Longtime early childhood education center director retires after nearly 4 decades
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There aren’t many people who have made as powerful and far-reaching an impact on the lives of children and families locally and across the state as Discovery Learning Center Director Tami Havener, who retired at the end of May after a 40-year career devoted to early childhood education.
Not only has Havener made an indelible impression caring for thousands of young children during the period when 90% of their brains develop — she has been active in the political sphere as an advocate for early childhood education and educators, as a central resource for families and child care providers in the Yampa Valley and in the training of teachers both at her center and teaching at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs and Colorado Northwestern Community College.
Under the umbrella of the nonprofit Steamboat Family Development Center, Havener also started the Child Care Network and the Newborn Network — extending her reach in the community far beyond her center, and just the kids who come through her doors.
Those two networks provide free resources, referrals and programs for all families and educators in Routt County.
Havener moved to Steamboat with her family in 1973 when she was in high school. She left for college, met her husband, moved around a little and then returned to the Yampa Valley for good.
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In 1984 she was hired as a teacher at Discovery Learning Center. A year later, Havener was hired as director.
When the center was smaller, Havener spent about half her time teaching and half in her role as director. From there, it grew, moving into their current building on Village Drive in 1995.
In terms of what has changed in the 40 years she’s spent in early childhood education, it’s been “dad involvement,” she said. “Especially in the past 20 years.”
And more technology, “but I don’t know that that’s always a good thing,” she added.
What hasn’t changed, she said, has been the love parents have for their kids, how dedicated teachers are, how many times a day a young child laughs and the importance of social and emotional development.
Among all the teachers who have worked under Havener, she identified some common characteristics in the making of a successful early childhood instructor as being flexible and having patience. But also a really good sense of humor and respect for the children, parents and colleagues.
Havener asks all new recruits to go through a prioritizing of values exercise. She’s learned that she can impart knowledge and skills, but not the disposition best for teaching young children.
Current Discovery Learning Center teacher John Schoen said it was Havener who kept him in this field at times when he thought maybe it wasn’t the right pick.
“She always believed in me enough to keep me going, and I really appreciate it. Because I absolutely love my career,” Schoen said.
Schoen describes Havener as “knowledgeable and caring.” And as a boss, he gives this anecdote: Schoen got into a minor fender bender while driving the center bus, bending the mirror. And he felt terrible. Really terrible. When he went into Havener’s office to break the news, she just gave him a big hug.
“(Havener) cares so deeply for the children and families she has built relationships with,” said parent Sarah Burg. “Her caring ways shined through instantly in March when the first day of the pandemic had us all home. Tami called to check in on my family and I. She wanted to make sure everyone was doing okay and wanted to be of help if we needed anything.”
Burg said Havener’s “fierce dedication” to early childhood education was made clear from the beginning.
“Tami’s impact on the overall growth, development and wellbeing of our children during their days at Discovery Learning Center has been exceptional,” Burg said. “What I did not realize in that moment of our first introduction, was the amount of support Tami would be in the future to my husband and I as parents.”
Havener gravitated her career toward educating the littlest ones because they are fun and open and honest, curious and caring,” she said. One of the most common misperceptions of preschool-aged children, she explained, is “low expectations of what kids are capable of.”
Part of the mission statement of the Discovery Learning Center is “the goal of everyone working with the children is to help each child have more positive feelings about him/herself, including confidence in the ability to learn, increasing self-control, positive social relationships and exploring new experiences. The result of these skills is confident, competent, caring children.”
Havener’s political advocacy has mostly occurred in the past 15 years, as she’s held a role as policy chair of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado. She has testified a number of times before the state legislature. One of her proudest victories was in helping to increase the preschool eligibility age from 4 years old to 3. She also served on the Steamboat Springs School Board.
But her interest in politics started early. Havener was studying economics and political science in college before shifting to early childhood education.
“I love being able to have the hands-on impact with kids and have the opportunity to see them and their family on a daily basis,” she said. “But there are also bigger changes that make life better for everyone. And the only way to make that change happen is to be politically involved at a policy or advocate level.”
Both levels of impact, Havener said, are important.
“Politically, she really fights for the educator,” Schoen said. “She’s done so much for early childhood education. When she knows she’s right, she will fight for it. And politically that takes a different kind of person — to know what they are talking about when it comes to dealing with bureaucrats.”
One of the things Havener will miss most are the kids who come in the office every day to say goodbye and have a little chat.
Just a few weeks into official retirement, Havener said she is enjoying it. Her husband, Scott, planned his retirement at the same time. They have big plans: selling their house and moving into an RV and hitting the road, first west to Wyoming and Montana then down to Orlando for some time at Disney World. A native California girl, Havener has always loved everything Disney.
She said it’s their dream to truly take time in exploring different parts of the country. And while she’s never even spent a night in an RV, Havener admit their brand new one is fairly plush — with a fireplace, double sinks in the bathroom and a wet bar. Once she toured a few, Havener said she thought, “I could do this.”
Havener also has peace of mind in her successor, Colleen Miller, with whom she worked for 14 years.
“I have complete faith in the leadership set up to move the program and mission forward,” Havener said, describing Miller as “one of the kindest people you will ever meet.”
But there is no doubt Havener will be missed.
“Her biggest contribution to community is in her knowledge and how much she cares for kids,” Scheon said. “She’s done so much for early childhood education — and it’s her decisiveness along with her knowledge I will miss — how sure she is about what she’s doing, and that she’s doing it for the community.”
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