Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early childhood education.“
On episode 40 of the show, we talk about empowerment with Judy Jablon, executive director of Leading For Children. In our conversation we discuss the relationship between early-learning outcomes and the empowerment of educators at every level. As Judy says, empowerment comes with decision-making, and good decisions come with a clear understanding of the why.
We also discuss the importance of supporting teachers in developing the skills and confidence to engage in productive dialogue as leaders in their own right, in order to build a more coherent leadership network within early-childhood education.
If you are a leader looking for advice on how to empower and engage with those around you then stay tuned for this episode of the Preschool Podcast.
Judy, welcome to the Preschool Podcast. It’s great to have you on the show.
I believe that using an innovative, integrated approach, where we work with every level of leadership and management within a program or across multiple programs, we have the capacity to strengthen practice and improve outcomes for children by creating what I know you’re going to ask me about next, but a more coherent way of doing business together, of working together.
One of the words I’ve heard you mentioned a couple of times – and something that we talk about quite a bit at HiMama as well, actually – is empowerment. You want to empower. What does that mean to you?
For me the word “empowerment”, I think, begins when we think about, What are we doing for children? And when I think of empowering children I think about giving them the tools to be able to think, solve problems, do work, be inventive, be creative, be flexible thinkers. I know that that was my training when I kind of learned to be a teacher at the Bank Street School For Children and the School of Education.
So when we empower children to be thinkers and decision makers we have to think about the people who are doing that. It’s early-childhood classroom teachers, family childcare providers, home visitors – people who work directly, right there, face-to-face with young children, who we’re asking to empower children. Well, I think we need to empower them. They need a sense of agency. They need to feel not like there’s all these top-down pressures, but that that they are part of the decision making process, that they’re thinking through, “What’s the why behind the actions that I’m doing? What is it that that I’m doing every day in my practice, and how is it directly impacting children’s learning?” Not, “How is it getting me a better score on the ERS?” Or, “How is it helping me to do better on class?” But rather, “When I make this decision about labeling shelves on which children’s materials rest, I’m not doing it to get a better score. I’m doing it because it helps children learn a sense of responsibility, how to make choices, how to do one-to-one correspondence. I put this bin back by this label on this shelf.”
To me, empowering children requires empowered teachers, and teachers become empowered when they understand the Why behind the decisions they make. And yesterday I was in a state with over 100 leaders, and it’s amazing how we are not so good at the Why of what we do. To summarize: empowerment comes with decision-making, and good decisions require a clear understanding of the Why.
Interesting. Now, there’s a lot of challenges in early-childhood education. Why did you choose to focus your time and energy on inspired leadership over any other challenge?
I’ve been in the field for more than 35 years, and I think I have a pretty unique background, first of all. When I when I entered the field I think I entered it in a very fortunate way: learning about early-childhood from a really strong child development approach. Interactions and observation were so much a part of my professional learning at Bank Street as a young educator. And I think that the way in which I entered the field, I felt respected as a decision-maker, and as a leader for children. And as I gradually moved away from Bank Street and went into the public education system and taught at many different levels, that sense of feeling like I had agency, that I was a leader, began to dissipate.
Similarly as I engaged more and more in professional development – as you know I have had incredible opportunities to work on projects, the Work Sampling System, I was involved in doing the videos for the creative curriculum – I am you know really deeply enmeshed in the world of observation and assessment. I have written books about early literacy. I am very well versed in content. And what I’ve observed in all the years of working directly with the practitioner, with the teacher – implementing ideas, innovations, strategies for being more effective – what always becomes of the challenge is that sense that teachers feel like they’re being done-to. And I’m hesitant in some ways to say that on a podcast, but it’s so real. It’s so much, “Oh, now we have to do this. Now we have to do that.”
I was on a call with some folks at an early-childhood State Department office the other day and they too were sort of saying, “Well, we do ask a lot of our practitioners. We do make decisions that now we’re going to take this initiative; now are going to take that initiative.” And they may understand how it fits together, they may understand how it’s integrated, but not necessarily well enough to communicate that to others. And certainly the training mentality or motif that we use in early-learning rarely conveys the Why. It’s very much about How, how to do it.
And so, to me, in this sort of next chapter – I’m hesitant to say the final chapter, but my next chapter of my professional life – it felt to me like it’s not so much about the “How do we do the day-to-day work?” It’s, “How do we function in that day-to-day work? How do I as an infant-toddler teacher see myself as a leader for children, and how do I feel the confidence I need, how do I have the vocabulary I need to be able to interact with directors, agency leaders, State House leaders, to not be antagonistic, to not advocate but to engage in dialogue that puts us – in my other word – in a place of coherence where we’re working together on behalf of children?” I hope that answer to your question.
I’m going to offer three brief ideas that I hope listeners see as tips.
The first is… you mentioned optimism, and I feel like I’m on a public awareness campaign right now. I’ve got some others joining me in this movement, but I do feel that I’m kind of single-handedly helping the field understand the difference between being positive and focusing on effectiveness.
When you think about being positive, you see a smiley face. When you think about optimism, you see a light at the end of the tunnel. And in order to get to the end of the tunnel you have to have a strategy. You have to know what it is you’re trying to accomplish and why that is going to get you to the end of the tunnel. So for me, step one of this campaign, or this sort of shift in culture, is really just being a champion for helping people understand that decisions yield results. “If I label my shelves this way, I help children learn this. If I involve them families in this way, it results in this. That I don’t make a decision without understanding Why, that I that I look for strengths, that I focus on optimism.” And that’s not being Pollyanna.
The second is that, again, I’m on a public campaign. I hope everyone listening to this podcast who is in an early-learning educator, practitioner, directly serving children, begins to see him- or herself as a leader for children, that you are shaping children’s futures. And that if people change how they think about the work, they change how they feel about the work, and they directly impact how children see themselves. So something as simple as when we say, “kiss your brains”, we’re trivializing what it means to be a thinker. But when we say to children, “You are thinkers, you can make the right decision,” we’re speaking to them with the kind of respect that leaders speak to others [with].
And then coherence is sort of my third big idea. I think about decisions I made early in my practice as a classroom teacher, and just something as simple as, “How do I think about my day? How do I start the day to welcome children into the room? How do I capitalize on the kind of energy they have in the morning? What do I think about next? When do I decide they need movement?” That’s very similar to the way a company does strategic planning, how a business planner thinks. But if someone hands me a schedule and says, “Well, first you should have group time and then you should do this and then you should do that,” and then someone else plans a conference for me as an early-learning educator and says, “Well, we want you to go to this session and then we want you to go to that session and then we want you to this session.” And no one says to me, “When am I supposed to digest it? When am I supposed to think about how this fits with this? Or how I’m going to take these three ideas and actually incorporate them into what I’m already doing, or how what I’m already doing could be enhanced by these three ideas?”
To me, coherence means I’m thinking strategically about how the work fits together, how it moves me along a path, and how it helps me to get to the results that I need. That has not been a part of pre-service training. It hasn’t been a part of most professional development experiences. It’s not a part of the way early-childhood departments of education early-childhood departments within a district or in a program, how people think and plan and how they support practitioners and thinking and planning. So to me this change – that you ask, “How do you change the culture?” – well, I believe that we change the culture by changing some of the basic premises that guide our work, and that if we could get people sort of singing from a more consistent song sheet we actually could bring about that change.
Now another thing that you’ve talked about through a lot of your work with Leading For Children in this podcast is you want to have this inspired leadership at every level of the program. Why did you feel that that is so important?
I think that educators are models for children. And at this juncture in our history I think children need models of leadership more than ever before. And I think that a top-down approach to anything engenders a lack of confidence and a lack of self-esteem. Those are two characteristics that we really want for young children. So I think that saying that every practitioner is a leader for children is saying every person who makes decisions on behalf of children needs to have the confidence and the wisdom to make those decisions. That’s leadership.
The second big idea I think is really important here is the fact that we need parallel processes. We need to be doing in our decisions adult-to-adult what we want to have happen between adults and children, or between teachers and children and families. And so if we say that every person who touches the lives of children shares that responsibility for children’s success as learners, we then can sort of look at, What are the practices that are happening at each level within the system, and how are those practices mirroring one another so that when we are delivering that kind of direct service we’re making sure that the people who do that do it with a sense of enthusiasm, excitement, energy, clarity?
What strikes me is this concept of… I don’t think any educator would disagree with the idea that you want children to feel empowered and confident and that they can make their own decisions and be creative and be individuals themselves. And the only way that you can do that as an educator, really, is if you’re modeling that practice yourself.
I’m really liking where this is going, really liking this angle. I think it’s super, super-duper important. Culture is so key; empowerment is so key. Where do we take things from here? So you’ve provided some very good advice, three very specific tips for educators. If you want them to sort of take something away from today’s conversation, what’s that going to be?
I believe that true change comes when we have a holistic approach, one that engages an entire system, all the players. I also believe that effective systems don’t rely on individuals. They have to look at organized, collaborative structures, that active, strong relationship to each other. So when I do coaching and I’m helping a teaching team work more effectively together, I think that speaks to the success for young children and their families. I think when a director says to me, “I don’t have all my teachers on board,” I talked to her about how to how to help them see themselves as competent, as effective, and that her job is not to tell them what they’re not doing but for her to be able to work with them to highlight what they are doing.
So at the at the classroom level, or at the family childcare program, at the program level, and then at the system level. I think that, again, we’ve got to see not how to pretend we’re making for collaboration but how to really find genuine collaboration. And that requires finding common language, common ways of communicating, coordinating and working in synergy.
On the idea of a genuine collaboration I also like the way that you position not advocating but engaging. And I think that also applies, for example, not only at the policy level but even within a childcare program as a director instead of sort of quote-unquote advocating to your team to do something you should be engaging them in conversation at that level as well.
Spreeuwenberg – So some really great concepts here to take away. I’m very excited about what can happen if we can change culture to empower our educators and our directors, and even sort of at some of these higher levels that you talk about as well. If I want to get in touch with you as a listener, Judy, where can I go to get in touch with you or learn more about Leading For Children?
Our website is www.LeadingForChildren.org, and I would love for everybody to visit our website. I can be reached at JJablon@LeadingForChildren.org. And if that’s hard to remember, info@LeadingForChildren.org.
Wonderful. Thanks so much for coming on the show today, Judy.
Thank you for having me, Ron. It was a pleasure, and I look forward to talking with you more.