Berol Dewdney: Growing Your Brain, Giving Your Heart

February 22, 2023

“My mom was a children’s book author who died from brain cancer,” Berol says. “She believed we should all try to make the world a better place. And when I was growing up, she used to tell me, ‘Your purpose in life is to grow your brain and give your heart’”—words that led Berol to become a pre-K teacher. For the past 10 years, she’s worked at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, MD, where she’s acted on her mother’s advice. And her sense of commitment led her to be named as both Baltimore City Public Schools Teacher of the Year and Maryland Teacher of the Year in 2022. These honors recognize Berol’s role in the 100% Project, a school turnaround network that supports high-need schools and stresses a student-centered mindset. The point is to produce equity in early learning, a goal that Berol supports. The students she teaches live in an underserved part of the city, and she’s committed to bringing out the greatness inside them.

“My students are the smartest people I know, and they have an unstoppable power,” Berol says. She does, too, because she’s 100 percent devoted to a mission: “elevate students and teachers in every way by making sure we get early childhood education right.” And she pursues this goal as an early childhood program lead and professional development coach within the 100% Project. She’s also a certified Tools of the Mind coach who guides Baltimore teachers in using a play-based curriculum based on brain science. She has pioneered the Tools of the Mind approach in 25 classrooms that encompass 60 early childhood teachers and more than 500 children, as well as raised $500,000 to support the program. “We “need to root classroom practice in brain science,” she contends, for every child to reach their potential. And “all Maryland students deserve the very best early childhood education, no matter where they live or go to school,” Berol says.

But many children aren’t getting high-quality early learning, as Berol realized when she came to teach in Baltimore after college. The inequities that taint the city are a far cry from Berol’s experience growing up as a white woman in rural Vermont, but she’d always had a concern for social justice. “I had looked at systems of power and how to right them since gender studies was my first major at Colby College in Maine,” Berol says. “I was also an activist and held various leadership roles on campus. These activities led Teach for America to contact me,” she recalls. And it touched a chord as she learned about what they do to end inequity in education. “I had always loved babysitting and being with kids. And it became clear to me that this was a chance to learn and serve,” she says.

“I chose Baltimore to intern in teaching after college because I wanted to go where I was needed,” Berol explains. “Coming here helped me understand inequity on a whole other level. And my growing knowledge of the value of early literacy gave me a way to carry on my mother’s work in my own way,” Berol says. And the key was to focus on the development of young brains, as she came to see. “If we are to achieve equity in early education, we need to apply the lessons of brain science to all children in all contexts,” she says. “And I’ve been trying to make that happen ever since.”

Berol knows the importance of having our early childhood teachers grow in their profession, so she understands the value of the Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™. “I learned about the CDA® at a professional development webinar that I attended,” Berol says, “and I understand what the Council does. I also value the Council’s work because it maintains high standards of educational practice and helps educators build incredible educational spaces for children. So, we need more opportunities like the CDA for educators to gain access to the learning they need, especially when it comes to brain architecture, trauma-informed care and healing-centered engagement. That’s a big part of my practice and a big part of what I care about as an early childhood teacher,” she explains.

“So are the lessons I learned from my mom,” Berol says. “She passed away about six years ago, and in one of her last moments, we were talking about the head and the heart. I remember how she pointed at me and said that ‘your head and your heart only work if you take care of them.’ They’re words that have really resonated with me and inspired me in my profession. So has the legacy of love that she instilled in me and that’s what I want to give to my students,” Berol says. She’s convinced that “love makes anything possible,” and the love she showed to a little boy named Ike allowed him to develop and learn.

“Ike is an incredible and exuberant human being,” Berol says. “He loves dancing and playing. His favorite snack is spicy Doritos, and he wants to be an astronaut when he grows up.” But could he reach his dream? It seemed unlikely when he came into Berol’s pre-K class. “He was about two or three years developmentally behind his peers,” Berol recalls. “He didn’t know how to wait his turn for toys and handled his feelings in an aggressive way that was sometimes unsafe.” Still, Berol saw his promise and knew what he needed to succeed. So, she strived to give him the sense of safety and self-control needed to relieve his stress and help rewire his brain. “I was able to give him the mental tools to build a foundation for learning,” Berol says. “He left my class with the social, emotional and academic skills to be kindergarten ready. Ike is now a kind and loving person who helps his friends solve problems.”

And Berol ran into him in the school cafeteria this year when she was preparing to give her first speech as Maryland Teacher of the Year. “I asked him what he thought I should tell the grownups,” Berol recalls, and he responded without hesitation. “He said, ‘Miss Dewdney, tell them that we are brave, we are smart and that we can do anything,’” Berol says. “He felt confident, empowered, ready to lead. And Ike is one of the hundreds of incredible students I’ve been lucky to have in my ten years in the early childhood profession. As I work with them every day, I see a story of hope. I see children coming to school wanting to learn,” Berol says. And she has been able to bring them to new heights by using the findings of brain science in her classroom.

Berol credits her success to the Tools of the Mind curriculum, as she explains. “It’s a play-based curriculum that allows children to have fun in a context that’s meaningful to them, and that’s what I try to convey to the grownups I coach on the Tools of the Mind approach. What’s important about the curriculum is that it’s not just a curriculum for students. It’s also a curriculum that shows teachers how to teach using the power of play. I think a lot of adults understand play as something that just happens by itself, but you have to take deliberate steps to give children space and time so they can engage in playful learning. And that goes beyond simply making a checklist that covers things like whether you have a science center, dramatic play or Play-Doh. What matters is that you have the tools to mold young minds and produce transformational learning. I’m committed to helping teachers do that on a widespread scale.”

Berol also wants to use the new platform she’s gained as Maryland Teacher of the Year to advocate for her profession. One way she’s doing it is by serving as chair of the Maryland Senate President’s Teacher Advisory Council. “The work I do on the council,” she explains, “is about getting new legislation and new funding that can make a real impact on teachers and children in communities across the state.” She also tries to inspire her colleagues by telling them some of the things she says with the children in her class. “The children and I do affirmations all the time, so we repeat phrases like ‘go and make the world better,’ ‘don’t give up’ and ‘don’t stop if you’re hungry for change.’”

Berol won’t stop because she’s committed to building a system that supports teachers and sees greatness in all young learners. “I want to give people what my mother gave me: the unconditional love that allows them to go out in the world, take risks and do all the things that need to be done. Feeling that kind of love makes people unstoppable, like Ike and other amazing students who’ve inspired me to be a leader. I think the love I have for them and for my job is a superpower that makes everything possible,” Berol says. “And I want to give that sense of power to other teachers. I want to help people grow their brains and give their hearts to make the world a better place for children.”


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