Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.
In this week’s episode we take a closer look at creating alignment between planning in the boardroom and practice in the classroom. In our conversation with Carole Al-Kahouaji we dive deeper into the scenarios that teachers and administrators face when working with the many parts of running a program.
We discuss the different methodologies in early-childhood education, how to foster a healthy relationship between teachers and parents, as well as the importance of seeing teachers as professionals, valuing them for work that they do. We compare the way different countries implement their programming, from Germany to Italy to France, Japan and more, and the different emphases on maintaining teacher well-being in order to create a low-stress environment that promotes play and active community building for young children. If you are looking to learn more about how to create alignment and be inspired by how different countries approach early-childhood education, then stay tuned for this episode of the Preschool Podcast.
Carole, welcome to the Preschool Podcast. So great to have you on the show.
And then I again founded several other schools that began with early-childhood, and then moved forward to twelfth grade. And then I was the head of a school here in Washington D.C., where we went from 3- through 11-years-old. And then we added middle school. I was always very, very involved in early-childhood in all kinds of different ways: training teachers, developing programs, helping other people develop programs.
I’ve always been involved in it, but I must say that I’ve always been passionate about it. And even now after all these iterations I’m still really, really passionate about it and really hoping that I could find a way to influence best practice and support people who are trying to do that in the field. It’s more important than anything else and again I think there’s always a disconnect between what we do in early-childhood what happens later on. So how we do that and the way that we do that is really important.
Absolutely. Quite a range of experience in this field of teaching in early-childhood education. How have you used that experience to do what you’re doing today? And maybe you can tell us a little bit more about what it is that you’re getting up to today.
Having been in different leadership positions in early-childhood and then really being involved in teacher training and curriculum development I work with people who are starting new schools or improving existing schools and/or centers. I help people really look at themselves the way that maybe a lot of those accreditation programs provide you with self-study and help them really see where they’re at, and then maybe share with them about what other people are doing and what they might do in their school to better serve their students.
It runs the gamut. I do some teacher training but I also work a lot with early-childhood center leaders and principals in private schools where they have early-childhood programs. Now I’m able to, with that broad experience, help other people improve and change and advance what they’re doing.
And what are some of the ways that these programs are applying the learnings that you’re working with them on. [Are] there certain areas where there’s a focus? Or is it really different from one school to the next?
There’s some common issues, let’s say. I think sometimes we have to separate the business operations from the education part, and I help with that as well. Oftentimes people who are leaders in many early-childhood centers are passionate educators but they don’t necessarily have a lot of training in how to run a business. That is problematic. So when we separate those things out and kind of see where we are in both arenas then I work with them in helping them, for instance, look at what’s really happening there in their school in terms of what teachers are actually doing. They oftentimes have something that they state as what they think they’re doing. But I try as much as possible to help them look at what’s actually happening, and then helping them bridge that gap between what that ideal – if they could wave a magic wand and improve everything and make it with the most fantastic early-childhood program in the world, what would you do?
And then from that I start helping them form a plan because, again, you’re going to have a lot of goals. But if you don’t have a plan for executing them and who’s responsible [for] all of those kinds of issues, when are you going to do this? Who’s going to do it? How are you going to know that you were successful? How are you going to communicate it to your parents, to your teachers, to your students, to the community? It’s getting all of that aligned.
And, again, there’s some resistance sometimes. But I think what I’ve enjoyed most about it, what I think has been most effective about it, is I do have one goal in mind, and that is to help them. I’m not trying to do anything other than serve them. So I tend to be away from the political ins-and-outs of what’s going on within their team, and hopefully can really support all of them and help them take charge and to see their roles more clearly.
It sounds like something you’re almost implying is that you have to challenge them and their current views on what they’re currently doing in order to help them.
Yes. And as we know it’s so easy to say the way you are. But what I hear most often at the very beginning is – we’re looking at best practice and early-childhood – I will hear, “Oh we do that. Oh, we always do that. Of course we do that. Oh, we know that.” But then it’s matching up what is actually visible and saying, “Let’s look at these two things and see if they are aligned.”
So there’s some finessing that I have to do and try to keep everybody on board and everybody taking away the threat so that they can let go and take risks, which they absolutely must in order to improve. It’s taking risks in their own practices as practitioners and saying. “I’m going to try this. I don’t feel comfortable but I think it’s probably the right thing to do.” And then I try as much as I can to really support them in that, and kind of hold their hands and model for them from time, and help them set up some peer coaching. And so they see themselves as a group rather than competitors. They see themselves as working together.
One thing that you mentioned which is interesting is… it sounds like a common thing you run into is, what the early-childhood programs think they’re doing and what they’re actually doing are different. Can you give an example of that?
One of the things is the curriculum area. We’re teaching that. It might be written down somewhere but it’s actually not what’s going on in the classroom, where they’ll say, “Yes, we believe in child-centered learning,” when in fact it’s very teacher-centered. That’s a common thing that’s difficult for people to see, and there’s reasons for that. A lot of it has to do with the pressure that is coming down to early-childhood educators related to high-stakes testing. And so what I try to help them understand is that best practice in early-childhood will prepare them for high stakes testing, because they’ll be confident, they’ll be able to learn. They’ll have a background, they’ll have a basic conceptual foundation.
And that’s the best way to prepare them for that. It isn’t the best way to do drill-and-kill. Unfortunately I’ve been seeing lately a lot of drill-and-kill getting pushed down to younger and younger grades, to the point where I saw a group of two-year-olds memorizing flash cards and letter cards and sitting silently while the teacher shows them all these things. And then, the teacher correcting them because they’re not focused. Obviously that’s totally inappropriate for two-year-olds. They learn; for sure, they learn. But it’s how you do that. How do you introduce that. How do you expose them to that?
Interesting. Do you think there’s any other causes of this misalignment, in addition to this pressure on the teachers with the testing?
I think that’s one cause, and then it becomes… because parents don’t always know they want the best for their children. And so they might think the best for their children is, “I want to make sure my child’s prepared for the next level of education.” Which is obviously a perfect goal; of course they do. And it’s the early-childhood educators… it’s difficult to have them as your customers but still help them understand what best practice and early-childhood looks like.
They often get intimidated by that, and it’s a little harder to articulate. It can’t be measured. You have to do things like observations and share with parents how you know that this is where your child is right now. How do you know that, other than a standardized test? You deal with it in different ways.
Also I think that there’s a lot of early-childhood educators – and I love them, and I want to help them always – but I think they’re often ill-prepared, and they know a lot about it but they don’t know how to do it. They might be able to take a test themselves and delineate everything about what a Montessori program has, what Reggio Emilia is, what developmental stages are, who Piaget is. But that doesn’t mean that they can be in a classroom with children and understand really what their role is in the best interests of the children.
And that’s the really hard part is applying all those methods that you learn. And the other interesting point you raise is about sometimes you might have to speak with your families about what you feel is the best way for the children in the class to develop and learn and grow, and that might not necessarily align with the family’s view. But one of the goals that we have with this podcast that we always try to push is for early-childhood educators to see themselves as leaders and to stand up for their views and the educational philosophies that they know work. So that’s very important as well.
[In regards to feeling intimidated]: … in my work as a leader and supporting my teachers in early-childhood, that is a role that I became increasingly involved in to help kind of coach them. We would do practice sessions with, “What is it going to be like when you meet with a parent? What might a parent say? What might they ask you?” How can you be prepared to answer that?” And then, “How can you make those parents your partners?”
At the beginning of the school year we would always do outreach to parents, particularly new parents but existing parents as well, and invite them in to actually say, “You’re really our perfect partners. We’re educating together, and you know your child better than we do.” And always giving them that. So that kind of give-and-take, that is a lot about the finessing I was talking about, that you can’t preach at them and say, “Well, we know what we’re doing, so you don’t know anything. You’re a parent.” No. To be able to earn their respect and trust by inviting them to be your best partners in the education of their children. That always conveys to them that you really do care about their child, and that you want to do what’s best for him or her.
Yeah, 100 percent. I think the word “partners” is probably the best way to describe working as an educator with the families.
Yes, absolutely. I still see a lot of… when I’m working with the school I’m always on reviews. I look up the school and I look at what parents are saying. And I’m in touch with a lot of parents as well, with younger children. So I’m constantly talking about ways that they can invite the parents to be involved, make sure the parents are always on board with them and not alienate them, and earn the trust so you can educate.
I find the interesting thing about all this, which has come up in previous episodes is, everyone wants the best for the children. Of course, right? The parents do, the teachers do. But sometimes just through the process we’re not necessarily doing things in the ways that are best for the children. And that’s where the whole communication piece with the families and the teachers and working together I think is really important, right?
– Yes. And one of my things that I repeat over and over again with them is, there’s no such thing as too much communication. If you ever get to the point – which you never will – that your parents are all telling you, “Please don’t communicate with us, it’s too much,” then great. I’ve never seen that happen. Because we think, “We told them that last week.” Well, you have to tell them again the next day, two days later, the day after that. I know it’s frustrating, but … that’s something that a school has to sit down and decide: “How are we going to communicate? When are we going to communicate? Who? In which ways? How often?” All of those things, and planning ahead so that it has a certain rhythm and flow to it and parents always feel like you’re including them, and that they can be involved and that they are involved.
I’d be curious to learn about your experience working with various programs about the administrators’ or leadership’s role in this, because one of the issues that we run into quite often is – we have an app for communication between teachers and parents. But, one of our philosophies with that is that we want to empower the teachers to have as much communication as possible with the parents because, like you said, you can’t communicate too much, in our opinion. But often what we run into is administrators who are worried that their teachers might say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing, and sort of looking for a little bit more control over those conversations, or to sort of manage from above. Do you run into that frequently in your work?
Absolutely. And then, as a practitioner myself, as a school leader, I think I really had to learn that over time. I wanted the best. I think I was probably too controlling at the beginning, because I knew what it should look like and I was going to demand that it was like that. Obviously, that doesn’t work. So I say you have to empower the teachers and educate the teachers and have confidence in them and lead them to that, because I think teachers should constantly communicate with parents what’s going on in the classroom. I know as a school leader how threatening that is and scary that is, because you could find yourself in all kinds of different situations, and some of them might even be legal. So I find that the more that I shared with my teachers and asked them their opinions and asked them, “How should we do this? What should we do? What would you feel comfortable doing?” And then making sure that I had the best possible people I could have as my staff, and then having to give over some of that control. And the best way to ensure excellent outcomes is to, again, educate teachers, and to make them feel like professionals, that they’re capable and that they can do it. They might be intimidated, they might not be quite sure, and it might not be perfect. But certainly it’s important, because then you feel like you’re always running interference, and parents pick up on that really quickly. Then they’ll want to go straight to the leader instead of going to the teacher.
And what did you feel the benefits were of empowering the teachers in that way?
I feel that they really stepped into it and became much better practitioners. I think that they became very invested in their own learning because they saw themselves as important as they actually are. I do think that’s one of the problems in early-childhood, especially in the United States, is that teachers are not paid well. We all know that. We all know the reasons why, etc. But still I think they’re discounted. In my work, working with teachers of all levels and people who’ve taught high school and everything else, I think that the job of an early-childhood educator is in fact the most important and the most discounted.
In the early days if you could count to 10 and you knew more than the kids you were perfectly fine to be a teacher, because you didn’t really need to know a lot. I still think there’s some of that that’s residual, and that we don’t honour them in ways that we should and we don’t make them feel like the professionals that they are.
Some of your work has been outside of North America, in other countries around the world. [Are] there any learnings that we can take from the work you’ve done internationally, in terms of how America compares to other countries, in terms of their education models, or the other way around?
Yes, absolutely. I think that the thing that exposed me to the most was my work with International Baccalaureate. I was fortunate to meet and visit schools [that] were the first implementing schools of what’s called the Primary Years Program. I visited Munich, Germany and Amsterdam, visited their schools when they were in their first years. And I met the people who actually developed this curriculum. It’s inquiry-based but it’s best practice. It’s a synthesis of best practice. So you find Piaget; you find that Montessori; Reggio Emilia, all these people and all the research of best practice in early-childhood. That was developed into a program that schools could use all over the world, in any language.
From that I was able to also dive deeper into some of the practice. So places like Finland is a place that we know produces really outstanding citizens and really outstanding educated people. They score the highest the international testing. But they don’t actually do a lot of testing, which I find remarkable. What they do is, they emphasized play, early-childhood education as a right of all citizens; they find the absolute best people. It’s very hard to get into the programs. You have to be really, really capable to become an early-childhood educator, so they get paid more. They’re paid well. They have great benefits and they’re treated very well as professionals.
I think from that I learned that sometimes we think that what we’re doing is right and we think it’s impossible to do better, when in fact there’s countries who are doing better. They also give their teachers a lot of time to plan, which we pretty much – with early-childhood – don’t give any time to plan. And there’s no time for lunch. People are stressed and teachers are stressed. So the children will become stressed as well. So they [in Finland] do things like emphasis on play. They don’t have standardized testing. But, they have very, very well-trained practitioners who can assess and evaluate. They have some remarkable tools for that. Lot of time outdoors, which is true also in the other Scandinavian countries and certainly in the Netherlands as well, where they really hearken to that idea of nature being a teacher and children needing to be in nature.
I love the Japanese program where the kids actually take care of their own classroom. They clean, they do all kinds of tasks and activities that make them be really active members of their communities, because they want children to grow up being active in their communities as adults. So they start that really young. That’s something in Japan that I really love. Again, being outside, being in nature.
Reggio Emilia of course is really talks a lot about being involved in the community. Reggie Emilia is a town in Italy and they are very involved in the community, and children see themselves as part of that community. Having older people in different age groups involved with younger children, which I have heard – in the United States – of a program where there’s an early-childhood right next to senior citizens, and then they interact throughout the day, which I think is marvelous.
It sounds like we should get some more guests from other places around the world, like Finland.
Absolutely. Like Finland and Denmark and a lot of the European countries, but also having somebody from Italy to talk about Reggio Emilia and Montessori. And then in France, I think what the French do very, very well is they don’t rush. They take time off to eat. They get children involved in cooking and they serve them really healthy food. And they know how to eat and to be so they’re not shovelling junk food down their throats in a hurry, and then forcing the teachers to do that. There’s some great stuff.
One more: I went to a European Union sponsored school. At lunch the teachers get an hour and a half in the middle of the day, and they serve them with tablecloths and napkins and this wonderful lunch every single day. And that’s provided for them as part of their contract. And you see what difference that makes when you watch them in the classroom
It speaks a lot in terms of your environment and the way you’re treated, and also even the food you eat itself, as you said. All these things all sort of add up.
Yes. We know that early-childhood is should be holistic, and we’re trying to meet the needs of the whole child but we don’t often practice that. We don’t practice it as much as we should, let’s put it that way.
Very neat. So, unfortunately we’re running out of time which is too bad because there’s so many more things I would love to talk about. But let’s say I wanted to learn more about your work or I wanted to chat with you because a lot of these things are super-interesting and insightful. Where would I go to get in touch with you or learn more about your work?
The first place, probably LinkedIn, and that’s just my name [Carole Al-Kahouaji -].
Wonderful, which we’ll share with people online.
And I have started a new company called MindShift Global, and we’re just about to launch our new website. I will have a lot of curated resources on there, some examples of best practice in the U.S. and around the world, and lots of resources.
Do you know what the web address of that site will be?
Yes, it’s www.MindShiftGlobal.com.
Wonderful. Well, Carole, it’s been lovely having you on the show. Very insightful information about what some early-childhood education programs are struggling with, especially this point of what a lot of folks think they’re doing, what they’re actually doing – there might be a misalignment there. So taking a closer look at what’s actually happening in the classroom I think can be very valuable. And great to hear some of the more progressive things that are happening on the international stage as well. Very cool stuff.
Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity.