May 28, 2011 in Washington Voices

The child whisperer

J. Bart Rayniak photoBuy this photo

“Hello, how do you do, it’s good to see you,” sings Diane Knowles at the piano. Knowles has been teaching preschool in Spokane Valley for 32 years, first at Redeemer Lutheran Preschool and most recently at Creation Station in Hope Lutheran Church.
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“Hello, everybody. How do you do?” Diane Knowles has sung this greeting to preschool classes for years. It’s one of many songs and sayings that still stick in the minds of many Spokane Valley children and their parents, along with “It takes a lot of slow to grow” and “Be a thinker, not a stinker.”

Knowles’ combination of creativity, love and classroom management sparked word-of-mouth referrals for a preschool program that often had a waiting list. For 25 years at Redeemer Lutheran Preschool, then for the last seven at Creation Station in Hope Lutheran Church, Knowles has been known as a child whisperer and teacher who nurtures preschoolers.

“She has more energy and creativity than anyone. I’m in awe of what comes out of her head,” said Cathy Knecht, who has taught with Knowles the last 10 years. “She loves what she does and she loves the kids.”

On June 5, Hope Lutheran Church will honor Knowles and Knecht for teaching, hugging, molding and loving area preschoolers. Knowles is retiring, while Knecht is changing careers.

On a recent Tuesday, 4 and 5-year-olds clustered on the carpet in the stimulating and efficiently organized Creation Station classroom. They sat enraptured as Knowles read “The Grouchy Ladybug,” stopping to ask questions and listening to their answers.

“I get grouchy,” she said, making a face. “Do you get grouchy?”

Taking turns without being told, the children answered. “All the time.” “Never.” It’s a calm close to two and half hours packed with interactive learning through play.

“If you spend time around children, you know it has to be in their hands to be in their head,” Knowles explained of her teaching style. “I teach to the heartbeat of a child. I teach the things they are interested in. Play is a child’s work.”

“She has such a positive way of getting kids to learn,” said Bobbie Worley, who sent three children to Redeemer Lutheran preschool because, like many parents, she heard it was the best program in town. “I’d heard about Diane’s reputation as a master teacher and was anxious for my kids to be in her class.”

Though she approaches all areas of learning, from ABC’s and 1,2,3’s to fine and large motor skills, Knowles said she focuses on social and emotional growth because 80 to 90 percent of success in school hinges on those skills. “We do problem solving and conflict resolution. How do you have a healthy relationship? It’s something to learn for preschool and learn for life,” she said.

Sitting with the kids while Knowles read, Knecht put a hand on boy’s back, a signal to stop talking. He stopped. By the end of the year the children line up quickly while singing the days of the week. They put away their snack cups and napkins quietly and push in their chairs before getting in the carpool pickup line. But they aren’t controlled; rather their energy is channeled.

“She’s very intuitive,” said Worley. “She has a way of motivating kids by inspiring them and really not making them feel like they’re following rules.”

“Kids are pleasers,” Knowles explained, noting she doesn’t boss them but gives gentle reminders of her expectations. By building consistency, she said, it becomes easy to elicit appropriate behavior. She turns off the lights and they listen for instructions. She turns on the music and they go to the carpet. “Pretty soon you don’t say a word.”

That’s also a result of children knowing they’re loved and understood, parents say. “She was able to tag my children, their personality, strengths and weaknesses, so quickly. She is so gifted in understanding each individual child,” said Laurie Sahlberg, whose kids are now in their 20s. “She just loved those kids wherever they were at. It was a firm, consistent, loving teaching environment.”

That environment also set the stage for school. “It established their love for learning and their desire to go to school,” said Worley. “I always refer to her as a master teacher. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody do it better.”

“It made them ready for going to kindergarten as far as interacting with other children and the schedule of the morning,” said Mindy Rowe. “They were more than prepared for entering the public school system. It was very positive.”

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