Zeller embraces the special qualities of every child
It’s almost impossible for Janet Zeller, director of the Tufts Educational Day Care Center, to enter a classroom and not be noticed. The moment a child sees her, Tufts’ youngest students and their teachers wave and bellow out in unison, “Hi Janet!” Several of the children rush to give Zeller a hug. Once every hello is returned and each hug reciprocated, Zeller slips out of the classroom and heads to another.
Moments like these happen every day for Zeller. But the outpouring of respect and affection that passes between Zeller, the students and the teachers is just one thing that makes the day care center special. Another is its mission to teach kids the ABCs of life.
At its core, the center is dedicated to helping children and their families realize the importance of acceptance and how diversity, in all its forms, makes the world a better place. In a typical classroom, there are children from different ethnic groups, those with special needs, recent immigrants, those whose families share a vast range of lifestyles and belief systems. It is testament to Zeller, who has been inducted into Tufts’ Hall of Diversity.
Guided by teachers, Tufts graduate student researchers, undergraduate volunteers and other volunteers who came to the center when they themselves were kids, the children work together on projects, play during recess and share stories during snack time. Any differences between the children disappear as everyone acts, well, like kids. For Zeller, these seemingly simple interactions can be the beginnings of a lifelong dedication to making the world a place where everyone is not simply accepted, but embraced and celebrated.
“We want the children to leave here and demand diversity in their lives because they fully believe that it’s just better,” she says. “These children have an interest in differences without any negativity, so while they’re interested in difference, they’re not making the kind of judgments that we learn to make later.”
Zeller’s tenure at the day care center began in 1983. But her work to spread the merits of acceptance and inclusion began quite earlier. She grew up in a diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., and from an early age, she had a chance to interact with people from different backgrounds. Zeller earned her undergraduate degree from Tufts in 1965 and then taught high school English in Littleton, Mass. It was there that she came across a student who has had an impact on her to this day. “I had a child in my class who was mentally retarded and was kind of slipping through,” she says. “After meeting her and getting to know her, I became fascinated by the way she learned and how she could learn with the help of a really good teacher. While at UCLA, [where she earned her master’s degree] I worked for a professor whose research was around children with orthopedic disabilities, and after these two experiences, the rest was history.”
When Zeller first arrived at the day care center, she noticed that there was one group missing—children with special needs. A lecturer in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, Zeller, who holds an Ed.D. from Harvard, set out to include more of these children. The process included recruiting children with disabilities, which wasn’t difficult because Zeller had done private consultations for these families while she was chair of special education at Wheelock College, and hiring teachers passionate about serving children with special needs.
Today, almost 30 percent of the children at the center have special needs. The center has its own speech/language pathologists, occupational therapist and physical therapist. Zeller’s work on behalf of children with special needs has earned her several awards, including the New England Association for Retarded Citizens’ 1999 Educator of the Year Award, in addition to her induction into the Tufts Office of Equal Opportunity’s Hall of Diversity.
“You know how Groucho Marx said he didn’t want to be part of any club that would have him as a member?” Zeller says of her induction. “Well, this is the second time in my life that I feel the opposite of that, the first being when I was named educator of the year by an organization committed to serving people who are mentally retarded. It’s nice to be recognized for the things that I care most about, and I think it’s important to have something like the Hall of Diversity for people to see examples that they can emulate.”
Blake Newman, the father of a son with Down’s syndrome who attends the day care center, says, “We’re really lucky. The teachers in the class are great with kids, and Janet is the perfect person for this.”
In reality, it’s Zeller who feels lucky because she has been witness to the strides that every child can make. “It’s pretty extraordinary to see kids whose potential is able to be unlocked and kids who maybe have substantial special needs but that those disabilities are not seen by other children around them as detriments. They are just seen as part of who the kid is. It’s inspiring.”
And the hugs are nice, too