Leadership for better early childhood outcomes

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Episode 51

Read the full transcript of our podcast with Sherry Cleary, whre we investigate her professional journey advocating for young children.


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

On episode 51 of the show, we have the honor of speaking with Sherry Cleary, Executive Director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute. In our conversation, we learn about Sherry’s inspiring professional journey and the experiences that has cultivated her hallmark approach to her work, which is grounded in the question: “Will it help our children?” We discuss the efforts by PDI to put systems in place that provides educators with pathways for advancement in their own professional journeys, creating leaders in the field who are capable of driving change in their own right. Sherry also shares some of her career advice to ECEs that are new to the field.

If you are an early childhood educator that is passionate about what you do and curious to learn about how you bring leadership into your practice, then stay tuned to this episode of the preschool podcast!

Sherry, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.

Sherry CLEARY:

Thank you, Ron. It’s good to be with you.


So, Sherry, you’re the Executive Director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute. And you’ve had a career where you’ve taken on various different roles in early-childhood education within academia and other associations and organizations. I would like to start learning a little bit more about, first of all, how you started on the path of working in early-childhood education, and then maybe a little bit more about how you’ve progressed to your current role.


It was very powerful because, from the very beginning when I first approached – the Seneca’s have a council with a president; they don’t have a chief system – when I went and approached the president the very first time to see if I could get some resources for the program, his only question was, “So you think that would be good for the children?” And I was prepared to give him this long winded rationale for why this was so critical that he give me this money. But something inside of me said, “Answer the question, Sherry.” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Okay”. He just said, “Okay.” And I said, “Okay?” And he said, “Yes. That’s important to us.” And it was a life lesson that’s always stayed with me.

So I think sometimes some of our success is a result of the fact that we can cut through some of the junk and get to the heart of the matter, and to say, “This is why it’s important, and this is what will happen. And so you need to fund that. This will be the outcome.”

The other thing that I learned early on is that, “You’re not doing this for me. You’re doing this for you.” So I think our field gets stuck, and we take things personally when it’s not personal. Society is the sole benefactor. When a society does the right thing by children, they win. So I can get another job. I don’t need to do this work. I can do other work – that I already know. So if I can make it clear to a funder or a policymaker that what we’re proposing is for your benefit – not mine – that seems to be more compelling. It seems to be more… it is a strategy that works for us, is to really figure out how to get to “Yes,” how to get to the solution.

And the other thing I would say is that I learned early on that this is all about solutions, and it’s about eliminating barriers. And I would suggest that in our field we spend a lot of time fussing about the barriers and explaining why things can’t be done by way of identifying barriers. And the only thing that I want to do with that barrier is crush it. And so we’ve had a lot of success by saying, “Okay, that’s a barrier. So what do we do?”


Yeah, “What do we do about it instead of talking about how it’s a barrier and how we struggle with it,” and the challenge. I think it’s a drain on sort of emotional resources too, right?


That’s right; that’s right.


That you’re trying to get the problems instead of talking those challenges and trying to solve those challenges.


That’s right. One of my most favorite experiences – because of its pain – was that I was sitting with a group of colleagues in a room, for the umpteenth meeting, working on something. And one of the women in an exasperated way said, “We’ve been working on this for 20 years and we keep saying the same thing.” And I simply turned to her and said, “So maybe we should change what we say.” And it was it was offensive to her and some others, that they didn’t want to change what they say. They wanted to change the way people listen. And I said, “The only person you have control over is yourself. So change what you’re doing. Maybe you’ll get a different result.” And this is not this is not a big deal. People know this in all walks of life. But I think in early-childhood we get stuck. We just get stuck and we feel that we’re put upon. And I think we have to take responsibility and make the change we want to see. I mean, oh my goodness, it’s such a common mantra. But I think it’s true.


Oh, totally. And, as you know, one of the core fundamental parts of the Preschool Podcast is to inspire and motivate our future leaders, because as far as I’m concerned as well, change needs to be driven by early-childhood educators themselves. And I really love this line that you said where “we can’t change the way people listen.” And that’s so true. Society and people at large are interested in certain subjects and want to talk about and discuss certain things, and whether those are relevant to us versus to them are sort of two different things. And so sometimes we have to focus the conversation on what other people care about and want to talk about, if we want to move the conversation forward.

Now let’s transition over to your work a little bit more, as Executive Director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute. Obviously leadership is a core part of what has inspired you in your career and in a lot of the work that you’re doing in your current role. Can we get into a little bit more about what you’re doing at the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute to drive change, in terms of systems and ensuring a highly effective early-childhood workforce for the state of New York?


Sure, sure. I think we typically kind of lump our work into three categories: One is around systems-building. I think people take systems for granted, and in many cases there is a lack of systems. And that sometimes explains why things just happen when they happen, and they’re not deliberate, and we’re more reactive and not proactive. And so we’re very committed to systems, and I’ll come back to that minute.

We also are very interested in new paradigms of professional development. What are the ways for people to do their best work, and what are the barriers? And so we know for a fact that going to a two or three-hour workshop or a day-long conference is not really going to change anybody’s practice. But we keep doing that because it’s what we’ve always done. And so we’ve really spent the better part of the last 10 years looking at all the different ways you could help people shift their practice and do better for children. And so we have done very intensive onsite support, we’ve done training with them of some visiting in-between to help make sure that what you heard in a training classroom you’re able to implement in your classroom with a little bit of support from the person who developed that training. We have really experimented heavily with coaching.

So once we decide that we’ve got something that we want to test then we find money to really test it on a larger scale. Then we collect some data and we try to figure out what works, what doesn’t. Then we tweak the model, and then we try to implement that model across the state. And coaching is a beautiful example because as we experimented with different coaching models and tried to create coaching that was incredibly responsive to the individual we measured and tested that. And then we built coaching competencies that were then approved by the state. And now coaching is a recognized and funded form of professional development, and it’s become part of our improvement culture in the state.

So that’s just an example of the work we’ve done. And I want to be really clear: we don’t do anything in vacuum. We work with partners all across the state. So sometimes we’re the impetus for something, or we’re the ones that can help make it go. We can help make it work. But we do this with lots of partners.

The third thing we do is we write and disseminate and try to shift policy. And a great example about that is up until a few years ago New York had no real way to track the workforce. And if you can’t track the workforce, you can’t change policy to meet the needs of the workforce. And so we built, we worked with city and state partners and we built a registry and we wrote about the value of registries and tracking data and using that data to make good policy decisions and funding decisions. And now in the city of New York participation in the registry has become required. And as of July 1st – in less than a month away – it will be required for everyone. People have already begun doing it, and so we have already 30,000 participants and it’s growing every day. So we think that’s important.

We also support a lot of research because we know that we don’t know everything, and we have to keep learning. And so always being open to questions, always wondering, “What is the next thing we have to pay attention to?” is important to us.

I said I would go back to system building. We’ve developed a whole conceptual framework for a workforce system. Quality, qualifications, compensation, course work, credentials – all the pieces that people need to be in place and in a state like New York so that the workforce can thrive and see their work as career, not a job. So what are the pathways? You can stay an assistant teacher for your entire career, if you want. But if you want to do something different there is a pathway for that. And so we’ve been working – in a very dedicated way – identifying pathways, identifying the appropriate credentials and coursework and field experience, and just all the ways we can support the workforce to be who they want to be.

We have a fundamental belief that every person that comes to work, no matter what their work is, they come every day wanting to do the best job they can possibly do. And so our job is to help them get there.


This is awesome, because you’re doing what you’re preaching in terms of… we had this conversation of, “Yes, we want to see change but we don’t want to just sort of talk about the challenges and what’s wrong. We actually want to do something about it.” And what I love about these three pieces that you spoke about – systems, professional development and policy – is you provided very specific things that are actually happening, like collecting data to help the conversation move forward, which we’ve had other conversations about with others as well and we think is very important. The coaching, the onsite support and the visits, and I really, really love seeing early-childhood educators work as a career – not a job – and having those pathways. All very specific things that you’re doing at the Institute there, so that’s really, really cool to see.

What are some of the trends that you’re seeing in early-childhood education in the state, or perhaps more broadly, with some of this type of work?


Well that’s a great question. I think because… the previous administration in this country placed a true value on early-childhood, and over those eight years we saw tremendous investment in not just programs but in the research and in framing, “What is the direction we need to go?” And along with that there was a significant influx of money for mostly pre-K programs but also Early Head Start that focuses on infants, toddlers and three-year-olds. And really where I see the trend is, in reality there is a lot more money being placed focused on pre-K. But there is enough new resources, also through Early Head Start focus on infants and toddlers, where I actually think we’re going to be able to drive a “Birth to age 8” agenda, and really take a comprehensive approach to this.

We’re looking at increased credentials and qualifications for teachers at all the levels. We don’t want to just require pre-K teachers to have certain qualifications. We want all teachers of young children to have higher qualifications. We really know from the research that infants and toddlers are… there’s is the most pivotal kind of development happening there. And so in truth the most talented people should be working with infants and toddlers, if you follow the research.




On the other hand, I want everyone to have as much education experience and training as they want, and yet we need to raise the floor. So we’re very interested and we see a trend in raising qualifications. Also, though, hand-in-hand raising compensation, really increasing the way we think about leadership. I really believe that for too long we have talked about teachers without talking about the leaders. And leaders need to be managers, but they also need to be inspiring. They need to bring change. And those skill sets are very sophisticated, and we need to cultivate that in the next generation of leaders. So I think therein lies real opportunity in trend.

I think I would say that one of the things that early-childhood, the field itself, needs to think about is all the dichotomies that we face. And for me the most pivotal one is this sense of urgency that we absolutely have to cultivate with a sense of patience. So it takes a very long time to make a change, but we won’t get there unless we bring urgency to the patience. And I think that when I think about trends and moving things forward, we’re always aware of the dynamic between patience and urgency, and how to use those both to move the agenda forward.


Yeah. Really amazing stuff that you’re doing there in New York. And I think it’s a great juxtaposition, the urgency with the sense of patience. You’re right, it does take a long time for change to happen. But as individual leaders people need to have that urgency to push it forward, otherwise it won’t. And it has to be driven by educators, by folks in the field. And the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute is clearly making some great progress on that front.

Sherry, what advice would you give to young educators out there that are maybe just starting out their careers – maybe they’re still students? What advice would you provide to them in their early days in early-childhood education?


Well, I would say this: I have the privilege and honor of working with a lot of young people. I have a huge staff and many of them are very young. This generation has a very, very evolved way of going about work, and I think that my advice always to young people coming into the field is to really think about the impact you want to make and set to it; just get to it. It’s a matter of not being deterred. There is a lot of deterring that goes on. People say, “I’d like to work with young children,” and people then come back and say, “Well, you know, it doesn’t pay very well.” And in the end it’s the hardest work I think anybody’s ever done. If that’s what you as a young person want to do, I say you find your path. And young people are not afraid of changing jobs. And we encourage people: Don’t stay at a place that you find oppressive or inappropriate. You can help change that place, but if you can’t help change that place – if you don’t feel that’s your strong suit – then find a place where you where you fit, where there is more of a climate that helps you be the person you are and can give you the opportunities you want.

I always try to get college students and others to see the child for who that person is. The child needs somebody to make the way for them. But a teacher of young children is not in control. And if you need to be in control, early-childhood is not a good place for you. Early-childhood educators that are most effective share power, truly respect the young child. And so I think we have a long way to go in our teaching of teachers and pre-service teachers to help them understand what a privilege this work is, that very young children come with wisdom. And that wisdom is pure. And we want that to be developed; we don’t want to take that away.

And so I work hard to help young people be sure this is the work they want to do. Because I worry that that if you say you like children – certainly in our country – people say, “Oh, you must want to be a teacher.” But that’s not necessarily the case. And I will tell you that in our in our organization we have a Career Development Services Center, and we talk to young people all the time about all the different jobs you can do if you care about young children and their families. And we divide those kinds of jobs into at least five different categories. And so teaching only falls into one of those five categories. But there is a lot of other work that can be done. And we try to match people’s interests, their tolerance for higher education, their career goals with the kind of job they might be best suited for. And that for me has been very important. Not everybody is cut out to be a teacher. And there’s no shame in that. There’s no shame in choosing not to be a teacher.


Yeah, and it kind of goes back to what you were saying before in terms of your advice to those just starting out their careers is, “Do what you’re passionate about. And if you’re passionate about what you’re doing you’re going to be happy,” right? And so those two things kind of go together. And of course success in anything in life you know has to come from a place where you’re passionate and you’re happy in the first place.

So, super-insightful conversation here that I don’t want to end, but unfortunately we’re running out of time. If I’m listening to this podcast and I want to learn a little bit more about some of the things we’ve talked about here today and the work that you’re doing at the moment, where would I go to get more information?


Well, the best place is that we have a website, and our website is www.EarlyChildhoodNY.org.


Wonderful. And I’m just going to throw this out there because I think it’s so neat, that you that you’ve inspired a lot of positive change both in your role and through the organizations you’ve worked with. And I love how it’s all started with this story where you worked with the Seneca Nations, and a leader – a leader and the council president of the Seneca Nations who asked you the question, “Will it help our children?” And that’s always where we have to stay grounded. So, super cool story there as well. Thanks so much for coming on the show, Sherry.


My biggest pleasure. Thanks so much, Ron.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.

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