s so cool to see.

Q: What are some of the advantages to teaching all-day kindergarten as opposed to just half-day?

A: I think that it allows time to be able to teach the things that you need to teach without feeling pressed for time. There’s things that I’m doing now that I dreamed of doing when I had half time. It’s just a different feel and it’s not as pushed, I guess. I thoroughly enjoy teaching all day. It’s not for all kids because some kids are not ready — developmentally — for all day. (NOTE: Sylvan Christian School just started all-day kindergarten last school year.)

Q: Why did you want to switch over to teaching at a private school?

A: I think God chose this school for me. I think it was in his plan. It wasn’t in mine. I think part of it’s learning to listen to what God is trying to tell you and it wasn’t coincidence because it all happened within a day of when we sat down and discussed that I needed to go back to work after having my daughter. I think it’s not as important as why I chose this school as why I choose to stay here. I stay here because I love the freedom of being able to talk about my faith and you can’t do that in a public school. It took me a long time to get there and be comfortable with it because I started out in a public school. Talking about my faith and what’s important to me has become important to me, although it necessarily wasn’t when I started in 1978.

Q: What are the differences or advantages/disadvantages to teaching in a private school (versus a public school)?

A: There’s a lot of things that public schools have the capabilities of doing that we don’t; there’s a lot of things that we have the capabilities of doing that they don’t. Such as in the freedom of being able to speak of our faith and some of the freedoms we have in terms of working with kids (curriculum-wise). A lot of the support system that public schools have in terms of working with kids that are delayed or need extra help, we don’t have that ability. That limits the amount of kids that we can take.

Q: Your students write and create books as part of the curriculum for your class; can you talk about that a little?

A: Basically, we studied the solar system (and designed pages in a book for each planet). At this point, we’re doing a lot of brainstorming and putting it on the board and then they choose what they want to write. They could write beyond the minimum, which, the minimum was two sentences ... so it was kind of up to them. This (book) took a month. We were lucky enough to have the lunar eclipse right in the middle of this.

Q: Did you include Pluto in the book, or did it get left out because it’s not a planet anymore?

A: We included Pluto and we talked about it. It’s kind of classified as a dwarf planet now so I let the kids decide what they wanted to write.

Q: You have a reputation for teaching kids obscure shapes; what are some of the shapes you teach?

A: They’re not really obscure. We teach flat shapes, which are all the basic six. We teach trapezoid, hexagon and octagon and pentagon. We teach solid shapes which are cones and spheres (etc.). Pretty much, most of the kids have them down by the end of the year.

Q: What’s your most comical kindergarten experience?

A: We practiced high-frequency words for spelling and we were in a group here and I was flashing cards to them and saying, “How do you spell ‘said?’ How do you spell ‘that’” and then I said, “How do you spell ‘we?’” And a kid went, “W-I-I.” That’s the first time I ran into that and it kind of broke me up. I thought, “No, that’s the wrong kind of ‘we.’” That was a first, but when you stop and think about it, these kids that are 5, 6 years old, have never lived without computers, never lived without cell phones, etc. There’s just a whole different group of kids. And now they have Wii.

Q: What’s your favorite part of Silverdale?

A: Silverdale Waterfront Park. If I’m just gonna go have fun, I like to hang out there. It’s a neat place to go. I spend most of my time in Silverdale at Silverdale United Methodist Church.

Q: What’s your first memory of Silverdale?

A: My very first memory was being interviewed for a job at Central Kitsap in 1971 — Fairview (Junior High) was opening up, so it was for Fairview — and we were looking for a place to eat for lunch — and this place no longer exists — but there was a place in a row of stores and it was a little cafe. We walked in and it was a typical, one of those “greasy spoons” they call it, very homey. We walked in and sat down on the bar and the gal asked us where we were from and (we said), “Seattle,” and she said, “Well, we don’t have any traffic lights in Silverdale and we’ll never have any traffic lights in Silverdale and we haven’t grown and we never will grow.” Poor lady. It grew and we have traffic lights everywhere now.

Q: If you could change one thing about Silverdale, what would it be and why?

A: The traffic. Rush hour traffic is pretty impressive.

Q: What’s your favorite local event to participate in?

A: Probably the fair. I like going through areas; I’m a quilter, so I like going through the quilt shops and quilt shows.

Q: Who would play you in a movie of your life and why?

A: (Laughs.) The “why” would be I don’t know why. Who would play me? I haven’t got a clue. Somebody obviously very short.

Q: Do you have a favorite meal?

A: My diet’s changed recently because I’ve found that I have to eat gluten-free, so a lot of the favorites are gone.

Q: OK — what was your favorite meal prior to the gluten-free diet?

A: Fried chicken or steak. Tapa, which is a Philippine dish. Tapa is fried pork, sliced real thin.

Q: And now that the diet has kicked in, what do you tend to enjoy the most?

A: Right now, I’m really enjoying tacos. I eat tacos with corn tortillas and a little tiny bit of taco spice — can’t do much — fake cheese and spinach because I can’t eat lettuce. And fake cream cheese on top.

Q: What’s your favorite type of music?

A: Contemporary Christian.

Q: What’s your favorite movie?

A: I have many favorite movies. I like the “Lord of the Rings” series, I like “chick flicks.”

Q: Family, kids?

A: My daughter is ... married with two children and I have my granddaughter in my classroom this year. I taught my daughter when she was in kindergarten. (She is) currently teaching kindergarten in the Bremerton School District. My son is married and he and his wife do not have children yet. He is an architect working in Tacoma.

Q: Who has made the biggest impression on your life?

A: Academically, the person that made the biggest impression on my life was my junior high art teacher. I had her for three years and she’s the one who probably pulled me into teaching and into art. The person who made the biggest impression in my life in terms of my faith was Larry Eddings. He was the pastor at Silverdale United Methodist Church for the ‘70s and part of the ‘80s. He was instrumental in developing my faith. And I think my mom.

Q: What do you like the most and the least about your job?

A: What do I like the most? I like the kids. I love teaching, I love seeing their faces get excited when they’ve discovered something new in life. When they discover something they couldn’t do that they can do now — that is just a thrill. Even after all these years. It is such a thrill to see them grow up. What do I like least about my job? Filing. I have piles. All over. Who would have thought?

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