A class act in preschool education in Concord

Bright green tissue paper crinkles as Maureen O'Bryan talks, and a happy stuffed animal observes from the packed bookshelf behind her.

O'Bryan is preparing for the graduation ceremonies that are about to commence at First Kids Pre-School, an educational program for children ages 1 to 5 at First Presbyterian Church in Concord.

She looks up from stuffing gift bags when the side door opens and a small boy excitedly stumbles in.

"Ready for the big show?" she smiles before returning to the tissue paper. Yes, all the children are ready, assembled in front of her office. O'Bryan tells a nearby parent they "look like a flower garden" before gently shepherding them down the hallway.

As director of First Kids for the past 18 years, she has honed her skills and reputation as an educator. Most recently, she was named an outstanding director by the TEDDY Awards, sponsored by the nonprofit Child Care Resources Inc., which honors three outstanding Charlotte-area workers in early child care and education.

O'Bryan's impressive background in special and elementary education makes her a strong candidate for the award. But only by seeing her at work can you see how deserved the award really is.

"Maureen has a magical quality," Gordana Coley, the program's music director, said while O'Bryan chatted with the students before the graduation ceremony. "She changes into this unique character in front of the children, and they just gravitate toward her. She speaks quietly and calmly, and the kids just listen."

As Coley speaks, O'Bryan quietly passed out small wooden musical instruments to the fidgeting students, engaging each one. She stayed present and interested throughout her interaction with every child.

Walking down the hallway before the ceremony, she calmly and thoughtfully responded to the many questions thrown her way from students and visiting parents, never losing her focus or smile.

"It's often as much about guiding the parents as it is about guiding the students," she explained between greeting a parent and directing a student to his classroom. As she talked, the sharp ding-ding of a toy xylophone filled the air. The noise seemed like a natural accompaniment to her voice.

She credited the program's success to the collaborative nature of the faculty.

"It's not that we are perfect, or even experts, but we've been doing this for a while now," she said. "We've developed an eye for talent and fill this place with people who know how to teach through love. Not everyone has that gift, but I see it here every day."

Sara Heiser, whose son attended First Kids, underscored O'Bryan's role in cultivating the program's reputation. "She is naturally warm and inviting. From the very first telephone call, you want your child to attend her preschool."

Handing out the colorful gift bags at the end of the ceremony, O'Bryan beamed. Her joy was infectious and contributed to the celebratory mood.

"I get to paint and look at bugs and play games," she said, explaining the joys of her work while parents and children trickled out onto the sunny lawn. "I love coming to work every day."

It was clear that those involved with her preschool love having her there, too.