Berol Dewdney doesn't shy away from conversations about class and equity. After all, the preschool teacher grew up in poverty in a small town in Vermont, the daughter of "two highly educated artists and carpenters who chose lifestyle over money and taught me to hold true to my values," says Dewdney, who earned a master's degree in educational studies from the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in 2021.
Today, she teaches pre-kindergarten at The Commodore John Rodgers School, a public school in Baltimore, and recently received the 2022-23 Maryland Teacher of the Year award from the Maryland State Department of Education.
"I know that many of our students, faculty, staff, and alumni will be uplifted by this recognition of the critical—and often underappreciated—role of early childhood educators," says Johns Hopkins School of Education Dean Christopher Morphew. "I couldn't be prouder of her dedication and achievement."
As a Title I school, Commodore receives federal funding to support the high concentration of students from low-income families. The job has been a perfect fit for Dewdney, who says she believes all children deserve a quality education.
"When I first started learning about equity and education, as an undergraduate at Colby College in Maine, I thought to myself: How could I not do this?" Dewdney says of her decision to teach. Then, when the opportunity arose for her to join the teaching corps of the national nonprofit Teach for America, she jumped at the chance.
"I wanted to get out of New England and listed Baltimore as my top choice for a teaching placement," she shares. "As a white woman from Vermont, I'd spent my life in a bubble of privilege, even though my family didn't have much money." Growing up, Dewdney attended public elementary and middle schools in Vermont but then went to boarding school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, on a full scholarship. From there, she attended the private liberal arts college, Colby, along the picturesque west bank of the Kennebec River in Waterville, Maine.
In 2013, Dewdney moved to Baltimore to teach preschool at the now-closed Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary/Middle School, where 99% of students qualified for free and reduced lunch. "I fell in love with teaching preschool but also noticed huge disparities among schools in Baltimore," she says. "I knew my students deserved more."
An internship with KIPP DC: Grow Academy, a public charter school in Washington, D.C., opened her eyes to possibilities. There, she learned about an early childhood curriculum, Tools of the Mind, based on recent findings in neuroscience and the century-old teachings of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who believed kids need to master cognitive skills like self-regulation to learn at a higher level.
"It made me mad that programs like this weren't available in Baltimore," she says.
Dewdney convinced her supervisors to let her conduct a Tools of the Mind pilot program at MLK. The program was a success, and Dewdney went on to implement the curriculum at Commodore while training educators and administrators in Baltimore across a network of "turnaround schools," which receive government funding to improve outcomes. During her first years at Commodore, where she works now, Dewdney dug deeper into teaching methodologies and brain science by earning a master's degree in education from Johns Hopkins.
"Neuroscience totally transformed my teaching practice," she says. "The stress and trauma [that can come with poverty] weaken the brain's architecture, but we can rewire it with human connection, which is critical to learning."
"One of the most important things I've learned is how critical executive function is in determining life outcomes, and how to effectively build those cognitive skills with our students," she adds.
Despite her success improving early education in Baltimore and receiving the MSDE award, Dewdney considers her work far from done and plans to apply to doctoral programs in education. "To build equity in education across our country, we have to get early childhood right as we redefine what it means to teach pre-kindergarten," she says.
"People think teaching preschool is a form of babysitting, but it's really about growing brains."