Merced Matters: Longtime preschool director reflects on 26 years spent in her 'dream job'

Jean Robbins, 63, has been the director of Merced Parent Preschool for 26 years.
Jean Robbins, 63, has been the director of Merced Parent Preschool for 26 years. bahbeck@mercedsunstar.com

In a room with yellow walls and bright orange cubbyholes, Jean Robbins’ playful personality fits right in.

Robbins, 63, is the director of Merced Parent Preschool and has been for the past 26 years.

Robbins, who grew up in Menlo Park, moved to Merced with her four children in 1980 when her husband took a job at an area law firm. While looking for an established but affordable learning center for her young children, Robbins found what was then named Merced Parent Nursery.

Robbins was a parent volunteer at the school before she took the job of director in 1988. She never actually applied for the job, but was offered the position by the principal at the time who noticed Robbins’ enthusiasm for working with children.

“I didn’t even know I wanted this job, but it turned out to be my dream job,” Robbins said.

The preschool, which was first established in 1947, has seen some changes under Robbins’ time as director. First, Robbins changed the name of program from Merced Parent Nursery to Merced Parent Preschool because she believed the term “nursery” was outdated.

The preschool, which used to be an independent institution, is now part of the Merced Adult School.

Robbins has remodeled the playground twice, doubled the size of the kitchen and added an art room with plenty of natural light. All these changes, she believes, makes the school more welcoming and attractive to children.

Robbins is greatly satisfied with the work she has done and continues doing with children. While her initial plans never included working in a classroom, she now wouldn’t have it any other way.

“My favorite thing about children is that they live in the moment,” she said. “Parents – adults in general – we’re not. We’re thinking about the next thing to do or a person who wronged us. But children are in the now, and that’s something we can learn from them.”

Robbins said she enjoys seeing the children blossom. She has had the chance to see the fruits of her labor as the children she taught when she first started return to the preschool as parents.

But Robbins recognizes that even at a preschool, not everything is fun and games.

“There are times of frustration, especially with parents who don’t stay consistent with their children,” she said. Robbins said that’s why reaching out to parents so that they are on the same page with educators has been one of her primary goals.

Besides requiring parents to volunteer in the classroom one day of the week, the program holds classes for parents once a month. In these parent classes, Robbins gives lessons on topics ranging from discipline and maintaining family connections in the technological age to kindergarten readiness and learning modalities.

Robbins’ traditional approach to teaching has attracted many families in the community.

Robin Kuhuls, a parent at the preschool, finds Robbins’ parent classes to be a great resource when it comes to raising her three boys.

“She’s been doing it for so long and has so many great ideas about teaching the kids,” she said. “We always have something to learn from her, and the best thing is that you can just tell she really loves our kids.”

Robbins has also taught Kristi Rieg’s four children. Rieg said she especially appreciates Robbins’ hands-on tactics in the classroom.

“I think Jean is very consistent,” Rieg said. “She has an old-school approach to teaching and learning. She’s really good about teaching us how to avoid micromanaging our kids so that we don’t become helicopter parents.”

Robbins is aware that times have changed, but she believes that the basic needs of children remain the same. Just like always, today’s children need to be taught respect, responsibility and self-worth, she said.

“Children’s needs don’t change. The way that parents deal with the children has changed, thanks or no thanks to technology. But children haven’t changed, they just want to be loved and they want to be affirmed.”

Robbins operates the preschool with the help of her assistant Paula Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who has been working at Merced Parent Preschool for 29 years, is one of the people who encouraged Robbins to get her teaching credentials and take the job as director.

“I believe that the preschool has been so successful with her as director because there is consistency and accountability in her work,” Rodriguez said. “She’s a very honest and straightforward person who really does speak more from experience than from books.”

As much fun as Robbins has finger-painting and shooting hoops in the playground with the children, she does see retirement sometime in the near future.

“I’m definitely going to miss this place when I leave,” she said.

For now, Robbins is focusing on the few weeks left in the school year. She is busy preparing field trips and the graduation ceremony. Graduation is usually a time of mixed emotions for Robbins. She said she can only hope to have well prepared the children and parents for kindergarten.

As a final lesson for parents, she likes to close each school year with her favorite quote: “There are two lasting gifts we can give our children – one is roots and the other is wings.”