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Affecting change through leadership

Affecting change through leadership

February 21, 2017 | By Ron Spreeuwenberg
This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #32" Affecting change through leadership”

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.

INTRO: In this week's episode we discuss how to affect change to advance the accessibility of quality childcare for all children. Today we are really excited to be in conversation with Lynette Fraga, a leading voice for policy change in her role as executive director for Child Care Aware of America.

Lynette began her career on the floor and was driven to take on multiple leadership roles by her passion to provide quality, accessible care for all young children on a national level. In our conversation we highlight the needs and value childcare as a profession and discuss how educators can harness their passion to be leaders and create awareness for the field.

If you're a teacher or director looking for inspiration and how to empower yourself and others around you, then stay tuned for this episode of the Preschool Podcast.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Lynette, thanks so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today.

Lynette FRAGA: Thank you for having me.

SPREEUWENBERG: Lynette, why did you decide to enter the field of early childhood education? Let's start right from the beginning. /div>

I started to take a look – I'm a bit of a learner. So I started to unpack what kinds of things we knew about what happened in early childhood and child development, had taken a child development course. That sort of hung out in the back of my mind. [I] did graduate with a degree in special education. I moved out of state into a new town, a new state, and had an opportunity to work at an early-childhood center.

When I arrived there I was really beginning to fall in love with how amazing the teachers were, and the fact that, “Hmm, maybe this is something I could be interested in.” But I have to tell you, my first experience – being a teacher, in an infant room. I had never worked before in an early-childhood or childcare experience – was actually kind of striking.

A mom came early in the morning on my first full day to drop off their 18-month-old. And I looked into her eyes. She looked in my eyes. And we were probably equally as terrified. I felt really, really unprepared and not quite sure what I should be doing. And it was actually at that moment that I really felt like, not only did I really appreciate and love the work I was doing, but I also felt really underprepared for the work that I was doing.

And that's when I got into sort of this sense of, “Wow, we should really be doing more around professional development.” And I began to think about, “How do we support those that are supporting young kids? Those just beginning to learn things around the impact of early childhood years?” But at that moment I really fell in love with the idea of working in early-childhood education. So I started off in one place and landed in an infant classroom, and really loved it.

SPREEUWENBERG: You spent some time in the infant classroom, you learned about what it takes to be an early childhood educator on the floor, so to speak. But then you went on to make an impact outside of the classroom. When did that you wanted to make this more broadly?

FRAGA: As I shared, I did, to your point, fall in love in an infant classroom. I also was in a three-to-five-year-old classroom. And, again, professional development was really an area where I was eager to learn more. I wanted to know more, began going to workshops, going to getting some additional education around early-childhood. And it was at that moment, the more I learned, the more I learned how important the early years were, the more I understood about brain development and the production of neural connections – seven hundred every second, all of those sorts of facts and understandings about the impact of early-childhood education and how it could really have a significant impact on long-term outcomes for kids. I felt like I might want to know more about, “How do we amplify this field that's so critical?”

And at that time, and – even as we still struggle today about making sure that individuals know the importance of early-childhood education – I really felt compelled to start raising my voice about how important early-childhood education was. I moved again and had an opportunity to work in the military childcare system in Europe. There may be some more recent data, but in [the] early 2000 there is data about the military childcare system in the United States. The National Association for Education of Young Children accreditation rate for centers is 96%, as compared to 6% and or 8% in the civilian sector at that time. We had a lot of growth to do, essentially. And so I thought that there was really an opportunity for us to sort of think about a national change to childcare.

And so I decided at that point in time that I really wanted to do more in the policy arena. I wanted to do more about how to affect program change. I became a child center director, which was the hardest job I ever loved. It was a great job but it was really, really tough. A lot of responsibility. But it also was a lot of exposure to supporting teachers in the classroom, getting to know families and family needs, understanding systems and how systems and policies can really support or detract from quality care. So a lot of learning going on.

I stepped out of the classroom into an administrative role, as I shared. And, again, the more I learned, the more I sort of stretched myself. The more I knew, I felt like I could make an impact on a systems level. So then I went back to school, and again felt like there were some gaps in the connections between what was happening in the early-childhood classroom and how we were engaged with families, as teachers and administrators and centers.

My Ph.D. is in family studies. I really wanted to draw a connection between what was happening in the classroom and what was happening in families and communities. And, again, [I] began to stretch myself and think about, “Wow, there's a lot that has to happen within communities and on a local state and national level on the policy front.

SPREEUWENBERG: And so you transitioned from these positions where you're in the classroom, you had a director position. And then you moved into these more administrative roles, sort of at the systems level as you mentioned. How did you balance that with what seems to be a desire to help children one-on-one and face-to-face? Because that's a common theme in the Podcast, where we do have people who take on leadership positions, such as yourself. But you're kind of missing that face-to-face piece now with the children in the classroom. How do you reconcile that?

FRAGA: It's so tough. And I think much of it comes from, “How do you how do you discover the kinds of strengths that you bring to a very broad field, with a lot of opportunities to take on a leadership role?” Individual teachers can make such a difference in their skillset and passion. And connection really comes from the relationship between themselves as a teacher, the children, and the families. You see magic happen, and that's so exciting.

And then there are those individuals who have such a passion for making a difference and ensuring that those people who make magic happen with kids – and kids make magic happen with those teachers – have the space in order to do that. And that takes policy work; that takes community based work.

And so though I love that time that I had in the classroom – and the opportunities I had to work with teachers in the classroom – it certainly has been a challenge to be at that more separated from that experience, in terms of being at the policy level or at the national policy level.

However, the passion that drove that young teacher in the infant-toddler classroom that was really concerned about taking on that 18-month-old still lives. And I have found a way to live that same kind of passion out through that kind of advocacy and administrative and policy work that I'm now engaged in today. And, , oftentimes it's hard to make those changes. But I think for many I would suggest: “How do you find your best passion? How do you optimize the strengths and the skillsets that you bring to make sure that those that teach in the classroom get to do that work well, and those that are trying to build the systems that support teachers and families and kids have the opportunity to do that well as well?”

SPREEUWENBERG: And would you say that your passion was really the primary driver towards taking progressive positions of leadership in early-childhood education? Because I think a lot of our listeners would agree that there is a need for more professional development, and there is a need for more work at the policy and systems level. But you made the actual leap to do those things. What was the intrinsic motivation? Was it passion for change?

FRAGA: I think you're absolutely right. It was less about identifying myself as someone who would be in a “position of leadership”, which I think we all are, regardless of what role we play. But it was really about my choosing positions that I was passionate about, which was really about learning more to do better at the work I was doing at the time. So whether it was the infant-teacher in that classroom, really feeling passion about really wanting to do the best I could do for those babies and toddlers in my classroom. And learning about that and extending instructing myself and moving on to being a CDC director, a school-aged director.

As I learned more I began to understand that it could affect and advocate change at multiple levels and continue to live out that passion for the change that I felt could be affected – and, frankly, needed to be effected – in growing that-early childhood field.

SPREEUWENBERG: And so if I am an early-childhood professional and I'm listening to this podcast and I'm also passionate about making change, how can I go about making a change as an individual, when trying to just manage a classroom is difficult enough?

FRAGA: Absolutely, it's difficult enough. I would say for those that are listening and may want to take on their own path, what can they do every day? First I would say, talk to others about what you know. Be an ambassador to your profession and talk about the impact of your work. Talk, in your everyday interactions, about the importance of the work that you do.

Many times early-childhood educators underestimate or are undervalued and under-respected, and the impact they make on the children that are in their care. Talk about the return on investment for every dollar spent. James Heckman, the famous economist, is saying that up to a $13 return on investment for every dollar – which is new data that's just come out in the last couple of weeks – that's a tremendous impact that you're making as a teacher in the classroom. Share the good news. Share about how important it is that we talk to others, and share about the importance of the earliest years.

Learn about the issues. That's the second thing I would share. There are so many challenges and opportunities in addition to focusing on what kind of change you are affecting every day, to everyone you can speak to. It's also about, how can you learn more about the policies that affect things like work force; things like cost of early-childhood education; things like ensuring that children with special needs have access to early-childhood education; things like ensuring there are equitable childcare and early-childhood programs for kids and families. Those are all really important issues. And what part of those issues – or all of those issues – do you really feel fired up about that you can learn more about? Learn a little bit more about it.

And also share your own story. For many teachers, they are, to your point, working really hard every day and trying to fill up their day with so many things they're doing in the classroom. Share the story about what that looks like. And go to your policymakers and share about the kinds of impact you're making and the kinds of change that you'd like to see in order to make your job even more impactful. Share the challenges with your policymakers about that. And that could be a letter; that could be an email; that could be a visit to a legislator. Put yourself out there. Take that step of advocacy and share what you know best: your story about being an early-childhood educator.

SPREEUWENBERG: Would you go so far as to say that, as an early-childhood educator, you have somewhat of a responsibility to do these types of things?

FRAGA: I absolutely would go as far as to say that. And, again, how that presents itself could be very different for each individual. However, what we know is that there is so much that early-childhood educators can do to affect positive change. And, again, it doesn't have to be a huge lift or a change from the classroom to someone like myself who's at a national organization. It can simply be your telling the story that you know needs to be told, so that we can ensure that all children have access to early-childhood education and quality early-childhood education. If not us, who will raise the voices for those children who we're trying to support to do so well for positive outcomes later in life?

SPREEUWENBERG: I think what strikes me as quite interesting in this conversation is that early-childhood educators are working with our youngest children, who are obviously very vulnerable and fragile. And so it's almost similar to other professions where they are responsible for serious outcomes in people's lives, like medicine, engineering and law. And with that comes these responsibilities, and so it's almost like we have to start thinking about early-childhood education more as a profession. Is that something that you think is a relevant topic of conversation for early-childhood education?

FRAGA: Absolutely. About a little over a year ago there was a report released by the National Academies called, “Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8”. And therein lies over 800-1000 pages that really reflected that very issue, is the transformation of those that are working with children from birth through age 8, and the necessity of paying attention to this workforce as a profession. And how do we that are in that profession take the reins and self-define who we are in our best selves and working with children and families to evolve ourselves as a profession? And how do we effectively support each other, and those that are coming up through higher education or that are currently providing care to an early-childhood education to young children? How do we support each other and create frameworks so that we can evolve an effective profession to do the kinds of things that we need to do for kids and families during such an important time?

And there [are] some major challenges that exist as a result of thinking about ourselves as a profession. Things like access to higher education, the financing associated with early-childhood education and it's impact on the workforce and the salary of the workforce, et cetera. So there are some very systemic and policy challenges to be faced as we evolve ourselves as a profession.

But to your point, the importance of those that care for children and educate children from birth are critically important for long-term outcomes, particularly for the most vulnerable families. We know that there is a significant return on that investment and we have to invest not only in the programs that serve children and families but also certainly have to invest and respect those individuals that provide that early-childhood education that is so meaningful.

SPREEUWENBERG: You're obviously very well-versed in a lot of the issues facing early-childhood education. But let's say if I'm just starting out my career as an early-educator and I'm kind of curious about having an impact in this field at maybe an administrative level – what advice would you have to me in terms of whether I know if that's the right path for my career? Or what is it that you, for example, enjoy most about having that type of a role?

FRAGA: One thing that I really would encourage anyone who is thinking about taking on a more administrative role is to really seek to understand what's happening within the highest-touch situations in early-childhood education. In other words, if you haven't been in the classroom, if you haven't been and a family childcare or other early-childhood education setting, to really create some experiences where you have a good, solid understanding of what's happening in those environments. Because as an administrator the best that you can do is to ensure that the policies in the systems that you're creating are really reflective of that which those that are really working with children and families need. So that would be my first suggestion.

The second is to identify, again, what your strengths are. And think about, if you're really passionate about making big change in programs and in systems, step into the role. Try it out. Put yourself in a situation where you can really understand if that's the best space for you.

I myself love the opportunity to be able to learn more and more about – and have interactions with – individuals who are in the deep end of the pool around research, around early-childhood; those that have their hands on policy and policy change; and those that are engaged in the best kinds of practices out there, trying to replicate and think about how all kids can have access to that.

I get very excited about the opportunity of big change and big system change. As frustrating and challenging as it can be at times, the opportunities to see the benefits of broad change so that all families can have the kinds of access to quality early-childhood education really motivates me because I know so much happens during those first years of life. And it's pretty exciting to think about how a group of organizations, a group of people that are really committed and passionate to this work, can affect that change.

And we need, by the way, leaders everywhere. Whether they be in the classroom, whether they be in partnership with families, whether it be at programs or whether they be legislators or national organization leaders, we really do need everyone in order to change the systems [in] the kinds of ways that we really need it to change.

SPREEUWENBERG: Absolutely. And I think what resonates with me is, we're talking a lot about leadership, which is a big focus of the Preschool Podcast generally, and in this episode in particular. But you also mentioned the word “learning” quite frequently, and in fact that's one of the things you enjoy most about your role is always learning. I think those two things really do go hand-in-hand, leadership and learning.

And I think, in particular, I feel we're just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we're learning about early-childhood education. For example you mentioned just the latest research from Heckman on the return on investment. It's amazing what we're learning and how much more we can learn, I think.

FRAGA: Without a doubt, we are at the tip of the iceberg. We've done a tremendous amount of learning around brain development and brain research in the last few decades. We continue to learn about long-term impact and how early-childhood education and early-childhood educators are really in positions to affect the kind of long-term outcomes for kids that we're only just beginning to know and understand.

As we think about those educators, again, that are in the classrooms or those early-childhood educators in their profession that are trying to integrate all of this new science, it feels a little overwhelming and feels like, “What more can I learn about early literacy. What do we really know about numeracy? How do we effect change? What kinds of ways am I integrating the best of what we know about the importance of social-emotional development into my classroom and into my early-childhood setting? How do I think about engaging families in all of this great science and understanding about what happens in the earliest years for even more positive outcomes?”

I think that there's so much that we know, certainly. But there is, to your point, much more that we are learning about the science and neuroscience, in addition to creating programs that are really integrating all of that knowledge. And we've got a ways to go. I think we're at a tipping point in many ways, as well, as being at the tip of a pen in terms of our knowledge. We really are at a tipping point where more and more people I think have a real understanding about why it's important. Now it's digging in more to, “How do we affect change as a result of what we know, and how do we even learn more to do it better?”

SPREEUWENBERG: - I 100% agree, which is why it's such an interesting time for early-childhood education. And to your message, just to reiterate: We need those leaders to lead that change. Awesome message, Lynette.

We could go on talking about this for hours, because we’re passionate about this subject. Unfortunately we only have so much time. If people want to learn more about Child Care Aware of America and what you're doing there, where would they go to find more information, Lynette?

FRAGA: They can visit us on our website at USA.ChildCareAware.org

SPREEUWENBERG: Wonderful. Lynette, thank you so much for coming on the Preschool Podcast.

FRAGA: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.

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