By Tessa Raebeck
When Sue Daniels’s 4-year-old students grow into adults and have 4-year-olds of their own, they instinctively know where to send their children for preschool: wherever Sue Daniels is.
Ms. Daniels, who has educated Sag Harbor’s prekindergarten students through three different schools, two generations and three decades, saw her last graduation June 13, as she retired from the Rainbow School this month.
“It hasn’t really sunk in,” she said Monday, June 30, sitting in her Sag Harbor home surrounded by artwork from grandchildren and pictures of past students. One picture changes each year to show Pierson High School’s current graduating class when they were preschoolers with Ms. Daniels.
A Bridgehampton native, Ms. Daniels met her husband Al when she ran his truck off the road when she was just 16. The couple, who celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary last week, have two children, Mark and Kaitlin, and three grandchildren. Teaching runs in their family; Ms. Daniels’s daughter is a high school English teacher and her mother taught at the Bridgehampton School for over 30 years.
Ms. Daniels started teaching at the Hampton Day School, a private school that was in Bridgehampton where the Ross School’s Lower Campus now stands. After taking several years off to be home with her children when they were young, she returned to teaching as director of the Tuller School on the Maycroft estate in North Haven, which she ran for two decades.
When the property was sold in 2004, Ms. Daniels founded the Rainbow Preschool, currently located at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike. The school offers two sessions, morning and afternoon, for 3- and 4-year-olds. Through all her years and classrooms, Ms. Daniels has stuck with pre-K.
“I just love 4-year-olds,” she said Monday. “I think that’s the most amazing age. They are truly like little sponges—they just absorb everything. It’s just an exciting age…and they can go to the bathroom by themselves, always a bonus.”
Ms. Daniels will stay on as director of the school for at least a year and will remain on the board afterward. Her colleague of 12 years, Donna Cosgrove, who has been teaching the 3-year-olds, will take over the 4-year-old class with assistant Kaitlin Duran. Jessica Spehler, hired by the board, will teach the 3-year-olds.
Now that she is retired, Ms. Daniels plans, first and foremost, to spend more time with her grandchildren, but also to continue teaching piano lessons and get to work on a longstanding idea for a children’s book about a horse with special needs. She will also keep working on the business she shares with Al, Sag Harbor Seashells, combing the beaches looking for beach glass, shells and even fish teeth, which they then fashion into jewelry, beach glass Christmas trees and other custom ware.
Although she is excited to spend more time on the beach and with her grandkids, Ms. Daniels will miss her time in the classroom.
“I’ve taught now second generation,” she said.
Nina Landi, herself a kindergarten teacher at Sag Harbor Elementary School, was in Ms. Daniels’s very first class. When it came time to send her two children, Peter and Daisy, to nursery school, she knew who to call.
“I have very faint memories of doing amazing things back there,” Ms. Landi said Tuesday. “I was little—I was like 3, I think—but I remember when it was time for Peter and Daisy to go to Tuller, [having] an incredible sense of calm knowing that Ms. Daniels was there. She’s the best. She’s a Sag Harbor jewel.”
In the 30-plus years Ms. Daniels has been preparing Sag Harbor’s youngest students for elementary school, teaching has changed considerably.
“It’s just changed so much over the years,” she said, “For example, years ago if I was doing say a unit on dinosaurs, I would go to the library and do the research and get books and all that. And now you just go online and it’s there, so I think that makes it a lot easier for teachers in some ways.”
“In some other ways, I think we’ve lost some things,” she continued. “An example, years ago at Hampton Day School we heard about a whale that had washed ashore, so we put the kids in our car… no written permission slips or anything like that—and we just went to the beach. You can’t do that now.”
Ms. Daniels doesn’t allow computers in her classroom and forbids her grandchildren from bringing their iPads over.
“To me, the pre-school years are about socialization—how to get along with each other, how to talk to each other—and I really believe that there’s really only three things that kids need at this age: they need books, they need blocks, they need balls. That’s it, the three b’s,” she said, adding, “but it’s a different world now.”
Ms. Landi hangs a gold star ornament she made in Ms. Daniels’s class on her Christmas tree each year. Over two decades later, Ms. Daniels took both her children on their first train ride.
“We could not have been more thrilled or happy,” Ms. Landi said of her former teacher teaching her children. “It’s like having a second mom, she really is a great lady.”
“I think preschool is just so important,” Ms. Daniels said, “because it’s the gateway to education for the children. At this level, I think the most important thing is to build their confidence and help them with their communication skills, just so they can get along in this world. I keep telling my classes the most important thing is to be kind to each other, I think that’s just something we don’t always stress enough.”
“They’re going to get the basics,” she continued, “they’re going to understand about the alphabet and how to read and mathematics, but I think the socialization is just so important and I think this is where you start.”
“It’s really a shame that she has to retire, but God she deserves the rest,” Ms. Landi said, adding, “The whole town should throw that woman a retirement party…if you could ever count the kids and families—I always call it the ripples in the pond that she caused—you’d be there all day. It would be like trying to count stars, she’s been with so many families and she’s seen so many kids go all the way up to being married and having their own kids. It’s amazing.”