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Queen of the Kindergarten

Published: August 10, 2006

“Too bad you missed me yesterday,” quips Susan Mikolajczyk, who in February was named 2006 Hillsborough County Teacher of the Year. “I was the queen.

"Good Queen Quincerella,” she elaborates, “because we were studying how the letters ‘Q’ and ‘U’ are always together in a word.”

One of the trademarks of “Mrs. Mik,” as she’s known to students, colleagues and parents, is her costumed role-playing. The amiable, energetic kindergarten teacher, UT class of 1974, is willing to be just about anybody to help her kids learn.

Mikolajczyk, in fact, is known as “the Queen of Kindergarten” at Westchase Elementary School in suburban Tampa, a result of her leadership in every facet of the program.

Walking Letters and Violins

As she speaks about her craft, her voice and eyes reveal the unmistakable spark of a great teacher, the one who loves teaching and loves the kids.

“I’ll take big book characters and dress up like them, just so they’ll get the experience, because if they learn through experience, they cement it into their heads, and they’re just better learners,” she says in full spark.

“A lot of times, they’ll perform. I’ll put the queen thing on them, and they say all the ‘QU’ words—just a little act. It’s nothing terribly elaborate. Or they’re the Magic E Fairy, and they’ll sprinkle the fairy dust over a word that ends in ‘E,’ and then the fairy doesn’t say her name, and the ‘A’ gets to say her name, but the ‘E’ doesn’t say anything.

“Just certain little reading strategies that cement it into them.”

The school has an annual character book parade. One year, a parent recalls, Mikolajczyk dressed up as the Cat in the Hat. This year, she was a penguin.

She’ll even illustrate an old saying aimed at pronunciation, “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking,” with two children dressed as letters walking side-by-side, the one on the left doing the talking, the one on the right remaining silent.

Their discovery of exceptions clearly indicates that the kids have learned the rule.

When principal Joyce Wieland, a fellow Spartan alumna, arrived at Westchase Elementary last year, Mikolajczyk says, one of the first things the kids wanted to know was why her last name isn’t pronounced wyland.

Mikolajczyk brought to Westchase the Suzuki Method, developed from research that shows the value of even rudimentary formal music training on learning. Students—yes, kindergarten students—listen to classical music while they work during some class periods, and get lessons on playing the violin.

In particular, classical music seems to facilitate mathematics skills. Mikolajczyk says she plays classical music in the classroom while the children are writing, too, which tends to calm them and help them focus.

“Scientists know that children, if they have that exposure early to music and to math-brain issues, are able to process things easier and solve things easier,” she says, “and that became such a big issue for me when I started researching it.”

She says the impetus grew with the experience she had with her brother’s twin daughters, whom they put into a Suzuki method program in New York, and who were reading the Wall Street Journal when they were in the first grade. “And I mean they were reading it fluently,” she emphasizes.

“So, I started bugging my principal about trying to get a pilot program here, right after the first year we were here. So, by the second year, we put it into practice. At first, it was an offering just for kindergarten—my kindergarten class—and then it got so popular that we were up to 75 students a year.”

The Suzuki Method program at the school has spread to all grades. Mikolajczyk and another teacher also have begun a reading outreach program that includes mentoring teachers.

If math, reading, writing, literature, geography, violin lessons and keeping a journal sound like more than the typical notion of what kindergarten is, that’s because Mikolajczyk is a dedicated believer in kindergarten as the beginning of formal education, rather than simply a socializing foundation that barely reaches past playtime.

“We’re setting them up to be lifetime learners,” she says. “It isn’t just play and eat snacks. There’s a lot of serious learning going on. It’s important to me for people to know that about these little guys.”

Teacher of the Year selection starts at the individual school level with a silent faculty vote for the teacher most deserving among them. Once each school has made its choice, the 211 names are forwarded to the district. Each nominee writes a paper. The district narrows the field to 10 finalists, and each is interviewed by the superintendent.

“After that,” Mikolajczyk says, “they keep it completely tight-lipped until that night. I didn’t know anything until my picture went up on the screen.”

Once she was a finalist, the nerves kicked in.

“Yeah, I was a little nervous about it,” she confides, “because, you know, you represent the entire county, and this is a huge county.”

In fact, it is the third largest of Florida’s 67 public school districts, and one of the nation’s 10 largest, as well.

“So, I gave it some thought, but honestly, I was with such a talented pool that I didn’t think that I was going to be No. 1 in the pool, I really didn’t.”

It was no small affair. About 1,600 attended the Teacher of the Year banquet at the Tampa Convention Center. The district Teacher of the Year immediately becomes a candidate for state Teacher of the Year.

Media had been tipped off to the winner’s identity that morning, but no one else, even Principal Wieland, knew who it was, and even as cameras approached her table, Mikolajczyk says, “I had no idea what was going on.”

Imprinted on Their Hearts

Mikolajczyk is one of the first graduates of UT’s early childhood education program. Her husband is former UT Spartans and New York Giants football star Ron Mikolajczyk. Both are natives of northern New Jersey who met at UT. The oldest of five children, Susan is the only one didn’t follow her parents into the funeral business.

She asked her high school guidance counselor to find her a small college with an education degree program, because she “always knew” that she wanted to be a teacher. The counselor suggested UT. Mikolajczyk attended a recruiting function in New York, and fell in love with the University at first site, just from the photos.

“I told my mom, ‘If I get in, I’m going.’ The rest is history.”

Mikolajczyk has taught kindergarten at Westchase since the school opened in 1998. She has been a kindergarten teacher for 17 years.

Praise for the Queen of Kindergarten has come from all quarters, from past and present students, the principal, parents, you name it.

She is overwhelmed, she says, by letters from former students who are adults.

“I’ve had kids from college write me, ‘Mrs. Mik, it was good that you pushed me—I’m in pre-law’ or ‘You really were a good teacher, and you really did care about me.’”

Some sent congratulatory messages, even bouquets, when they heard their former teacher was being recognized.

“I was so overwhelmed that they did remember me. I must have made an imprint on their hearts, and that’s what you want to do when they walk into your room. You know, I’m like their mom from 7:30 to 2:00.”

Her daughter Jennifer, UT class of 2005 magna cum laudé, is one of her biggest fans.

“I’m a kindergarten teacher because of her,” she says. “I had to do what she does.”