Goodbye, Mrs. Hilbert! La Jolla preschool educator retires after 34 years

By Ashley Mackin

Betty Hilbert, La Jolla Presbyterian Church Preschool Director, never thought she would be a teacher. But after 34 years as a teacher-turned-director, she will retire with full honors from the community, as the guest of an open house, 2-4 p.m. Saturday, May 31 at 7715 Draper Ave.

“When I was in college, I was going into radio. I thought radio was the greatest thing ever,” she said of her studies at Baylor University. “But my last two years in college, it seemed like everyone I knew was majoring in education and I was majoring in speech. My roommates were talking about the jobs they were going to have and I remember thinking, I might not get a job, so I thought I might teach speech, and I got a degree in education.”

She went on to teach third grade for six years. “I loved teaching third grade ... I thought I couldn’t handle the younger ones,” she said with a laugh.

She took a break from teaching, believing she would never return to the classroom, when she married her husband Jim, and had two children, Anne and Dean, now grown.

“When my children were in junior high and high school, one of the teachers here was leaving, and they put an ad out saying they needed a teacher,” she reminisced. “I thought I could come in and help out, but the director became one of my best friends, so I stayed and taught for about nine-and-a-half years.”

When the director announced she was leaving, Hilbert was offered the position, which she initially declined. “But they said (I had to) and that was 24 years ago,” she said.

She’s noticed that over the last few years, the children she taught long ago are now adults and sending their children to the La Jolla Presbyterian Preschool.

“It’s been a great experience and a great life,” she said, admitting that leaving will be “bittersweet.” She plans to enjoy her retirement with her husband, visiting grandchildren and traveling.

Lessons learned

Hilbert said she hopes parents understand the role of preschool. “It is the bridge between leaving mom and dad, and getting to kindergarten,” she said. “We hope that by the time children enter kindergarten, they are not scared to go into a classroom by themselves, they can say goodbye to mom and dad at the door, and they can feel a little more independent and talk to an adult.”

Hilbert said preschool also offers children a chance to learn by playing in a non-academic setting. “Parents sometimes say to me, ‘all he does is play,’ and that’s true. Go into a preschool room and look around; you’ll see 20 things right away that kids will learn from by looking at or touching.”

Preschool is also the place where children learn to interact with others, use their words instead of hitting, and learn structure. “We are not so strict that we tell them they have to do this or that, but we don’t say, ‘oh, you don’t want to hear the story, then go play outside.’ They have to learn there are rules and if we are going to circle time, everyone needs to be in the circle,” she said. “We try to make the experience fun. Children don’t know they are learning, but they are — and at a fast rate. “Some schools put computers in their preschools, but we are of the few that do not. There are skills they need to know at this age, and using a computer is not one of them. They can do that later.”

Reminding parents that a preschooler’s brain, developmentally, has been the same since time started, she said one of the reasons the school doesn’t teach younger children to read is that at this stage of development their eyes cannot track words on a page — or a screen. “Technology has been the thing that has changed preschool the most. When the technology comes, some believe it can change everything about the way a child thinks. Our philosophy is that a child is still a child, and all the children around the world are still developing the same way,” she said.

La Jolla Presbyterian Rev. Mike Sedgwick said Hilbert leaves a terrific legacy at the school. “One of the things that is always amazing to me is when I come into contact with adults who say, ‘I had Betty as a teacher’ or ‘My kid, who is now in college, had Betty as a director.’ She’s had such a huge impact on so many families from this community.

“I think she’ll be most remembered for how much she cared for and loved the children of La Jolla. It’s been outstanding to see. She’ll be dearly missed by the staff and pastors here and we are so appreciative of all that she gave to this community and this church.”

Sedgwick said filling Hilbert’s shoes will be “a tall task” for incoming director, Barbara Etienne of Carlsbad, though he said he is excited for her arrival.

A former child development professor at MiraCosta College, Etienne has also had experience designing and starting preschools.

La Jolla Presbyterian Church Preschool

■ Founded: 1955

■ Address: 7715 Draper Ave., La Jolla

■ Students: Ages 2-5 of all faiths may attend 2-4 days per week

■ Tuition: From $3,188 annually, based on age, attendance frequency

■ Sessions: 9 a.m. to noon, afternoon enrichment for some students

■ Student-to-teacher ratio: Does not exceed 10:1

■ Contact: (858) 454-0713

■ Website: