Championing the Child’s Perspective

Barbara McNichol came to teach at Penn Charter’s Lower School in 1988, on the heels of a long career as a social worker helping former prisoners reenter society. Those who knew her best at PC knew it was a deep-seated love for children that led McNichol back to graduate school and into a second career in the classroom.

And despite the delayed entry into the world of teaching, she was surprisingly ahead of her time.

Early in her eight-year tenure at PC, for instance, McNichol pitched an idea to her colleagues in kindergarten that she had picked up from a professor: stocking the classroom with pencils of various sizes and letting the kids choose whichever one felt best to them. The proposal represented a break from the traditional one-jumbo-size-fits-all approach to writing implements the kindergarten team had been following.

“It was a revolutionary idea to let the choice be made by the students,” recalled Beckie Miller Hon. 1689, one of McNichol’s co-teachers at the time, but McNichol was set on following her professor’s research-backed advice. “She was adamant about it; it was important to her.” And a multiplicity of pencils prevailed.

“I remember looking back years later and thinking, That’s the kind of educator we want in place, somebody who explains to you, ‘We’re not just going to order the same old pencils every year because that’s what we do. We’re going to rethink this from a child’s perspective.’”

McNichol, who died in 2010, would be right at home in PC’s modern-day Lower School, where a fervor for child- centered education has inspired division-wide forays into project-based learning and the Reggio Emilia approach used in pre-K that emphasizes experiential, self-directed curriculum. These days it’s all about rethinking things from the child’s perspective.

In addition to her capacities as social worker and classroom innovator, McNichol was an experienced gardener and trained musician who performed with the prestigious Singing City Choir. She lived with her husband, Jack, an architectural consultant, in Chestnut Hill and later at a Quaker-based senior living community in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Jack passed away in 2019, prompting the release of funds the McNichols had set aside for

Barbara McNichol (left) with friend and colleague Kathy MacKnight at MacKnight’s farewell party in 1992.

Penn Charter and earmarked to support students of color in the Lower School.

Retired kindergarten teacher Chris Christoph Hon. 1689 said the McNichols’ bequest is a fitting postscript to Barbara’s time at PC.

“That doesn’t surprise me one single bit. She really valued children and wanted to make sure that anyone who needed a helping hand could get it.”

And while Christoph recalled McNichol as a “thorough professional” versed in the finer points of early childhood education, she also believes the most significant lessons McNichol imparted to her students weren’t purely academic.

“She really did a nice job of teaching values to the kids. She taught sharing, she taught caring for one another, being generous and kind. That’s what I remember about her most.”

McNichol’s appearance, like her teaching style, was refined but unpretentious. Miller remembers “crystal blue” eyes and the short cropped hair that she reportedly trimmed herself. “She wasn’t caught up in the ‘properness’ of presenting herself, but she was always put together.”

“If there’s one word to describe her, it’s elegant,” said former PC teacher Kathy MacKnight, who considered McNichol a close friend until her death. “She just had this way of moving through the world in a very elegant way.”

She was a “motherly” figure for kindergarteners, added Judi Morrow, who taught with McNichol during the 1988-89 school year.

And her affection for children wasn’t limited to students, either. McNichol fussed over Christoph’s infant son Jonathan OPC ’07 when his mother brought him to PC to visit, and later offered to watch Miller’s son Tate OPC ’16 once a week during her retirement.

Miller, who happened to be a neighbor, took her up on it; she could tell the arrangement was mutually beneficial based on the joy it brought her friend and former colleague.

And how very like Barbara McNichol, with two careers under her belt, to put in a third act as a volunteer babysitter. PC

The Barbara and John McNichol Fund will support students of color in Penn Charter’s Lower School through an endowed scholarship. There are also plans to honor Barbara with a dedication in Penn Charter’s new Lower School building.