Lower Burrell nursery school teacher a 32 year success story

| Monday, June 29, 2009

Mary Ann Balmer has taught at Bethel United Methodist Church's nursery school in Lower Burrell long enough to see some second-generation students come through her classroom.

Her grandchildren were some of the first and certainly will not be the last.

Next year's class includes the third child of a couple who initially met at Bethel. Their nursery school photo together showed up at their wedding.

"It makes you feel kind of old, but these aren't high school students, so you could have a student's son or daughter 20 years later," she said after 32 years at the school.

She's had as many as six children of former students at once -- a third of that class.

"A lot of mothers surprise me because I know them by their maiden names," she said. "Sometimes I see grown-up students in the community and sometimes they just pop up out of nowhere."

Balmer joined the school after leaving the Pittsburgh school district to give birth to her daughter, Lisa. Before joining Bethel's faculty, she substituted for elementary school teachers in the Burrell School District.

"It's a wonderful job," she said of teaching at Bethel. "You can see the children grow so quickly at this stage in their lives and their successes are so worthwhile."

She said that although the school teaches academic material, such as basic reading and writing skills, she and the three other teachers focus on helping children adjust to a social school atmosphere. That includes separation from their parents, learning to operate in groups and understanding the concept of learning.

"Academics are important, but more important is how they feel about themselves, if they enjoy going to school and want to learn," she said. "Kids need that experience because kindergartens have gotten so demanding that children have to mature and grow before they meet those academic demands."

Balmer follows the school's curriculum, but puts her own stamp on her classes by emphasizing comfort with each student's family situation.

Nursery school is the first time some children spend significant time in a social environment with others, so their living situations invariably enter discussions.

"I work so hard to teach them that no matter how their families are, that is all right," she said, "All families aren't just a mom, dad and two kids, and these days it seems like more children come from a different family structure."

School director and teacher Bobbie Merrick, who started the program at Bethel 37 years ago, said Balmer is excellent with the children.

"She's very empathic, which is very important in getting to know kids who are finding themselves," she said. "She considers this job her mission, and that's a main reason she has done so well here for so long."

Balmer previously worked with autistic children outside of school, which she said helps her pick up on developmental disorders in students.

The varied personalities she has seen in her hundreds of students over the years keeps her interested by providing a challenge.

"They are such individuals, and they have such different plans for what they are doing in school," Balmer said.

Additional Information:

Mary Ann Balmer

Age: 66

Hometown: Lower Burrell

Occupation: Teacher at Bethel Nursery School in Lower Burrell

Family: Daughter, Lisa Keller; four grandchildren: Brendan, Jenna, Justin and Kory.

Favorite thing about the Valley: 'It's a nice, friendly place to live.'

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