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Celebrating a preschool ‘guru’: Well-loved Amherst teacher calls it a career

  • During a retirement party Thursday for preschool teacher Suzanne Morse-Rilla, more than 160 hearts made by her assistant teacher, Rachel Morales, bear the names of her students from the past 34 years as they hang from a tree near her home in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Preschool teacher Suzanne MorseRilla, left, looks at a banner she was presented with Thursday during her retirement party on a cul-de-sac near her home in Amherst. Holding the banner is Maya Marx. The balloons recognize her 34 years of teaching. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Molly Goren-Watts and her son, Jonah, 7, drive into a cul-de-sac on Hillcrest Place in Amherst where a retirement party was held Thursday for preschool teacher Suzanne Morse-Rilla. Jonah is a former student. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Harper Marx, 4, and Jaxson Dufresne, 7, celebrate during a retirement party Thursday for preschool teacher Suzanne MorseRilla on a cul-de-sac near her home in Amherst. Their father, Nick Dufresne, watches. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Preschool teacher Suzanne Morse-Rilla, center, shares a toast with her husband, Paul Rilla, and her assistant teacher, Rachel Morales, during her retirement party Thursday on a cul-de-sac near her home in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Louisa Ellenhorn, 4, gives her preschool teacher, Suzanne Morse-Rilla, artwork she made during Morse-Rilla’s retirement party on a cul-de-sac near her home in Amherst. Louisa’s father, Ted, looks on. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Suzanne Morse-Rilla, right, a preschool teacher who led The Living Room program in Amherst, talks with Isaac Barba, 4, during a party for her Thursday near her home in Amherst. His mother, Caroline Barba, and his sister Ramona, watch. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Suzanne Morse-Rilla, right, a preschool teacher who led The Living Room program in Amherst, looks at hearts hanging from a tree that bear the names of her students from the past 34 years during the retirement party for her Thursday. Rachel Morales, left, her assistant teacher, made the hearts. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Retiring preschool teacher Suzanne Morse-Rilla, right, talks with Asher Gordon, 9, and Maya Gordon, 4, during her retirement party  Thursday on a cul-de-sac near her home in Amherst. Assistant teacher Rachel Morales looks on. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • During a retirement party Thursday for preschool teacher Suzanne Morse Rilla, center, one of her students, Emma Cohen Hertan, 5, points out gifts of flowers and blueberries near the teacher’s home in Amherst. Assistant teacher Rachel Morales looks on. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Preschool teacher Suzanne Morse-Rilla gives a thumbs-up to Jaxson Dufresne, 7, during a retirement party for her Thursday on a cul-de-sac near her home in Amherst as his mother, Maya Marx, watches. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Preschool teacher Suzanne Morse-Rilla hands a gift to Louisa Ellerhorn, 4, during a retirement party for her Thursday on a cul-de-sac near her home in Amherst. The gifts were awards for activities her students participated in during a virtual field day she held. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Preschool teacher Suzanne Morse-Rilla, second from left, listens to Makayla Gladstone, 5, during her retirement party Thursday on a cul-de-sac near the teacher’s home in Amherst. Assistant teacher Rachel Morales, left, looks on with Marissa Gladstone. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Preschool teacher Suzanne Morse-Rilla speaks during her retirement party Thursday on a cul-de-sac near her home in Amherst. Her husband, Paul Rilla, and others listen. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Preschool teacher Suzanne Morse-Rilla, second from left, listens to Tuva Siebing, 7, during her retirement party Thursday near the teacher’s home in Amherst. Assistant teacher Rachel Morales, left, looks on with Siebing’s mother, Leah Roth-Howe, and sister Elsa, 3. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Preschool teacher Suzanne Morse-Rilla, second from left, hands a gift to Aliya Sexauer, 4, during her retirement party Thursday on a cul-de-sac near the teacher’s home in Amherst as assistant teacher Rachel Morales, left, watches. The gifts were awards for activities her students participated in during a virtual field day she held. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2020

AMHERST — No matter whether decorated as a rocket ship traveling to another planet or turned into a jungle in one of Earth’s tropical regions, the classroom inside Suzanne Morse-Rilla’s North Amherst home was a place for imagination and learning for a generation of preschoolers.

“The thing we love about Suzanne is she has a magic about her,” says Alyson Bull, whose daughter Aliya, 4, has been part of the program since March 2019. “I think of Suzanne as the guru of childhood education, where kids are safe, cared for and loved.”

Bull said she has seen her once-reserved daughter blossom and gain confidence in her social skills, and has cultivated joy and kindness while having stories read to her and learning about a range of subjects and getting skills in the alphabet and numbers.

“Suzanne treats them like the intellectually curious people they are,” Bull said.

On Thursday afternoon, Bull’s family and the other nine families with children in the final year of the program honored Morse-Rilla, retiring after creating and running The Living Room program for the past 34 years.

The recognition came through a socially distant car parade in a quiet South Amherst neighborhood where children could say goodbyes and families could honor Morse-Rilla.

Morse-Rilla, who was a social worker helping families in crisis before turning to a career in early childhood education, developed the program when her daughter was 17 months old.

“My original philosophy was to help children grow socially and emotionally and to help them to love to learn,” Morse-Rilla said.

She has maintained that everything is part of learning and that children need to explore, with units on the solar system and rainforests and, in recent years, phonics and math.

What is striking for Bull, a teacher at Leverett Elementary School, is that some of her own students have reflected on Morse-Rilla’s program and the impact it had on them.

Maya Marx, whose brother David Marx took part in the program in the 1990s, said she knew that she and her husband, Nick Dufresne, would be sending their own children, Jaxson Dufresne, 4, who was part of the final class, and Harper Marx, 7, who attended for three years, to The Living Room.

“Suzanne has the remarkable ability to run a classroom in which every child feels seen and heard and held for who they are,” Marx said.

“In addition to the deeply rich curriculum Suzanne offered, I always knew my kids were spending the day in the most loving and nurturing hands and that, for a parent, is an absolute gift,” Marx said.

Even during the pandemic, which forced Morse-Rilla to close the physical location for the program, she continued to make sure the needs of the children and their families were being met, periodically dropping by families’ homes with materials, continuing instruction on Zoom and even having a virtual field day on the penultimate day of school.

Rachel Morales, Morse-Rilla’s assistant for the past 13 years, created cut-out hearts for more than 160 former students that were displayed on the island in the middle of the cul-de-sac, showing the many lives she touched.

“Suzanne is really an amazing person who makes each family and child feel special in their own way,” Morales said. “I’ve been blessed with such a wonderful role model.”

Morales said the classroom is often dubbed the “yes room” because it is the children’s space, where they are welcome to touch and play with anything in it.

The Living Room was where children got to experience musicians once a week, including a ukulele performance, studied artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe and annually completed a group project to mimic Jackson Pollock’s art, and went off site for weekly trips to Hampshire Gymnastics.

Leah Roth-Howe’s youngest child, Elsa Siebing, was part of the celebration Thursday as a current student, and her older daughter, TuvaSiebing, also attended beginning in 2016.

“One of our favorite hallmarks from The Living Room is the notion of lending a ‘helping hand,’ a value which Suzanne incorporated into each day at school,” Roth-Howe said. The children have kept their laminated paper helping hands and use them at home when they notice an act of kindness, Roth-Howe said.

Sofia and Aaron Buford are parents who remain grateful for the time their children, noting wonder and creativity for the activities.

“Suzanne is an incredibly loving, compassionate and thoughtful educator who gave her whole heart to the classroom,” Sofia Buford said.

She said she appreciated that Morse-Rilla focused on children’s innate ability to learn, and had an exceptional way of guiding them.

“Our kids always felt loved, heard, and had a lot of fun with Suzanne,” Buford said, adding that she has been a pillar in the community.

“The Valley is losing a wonderful preschool,” Bull said.

Morse-Rilla said she appreciates the families who have let her into their lives and in retirement will be moving to be near her youngest grandchildren in California.

The delight of being a full-time grandmother, though, doesn’t diminish the emotions of giving up teaching.

“You only can feel so lucky that when you leave a career that it makes you sad,” Morse-Rilla said.