Last year was an interesting year to be a toddler — and a challenging time to be an early childhood educator. As Shannon Marshall Mury, winner of the 2021 Helen Marks National Teacher of the Year Award knows, child development does not stop just because a pandemic rages. Sure, the mask mandates, social distancing, and sanitation needed extra diligence and respect, but so did the services provided by the Virginia Tech Child Development Center for Learning and Research.

The center, under the direction of Karen Gallagher, had to do a quick and efficient pivot to accommodate their young clients and their families to ensure safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The staff needed to make sure that all the activities the center provides to help facilitate positive child development were still available.

“We maintained everything so the children would feel nothing had changed,” said Mury, who works with toddlers at the center.

Although some weekends found her doing extra cleaning in her classroom, or during the week, along with the other staff, orchestrating unobtrusive ways to socially distance the children during lunch or snack time, she said her approach to her job was the same as it had been pre-pandemic.

And this is one reason Gallagher and Alexa Gardner, curriculum coordinator and advanced instructor in the center, nominated Mury for the Terri Lynne Lokoff Child Care Foundation National Teacher Awards, for which the Helen Marks Award is the highest honor. 

Shannon Mury and Karen Gallagher are framed by lighting in the classroom.
Shannon Marshall Mury (left) and Karen Gallagher enjoyed the quiet at the end of an early summer day. Both recent award winners, they advocate for early childhood education. Photo by Leslie King for Virginia Tech.

Gallagher, who was a recent honoree at the New River Valley Community Foundation Early Childhood Champion Awards, said these awards are an important step to helping others understand the importance of the type of work the center does.

The Terri Lynne Lokoff Child Care Foundation, through its national teacher award, acknowledges the critical role of early childhood educators in providing quality early care and education. The foundation selects 50 teachers who show commitment and dedication to the field. From these candidates, the awards committee chooses 10 top award winners, who each receive an honorarium for their personal use and additional funding to help support a classroom project. In addition, the foundation invites them to apply for the Helene Marks National Child Care Teacher of the Year Award.

Gallagher said this is the only national award for early childhood educators, and it offers opportunities for advocacy. This resonates with Mury. 

“I want to highlight what we did during the pandemic because nobody really knew we were here and still open,” Mury said, “and this is a chance to get our story out because what we do is extremely important. The pandemic is when I realized this is how we can prove that we’re more than just babysitters. Because we were not just watching the children, we maintained our curriculum. We maintained our high standards as though nothing had changed for us. We just wore masks.”

A regular practice of the center’s curriculum is to work with children in small groups as opposed to one large unit. The pandemic refined this into opportunities for more solo and parallel play, where children individually engage in the same activity at the same time. This meant the staff needed to make sure they had enough materials for activities to avoid cross-contamination by other children. So, Mury created sensory trays individualized for each child. Before the pandemic, children would share materials at a giant media table.

“Instead, we just gave them a little tray and all the same materials,” she said. “And then we just individualized the tray so they could still do the same kind of activity in their own way.”

To help parents who regularly brought their children into the classroom and saw daily progress reports, Mury found new methods to disseminate the information. Because families were no longer allowed in the building, they waited outside the center to collect their children. Mury would velcro the students’ artwork around the outside door and bring binders with printed progress reports outside for families to read. 

Other reasons Gallagher nominated Mury were for her accomplishments as a graduate student in the Virginia Tech School of Education and for her ability to inspire others to help advance early childhood education.

“One thing I highlighted in the nomination was that Shannon finished a master’s degree while doing all this,” Gallagher said. “She now has a master’s degree in the area of English as a second language because she was working with so many bilingual and trilingual children. Just the way she has embraced their language and their culture and integrated that into the curriculum is phenomenal. You know, to hear the children using Spanish and Chinese words interchangeably with English, it’s amazing to see that at that age when they’re processing their primary language at the same time they’re processing other languages from their peers.”

Mury said she shared what the center does with her classmates to help them understand early childhood education and dispel the myth that it is just babysitting.

“I would document what we did at the center,” she said, “and there would be times I would monopolize the entire class about our early childhood education and how the concept building we do is so important to learning and teaching. My classmates didn’t have any experience with young children, and they would want to come here to observe because they couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea that we were so hands on with learning and that this actually works.”

Although Mury describes herself as shy, her passion for early childhood education made her a standout among the competition, said Gallagher.

Traditionally, the winner of the Helen Marks Award would receive travel and hotel accommodations to the award ceremony held in Pennsylvania, but this year’s festivities were virtual. But that did not stop Gallagher and her staff from finding a special way to mark the occasion. The Terri Lynne Lokoff Child Care Foundation enlisted Gallagher’s help in giving Mury the news that the National Teacher of the Year Award was hers. Gallagher hung a banner on the fence of the center’s playground announcing Mury as the award recipient. Beside it sat a large bouquet of yellow roses. 

A video captured Mury’s astonishment upon seeing the display, which was shown during the foundation’s virtual awards presentation.

Once Mury absorbed the news, she put together a video response, which ended the virtual proceedings. 

“What an honor to be recognized as a teacher of the year,” she said. “What we do is so often overlooked and underappreciated that being recognized for our hard work is awesome. We have made a commitment to advocate for developmentally appropriate high-quality early childhood education, while providing a safe environment and fostering relationships for children and their families. The work we do lays the foundation for how a child learns throughout their life.”

Written by Leslie King.