After 41 years of teaching at the Wheeling Park District Preschool, Debbie Stecker has decided to retire. Although her exuberance for instilling children with the love of learning is as strong as ever, the time has come to make way for other pursuits.

In 1980, with four years of experience working at a day care center, Debbie spotted an employment ad for the Wheeling Park District Preschool. She jumped at the chance to teach toddlers and three- and four-year-olds and never left.

“It’s been the perfect career,” said Stecker. “I have truly loved it. Every child is like my own. They keep me young. Everything is new and you relive it all through their eyes, especially the holidays. It’s such a great feeling.”

Debbie has seen many changes throughout her four plus decades at the Park District. From societal shifts to facility moves, she has handled it all in stride with professionalism, strength of character, boundless energy and, most importantly, with the best interests of the children at heart. She believes that a positive preschool experience is the foundation for a successful education.

Finding herself in the classroom with the children of former preschoolers is not unusual for Debbie now. It is clear the second generation is just as excited to be in her class as their parents were. Honestly, it’s hard to know who is more enthused, the current or former students, or Debbie herself. One of her preschoolers came to his first day of class in the preschool shirt his dad wore when he was in Debbie’s class. Many of her students keep in touch and she loves seeing them succeed. A Wheeling resident herself, some of her students trick-or-treat at her house year after year and share photos from their high school and college graduations and weddings.

Helping hundreds of preschoolers adjust to a classroom setting and prepare for kindergarten has its challenges. Debbie approached it all with kindness and patience all while developing some very successful techniques of her own. Her favorite activities involve reading stories, circle time, songs, puppets and creative art.

“I make my own sock puppets and use them to tell stories,” said Stecker. “With a little theatrics, the children begin to feel comfortable and I’ve got their attention. Even in the most challenging cases, we’ve always been able to work through the trying moments, make them fun and end with a hug.”

Debbie’s efforts to provide her students with a nurturing and loving environment also has parents singing her praises. Under Debbie’s tutelage, moms and dads have watched their children grow and blossom. They appreciate the time Debbie devotes to finding ways to spark their youngsters’ imaginations and tap into their curiosity and creativity. Long after Preschool graduation, the memorable moments remain the topic of family discussions.

Debbie’s work ethic, endless motivation and leadership have earned her the respect of her co-workers, too. Known for seeking out age-appropriate, innovative ways to help preschoolers learn, she strikes the perfect balance between structure and the Preschool’s philosophy of “learning through play”.

“I have come to know Debbie as one of, if not THE best, most loved and respected teacher we have ever had,” said Preschool Director Isabella Licciardello Allen. “She always makes a lasting impression on our preschoolers. Debbie is their advocate and is constantly discovering fun and unique opportunities to help them learn.”

Debbie’s retirement becomes official at the August 24 Board Meeting when she will be honored for her service to the Wheeling Park District and for all she has done to make a difference in the lives of our children. As Debbie puts it, “I will never forget the Wheeling Park District. It’s like a family. People have been so wonderful.”

We will never forget you, Debbie. Accolades from students, colleagues and parents are a testimony to your legacy. Every teacher retires one day but their deeds and teachings always remain in the hearts of their students. We hope you will look back with pride at all you have accomplished at the Wheeling Park District. Happy retirement!