Remembering Sara Wilford '72

Sara Wilford reading to children

Sarah Lawrence College mourns the loss of Sara Wilford ’72, a beloved and respected member of the college community from her time as a student through her many influential roles as a faculty member and program founder and director.

“Sara believed that every child—and, therefore, every person—has in them from day one what they need to succeed,” said President Cristle Collins Judd. “She devoted her life, in a truly selfless way, to helping everyone she encountered tap into their strengths to realize their potential. She did that for countless students—of all ages—and colleagues at Sarah Lawrence, and, in many ways, she did that for the College itself.”

Sara Wilford

Throughout her remarkable career dedicated to children’s learning and growth, Wilford shared her considerable talents, immeasurable knowledge, and generous, nurturing spirit with Sarah Lawrence for more than 30 years. She joined the psychology faculty in 1982, teaching courses connecting child development theory to educational practice. She went on to direct the College’s Early Childhood Center (ECC), an on-campus laboratory pre-school that serves as a place for observation and research by graduate and undergraduate students, from 1982-2003. In 1985, she founded the Art of Teaching graduate program and served as director until her retirement in 2014, mentoring hundreds of future educators along the way. An enormous influence on the College’s focused excellence in the areas of children, childhood, and education, Sara also co-founded the Child Development Institute (CDI) in 1989, which serves to develop programs for early childhood and elementary school teachers, administrators, child development professionals, and parents through professional development and community outreach programs. 

“All these programs that Sara either founded or led or helped develop—CDI, ECC, Art of Teaching, Child Development—are so connected today and work together as a truly collaborative group,” said Child Development Institute Director Tricia Hanley MS Ed '08 MA '13. “And that all began with Sara.”

Wilford’s contributions to the educational establishment at-large include experience as an early childhood and public elementary school teacher, the publication of books about childhood learning (Tough Topics: How to Use Books in Talking with Children about Life Issues and Problems; What You Need to Know When Your Child Is Learning to Read; and Nurturing Young Children’s Disposition to Learn), contributing to innumerable scholastic articles and texts, and serving frequently as a keynote speaker and workshop leader for seminars and conferences on early childhood education.

In May 2020, the College bestowed on Wilford a Doctorate in Humane Letters, Honoris Causa during graduate commencement. In honor of this occasion, a number of colleagues and past students paid tribute to Wilford, and psychology faculty member Charlotte Doyle penned a letter to her colleague of nearly 40 years. “With everyone you meet,” she wrote, “you listen with empathy, you discover strengths, you create opportunities for their development, you change lives.”

Sara Wilford changed and empowered many lives through her dedicated work at Sarah Lawrence College, and our community will forever be grateful.

Sara’s family has asked that donations be made in her honor to the Sara Wilford ‘72 Fund for Early Childhood Education at Sarah Lawrence.

Tributes from the Sarah Lawrence Community

Denisha Jones (Director, Art of Teaching) and Rue Beckerman (Guest Faculty and Alumna)

Sara held many roles at Sarah Lawrence, but the nearest to our hearts was that of director of the Art of Teaching program, a position she held from the program's founding in 1985 until her retirement in 2014. Over those many years, Sara was a devoted, loving mentor to hundreds of aspiring teachers, generously providing both professional and personal guidance and support to so many. Her commitment to progressive education, to educational equity, to the art of teaching, and, most of all, to children was and remains an inspiration to all of us.

Mary Hebron (Former Director, Art of Teaching)

Sara and I met while we were teaching in the primary wing of Bronxville Elementary School and found ourselves to be kindred spirits, sharing stories of children and teaching. In 1985, Sara asked me to work with her in designing a graduate teacher education program at Sarah Lawrence College. This would become the essence of my work over more than 30 years, working alongside Sara over most of them. I owe everything to Sara—for the vision she engendered and for the love and support she granted to me.

Sara and I both found leaving the teaching of children to be a great loss, but we also believed  that preparing teachers for their work with children to be an equally important mission. When Sara was invited to create the graduate teacher education program at SLC, she recognized the philosophic compatibility between the undergraduate college and what was foundational to the education program she hoped to create. Sara’s commitment to children and teaching was so strong and clear, her leadership and devotion unwavering. Working alongside Sara over those many years made evident to me the clarity with which she saw the mission, as well as her ability to carry forward across disparate contexts the essence of what she believed in. 

Sara’s generosity and willingness to listen and support were the bedrock of her leadership. Her deep understanding of children and of teaching was always her guiding light. We together shaped a curriculum that defied narrow definition, founded on the belief in teachers and children as makers of their own meaning and knowledge. She fought hard for what she believed in but always with diplomacy and grace. Our students benefitted from Sara’s open heart and open mind. Her determination to bring into the Art of Teaching program a diversity of students was resolute, giving our students the capacity to see and hear beyond their own experience.

Sara Wilford’s life’s work, her commitment to children and teaching, continue in the Art of Teaching graduate program, and in schools and classrooms near and far where Art of Teaching alumni continue her caring mission. Sara will be sorely missed but we must carry on, bringing forward what she hoped for and aspired to.

Lorayne Carbon (Director, Early Childhood Center)

Sara held many titles here at Sarah Lawrence, but for us in the Early Childhood Center the most important one was Director of the ECC from 1988-2003. Sara had an enormous impact on the ECC faculty, many of whom who were hired by Sara and worked along side her for years. Each of us at the ECC are thankful for Sara's presence in our lives and her devotion and passion to what she loved most—teaching.

Tricia Hanley MS Ed '08 MA '13 (Director, Child Development Institute)

Sara shared with all of us her devotion to children and teaching, along with her steadfast belief in the power of high quality early childhood education. She had many roles at the College, all related to children, childhood, and education, and co-founding the Child Development Institute is just one of those very impactful and influential roles.

Each of us in the CDI Advisory Group are thankful for the ways Sara touched our lives and guided our work. We are grateful that she remained an active voice and touchstone, even after her retirement from the College.

Niambi A. Murray, M.S.Ed. (Alumna)

The profound depth of impact Sara has had on education and people’s lives is a legacy that will forever carry on. From my first meeting with her as a candidate I still feel the warmth of the hug she gave me to welcome me to the Art of Teaching program. I immediately felt a connected belonging to this community and practice. Sara set a tone of brilliant resilience and humanity in all the ways that I saw her. Her foundation infused every aspect of being a part of the Art of Teaching program.

Carol Hillman (Professional Advisory Board Member)

Sara played an important role in guiding us all. What a magnificent woman! I am very deeply saddened by her loss, and have vowed to do the best possible work I can to honor her memory.

Miriam Arond (Professional Advisory Board Member)

Sara was an inspiration. Her deep compassion for and dedication to children made such an impact. I was honored to have her as a member of Child Magazine’s Expert Advisory Board and always welcomed her insights and input. She will be greatly missed but her influence will be felt for years to come.

Indhira Blackwood (Professional Advisory Board Member)

Sara was such a special person. I feel deeply grateful to have met her. I learned so much from her. She was a true inspiration. I am comforted to think about how much of that beautiful light she shared with all those she touched and so her light is being carried on by so many people in these incredible ways.

Bill Crain, (Professional Advisory Board Member)

We are so fortunate to have known this wonderful woman.