It’s been a busy year for 10 3-year-olds in Karen Saxton’s class at St. Patrick’s Episcopal School. Everything seemed new: letters, numbers, manners, big kid rules, and — don’t forget — Baby Shark!

“Baby Shark makes me tired,” one girl sighed.

Saxton, who just celebrated her 20th year teaching 3-year-olds, gave an encouraging reply to keep exhaustion at bay. “That’s a good thing because we are going to sing, then we are going to eat lunch, then you can take a nap,” she said.

Saxton began teaching “everything” to 3-year-olds in 1999. She has established a tradition of service with the staff, parents and students of the preschool. On July 11, she will also celebrate her 39th wedding anniversary. “My marriage is older than some of the people working here,” she said.

What is quite routine for Saxton is the often-scary challenges of learning and socialization for her 3-year-olds. Playing is a teaching tool that entertains while showing, for instance, the different vowel sounds in apples and bananas. “Simple goes with Simple Songs,” Saxton announces before the song exercises teach long and short vowel sounds by swapping the sounds inside of the base of apples and bananas. On this day, it helped show the importance of eating well. When lunch came, each preschooler received a “whole boo-noo-noo.”

No performance of simple songs is completed without the infamous song about the family of baby, mama and daddy sharks swimming and teaching movement and speed. When "Baby Shark" starts amid cheers, the same girl announces, “I wanna rest!”

“Don’t fall asleep,” Saxton said. “You got to each lunch.”

For two decades, Saxton has been first point of contact, outside of the home, for the rules that involve manners (inside voices), etiquette (raise/wash your hands), and love of God and country.

A “Salute to America” paired fire and fireworks safety. The class marched and waved flags in preparation for Independence Day. Each student had a flag, except the tired girl.

One student offered, “I don’t play with fireworks.”

“Children do not play with fireworks; those are for grown-ups only,” Saxton said. “We don’t do fireworks. Mommy and daddy can use fireworks. What is the first word in fireworks: fire. Do children play with fire?”

The students all agree: “No.”

Parents like Don Leese was reassured that his two daughters, now teens, were in a stable, loving learning environment when they were preschoolers. Each day, he recalled how much Saxton’s presence added to the school and his children’s lives.

“She worked at the front desk, so she was quite literally the face of the school to the parents,” he said. “She always had a smile on her face as we went about our hurried schedules. Even when we missed a deadline for pickup, she was always so gracious and understanding.”

The Leese family has been a part of the school and church for more than 10 years, and their daughters attended both preschool and aftercare at St. Patrick’s.

“We had a deep comfort level that our children were well taken of at St. Patrick’s, and you could tell that Miss Karen loved what she was doing,” he said.

The Rev. Ashley Freeman, pastor at St. Patrick’s, echoes what the Leese family experienced.

“The difference between other preschools and places like St. Patrick’s is that it is a part of the ministry of a church and we really are able to focus on the elements of creating a loving, family-oriented type of environment,” he said. “The others can do this also, but we can do that in a really intentional way because it is part of our mission.”

Freeman said having someone who has been a part of the school for 20 years is really helpful because her presence lends itself to the collective memory that families can have.

“When you have someone who has been there for 20 years, there’s a lot of connection to those stories shared in the family,” he said. “It keeps us connected in a very intimate way, and I don’t think you can get that without longevity. That is one of the things that Ms. Karen brings to St. Patrick’s as our most senior teacher at this current time.”

Freeman said he feels all their teachers minister to their students. “Miss Karen is not a member of our church, but she is a faithful Christian who is genuinely trying to live out her ministry and her mission in her work, day to day,” he said.

Freeman said that impact was evident when so many past and current families of students came to celebrate Miss Karen’s 20-year celebration held July 5.

“All that comes from the fact that this may be Karen’s job, I fully believe that this it is also her ministry,” he said.