Palo Alto preschool teacher Tra'Shell Reese was reading a picture book to her class of 4- and 5-year-olds last week when she got the news she'd won a $10,000 "Early Child Educator Award" -- a prize she'd never heard of.
As the tears came, she turned to explain to the kids that, "these aren't sad tears, they're happy tears." A 4-year-old got up from the carpet to deliver her a hug and a Kleenex.
Reese, who lives in subsidized housing in Milpitas and uses a free VTA bus pass to get to work, is one of 12 teachers across the country this year to win $10,000 awards from the Children's Creative Learning Centers (CCLC). CCLC is a division of the global education company Knowledge Universe, which operates 3,000 schools in five countries, including preschools at Stanford University, on the campuses of technology companies like Electronic Arts and Cisco and before- and after-school care at local schools including Nixon Elementary School.
Reese plans to use her prize money to "take a class and get caught up on bills.
"The pay (for preschool teachers) is not always the best, but I enjoy every single day," she said of her job at Children's Creative Learning Center (CCLC) in Downtown Palo Alto, one of 10 CCLC centers on the Midpeninsula.
"I never go to work mad or upset.
"I remember that speech Steve Jobs said at Stanford a few years ago, that you've got to do what you love doing. That just melted me."
Sonya Ramsey, director of the CCLC center where Reese works, said her mailbox was flooded with appreciative emails about Reese when she put out a call for comments in connection with nominating Reese for the award.
"I kind of just wrote up what she does every day," said Ramsey, who said a senior administrator had asked her to nominate Reese for the award after she happened to observe her interacting with children.
"Tra'Shell just makes every person feel special when they walk into her classroom," Ramsey said. "Each individual child is special in their own way and she brings them to the next level."
Reese got interested in child-care work when the oldest of her three children -- now 24 and attending Santa Clara University on a volleyball scholarship -- was an infant.
"She was at the day care center and they told me she was eating chicken, but I was still nursing and I didn't want her eating chicken. So I decided to be a teacher so I could be around her, see her go through her new phases and her new experiences."
She went back to school to take 12 units of early childhood education at San Jose City College, which opened up a career in teaching that eventually led her to a decade at a Cisco on-site child care center and, three years ago, to the Palo Alto job.
In Palo Alto, she presides over an orderly, sun-filled second-floor classroom that includes a "science corner," a space for dramatic play, a cubby for each child and a space for art.
She writes a "daily snapshot" of each child for parents, documenting milestones. For example, kids play the "finger family song," wiggling their fingers to get the muscles in their hands ready to hold a pencil.
"The thing I like most is just seeing the reaction on the children's faces when you teach them something and they get excited about what you've just taught them," she said.
"You take honor in knowing you were a part of that -- and then the love they give you every day."
Reese, who's been teaching about 25 years, sometimes encounters people who say, "Hey, you were my preschool teacher.
"And I say, 'How do you remember that?' because I don't remember very much about my preschool (Headstart in East Palo Alto)."
In many cases it's because of the Power Point picture portfolios for each child that she learned to create while working at the Cisco child-care center. She put them on CDs, and gave them to children when they left.
The $10,000 prize money, she said, will allow her to finally finish her early childhood education credential, perhaps at Mission College near her home. "The first thing I want to do is go take a class," she said. "It seems easy now."
Sometimes Reese drives to work. But most mornings she gets there by taking connecting VTA buses.
If there's time once she gets to downtown Palo Alto, she prepares for the day by taking a walk around the neighborhood of the preschool.
"Literally, when I'm walking into work, kids are getting out of their cars and they cry out, 'Teacher Tra'Shell, Teacher Tra'Shell!'
"I really just love this job," she said.