It’s a quiet rainy Friday just two weeks before school is set to start.
Tucked behind the Riverdale Presbyterian Church on Henry Hudson Parkway is a nursery school occupying a cozy, second-floor space with green walls and white-painted cubbies for backpacks and lunchboxes.
The school is empty except for Tara Mastin, sitting in her office, preparing for the first day of school. It’s a particularly special first day for Mastin, as she takes over as director of Riverdale Presbyterian Church Nursery School.
It’s the latest step in a career spanning nearly 25 years, first as a teacher, then as the head of the lower school at Williamsburg Northside School in Brooklyn, before working as the assistant director of Chelsea Day School in Manhattan.
Mastin loves taking a leadership role, and says she’s excited to take the reins again in Riverdale.
“This school seemed like the perfect size and culture, and philosophical approach to jump in,” Mastin said.
A teacher herself for 15 years, Mastin aims to provide understanding leadership by connecting teachers with students on their own terms.
“It is really hard to get into classrooms and do the work alongside teachers, but I think that aspiring to getting to do that needs to be on my mind all the time,” Mastin said. She respects the authority that a teacher has over their classroom, and wants to get to know students in a way that won’t interrupt their time in the classroom, whether that means stopping in to read the occasional story or covering a class for a day.
Mastin also wants to close the gap that can form between students and administrators.
“Knowing everyone, knowing the families, knowing the children, knowing the teachers, is essential to being able to enter without this pretend wall between us that ‘I’m the leader, and you’re the teacher,’” she said.
Mastin sees her role as not only teaching and guiding children, but whole families as they transition from having a toddler at home to raising a school-aged child.
Gently guiding parents through getting kids to school on time, learning how to pack lunches and backpacks, and read the notices sent home at the end of the day is all part of the job.
While standing in the doorway of Chelsea Day School one morning, she said, she suddenly understood the magnitude of dropping off a preschooler for the first time.
“I realized that the majority of the people walking through the door still have such vivid memories of the delivery room, and bringing those babies home for the first time, and I had this wave of ‘What an important place we have to create for those families.’”
As for the students, making sure they’re learning to become inquisitive, confident, and thoughtful learners is Mastin’s first priority.
“I think if we can make sure that every one of them thinks of themselves as a learner who is really capable of anything when they leave here to go to kindergarten,” she said, “then we’ve done our job.”
One of the ways that happens is through literacy. When Mastin develops curriculum, she always focuses on literacy and thinks children should always have access to books.
Some of her favorites for preschoolers are “Baby Bear’s Books” by Jane Yolen — the story of a bear cub who loves to read — and “The Most Magnificent Thing” by Ashley Spires, about a little girl who builds herself a machine out of found materials, learning patience and perseverance along the way.
Books, Mastin says, are a great way to break down complex issues that kids may be aware of, but don’t understand.
“We’re going to read stories and talk about our noticings, and our wonderings,” Mastin said. “we’re going to speak honestly, and not tell a child who asks the question about race that he shouldn’t or she shouldn’t say that.”
At the end of the day, she said, they’re still there to play, sing songs, and have fun. Mastin knows she can be a little serious about pre-K education, but she also knows many people don’t know how much thought and care must go into every activity in the classroom, every book read and class taught in school full of children just being introduced to education.
Through the year, Mastin wants to get to know the community well and make sure that what many have typically seen as an adaptive, tuned-in school continues to serve students and families well.
“This is a dynamic program that reflects the city, reflects the families that are here, reflects the world today,” she said. “Thinking about the way we interact with each other, our awareness for each other, our respect for each other, is current.”