Agents of change

Monday, February 17, 2014

A few weeks ago I assigned a webinar being hosted by NAEYC as an assignment for my students in my Administration of early childhood programs classes. The topic of the webinar was leadership and I thought it was a timely way to start moving into the overall topic of what it means to lead a program.

Yes, we get to budgeting and staffing patterns, but fundamentally I view this as an advocacy course. I take them through how parents apply for child care assistance, how child care and ECE is funded in the United States, quality rating scales and accreditation. It is sort of an odd course for them, not tied to how to teach precisely, but more about the external world that surround ECE. Important, but not terribly "thrilling".

I assigned some questions to which I wanted them to respond after listening to the webinar. I read their responses this weekend and wanted to talk a little about them in class today.

In one question I asked:

When describing the respect that is afforded Early Childhood teachers, Dr. Washington noted:

“If you are at a cocktail party and people find out you work with young children they go to find someone more interesting.”

Have you experienced this? Why do you think that ECE is thought of as “uninteresting”?

Most responded that they hadn't yet had this experience. On one hand, I was glad. One the other, I knew it was coming. I can't tell you how many times I've watched people glaze over when I talk about what I "do". This started when I was in college and announced my major, stating that I wanted to teach Kindergarten. My stepfather was crestfallen. "But! You have one of the most brilliant minds for literature I've ever seen! You want to just teach colors?! ABC's?!?!"

Yes. I knew, even at age 20, that ECE needed brilliant people. My oppositional nature prepared me to take the hit of professional disrespect, professional denigration and come back swinging with research, facts, and basic child development. 

Imagine when I later announced that I wanted to work with infants.  I think my parents could feel my expensive University of Vermont education burning.

So, there are my students today. It's been snowing since 7 a.m. and the majority have been in their field classrooms from 7:30 until noon. They come snow covered and red cheeked into my classroom. I ask them if they think all professors are paid the same wage. They nod yes. They assume that PhD = same degree = same pay rate.

No. I smile and shake my head.  A professor in the College of Business makes double what I do. We started the same year.

They are stunned. STUNNED. "With a PhD?!? Same as you?". Yep. Same as me. In fact, my alma mater of McGill is probably a higher ranked program than the ones from which they graduated. (McGill is generally ranked between 18 and 21 in the world)

"What does this tell you about the value placed on our profession?"

They are silent. 

They know they will never be wealthy. I've told them the 50% attrition rate of teachers in the first 5 year statistic over and over. I am not looking to inveigle them or hide the truth of what they are facing.  Yet this cold hard fact silences them. Two PhD's. Same university. Vast pay differences.

I move to another question:

A major theme in Dr. Washington’s talk was that we must be the change agents within our profession.  We must take control of our own standards and assessments in order to build the system we want, rather than complain about the one we have inherited.

Do you view yourself as an agent of change? How so?

Now, about half of them answered Yes. They did feel they could be or were agents of change. The other half expressed doubt. They had to do what their cooperative teacher wanted in order to make him/her happy. They had to deliver the canned, standardized curriculum because it was what the district wanted. They wanted to be employed when they graduated, so they were already preparing themselves to conform to ideas they knew, based on research, to be ineffective teaching methods. 

We spend four years teaching them to be creative curriculum creators and they give up as soon as they are handed a "manual" and told to read off the page.

"Listen", I said. "Every one of you is an agent of change. Now sure, you can't kick down the door and change everything the first day...but you can defend what you know to be right - based on what you know about child development. You can ask Why - over and over - just like you are a three year old. Why are we doing this? Why are we changing this? Is this really what is best?

Use research. It is here for you. Arm yourself with best practice. 

Teach parents what to expect. Help them be advocates for their children. 

Don't be afraid to say "no, thanks" to a job that isn't right for you. Sometimes you get fired. I did. I got canned as Director - partly because I was soft hearted and rotten with money, but also because I wanted my staff to earn more, and get better benefits and I wouldn't cram 24 kids into a classroom with 2 teachers. I valued quality over quantity. After I was done crying for two weeks because I was sure I had tanked my career at age 32 and was a failure, I found another job. You'll fail, but it doesn't mean game over.  

YOU are the gatekeepers. Each of you. You stand between children who want to love to learn and this insanity surrounding us - knowing full well that we will never be paid as we deserve and will most likely be blamed for things that are out of our control. 

Be subversive. Be smarter than stupid laws or mandates. Get in the system and maneuver through it. We change systems from the inside. We prove to individual people - parents, other teachers and administrators - that a play based curriculum delivers far better results than 1st graders filling in worksheets. 

I need you to believe that you are agents of change because I believe you can be. The day you truly  believe you have no power as a teacher, that you are a cog in the machine? You need to leave that job. You deserve better than that. Those children deserve better than that."

And then I started the next part of class. 

Fun with Eyeshadow

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

We all realize that I am just a 4 year old with toys, right?

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