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HiMama runs an annual ECE of the Year Award to celebrate individuals who are inspirations in the field. In this episode, we had the pleasure of interviewing Halle Rubin, the 2018 ECE of the Year and Director at Children’s Creative Center in Chicago. In our conversation, Halle shares her passion for the field, her professional journey, and leadership approach with us. She also tells us about the global pen pal program that she runs at her center that has a big impact in connecting her teachers and kiddos with cultures from different countries.
- Reach Halle at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Children’s Creative Center Chicago
- 2018 ECE of the Year – Halle Rubin
I believe that the parents, educators and the kids come here and they know that they’re getting something out of every second of the day. I want them to know that their feelings are understood, their words are heard and that we just want to grow them cognitively, developmentally – we want to support them every second of the way.
Halle, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Hello! Thank you so much for having me. I’m very excited.
So we are super lucky today to have on the show Halle Rubin, who is the 2013 Early-childhood Educator of the Year winner. Super stoked to have you, Halle. I would love to talk to you more about your background; why you’re so passionate about early-childhood education; your role at children’s creative center and all the cool things that you’re doing. Let’s start off learning a little bit more about you and how you got started in early-childhood education.
So I went to the University of Iowa and I studied communications and human relations and social work. So I knew growing up that I really loved helping people. After graduating I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to go. So I did try marketing, I tried sales. And even though I really, really liked those kinds of fields it always felt like something was missing for me.
And the job I had prior to totally switching my career was in sales, and I sold cleaning supplies to schools. And about three weeks after working for the company my boss pulled me in. And he was, like, “Halle, you’ve got to stop talking to the students while you’re trying to sell chemicals. You have to try to make the sales.” And I’m, like, “No, but the kids are so cute and they’re so fun.” And my boss was, like, “Well, the kids aren’t the ones to decide whether they’re going to buy the item we’re selling.” And I was, like, “Ugh, okay.”
So I kind of tried to figure out what really I was passionate about. And I knew I always loved kids. I’m the kind of person who will go out for dinner and if there’s a kid behind me or in front of me I’m trying to make them laugh; I’m talking with them. And sometimes my focus just goes to the students or the kids around me.
So after kind of knowing that I think I’m a kid myself – I love to learn like kids, do I love to play, I love to laugh, I’m emotional like kids are – so I just started to think about this field. So I presented it to my parents, who did have to help me pay to go back to school. And my dad was, like, “Oh gosh, okay, here we go. A change of the field. Are you sure this is for you?” And I said, “Yes, it is.” And he made me do a presentation to my dad with the pros and cons of this field and how I will be in the field. And after I finished the presentation my parents cried their eyes out, and they were, like, “We were waiting for this. You’ve always loved kids. You were always great with them. Yes, absolutely, we will support you.”
So I, instead of getting another bachelor’s degree, I was, like, “Let’s go for it. Let’s go get my master’s [degree].” And I decided to enroll in National Louis University, and I graduated with my Master’s in early-childhood education and administration. It was the best decision I ever made and I’m so, so happy with the career that I chose.
That is amazing that your dad made you do a presentation.
He was, like, “I’m not going through this again with you, Halle. You weren’t happy in marketing and now sales.” And I’m, like, “But I know what I want now!” So I just had to really put some bullet points into why I felt like this was the field for me. And I went over the room, I got my parents to cry and that was the end of that. It was really, really great.
Awesome. And so from that point you’re currently director at Children’s Creative Center. Did you move into the director role right from the beginning? Or were you in more of an educator role for a while? Or how did that transition happen?
So I first started part-time, and I just worked a few days a week and I was a floater / assistant at a small school. And that was so I was able to be do the work for my masters and be in school or be working at a school. I really liked it. I’m a very driven person – it’s really, really hard to slow me down when I want something. You can ask my boss. But once I want something I really, really go for it.
So after being an assistant floater and working in a variety of age groups I was, like, “You know what? I want to lead a classroom, I want to lead a classroom.” So I had six credits under my belt. I was able to be a lead teacher. Then I received a promotion to be a lead teacher and I started out in the two-year-old age group, which was a blast. I absolutely loved it. Two-year-olds was a great place to start because I got to learn the basics and work on things like managing their emotions and learning to share and manners and the basics of being a human. And two-year-olds tend to be wild and fun and crazy. So I fit right in with them as being their lead teacher.
After that I was very interested in working with pre-K, and that’s just because I really, really liked working with an age group [for whom] the activities that I made and the hands on and the experiences that I provide, they were able to really understand what was presented to them and we’re excited about it.
So then shortly after I was a pre-K, lead about three months later I was asked to be the assistant director of that facility. [I] absolutely loved being in management and being in the classroom, but it was out for some time a kind of hard split for me because in the afternoon I was in administration and in the morning [I was] in the classroom. And when I would say hello to my parents when they would arrive at the end of the day, I didn’t know the full day for their child. So it’s, like, “Oh, this split is kind of hard for me.”
So then I was asked to be fully the assistant director. Then I was, like, “Hey I’m ready to be the director and run this school and make my visions come to life.” And I was presented with this amazing opportunity here at Children’s Creative Center.
Cool. And you mentioned something just now about bringing your visions to life. Like, what was driving and motivating you to want to move to a lead teacher role, assistant director, director? Like, was it these ideas that you had about things you wanted to do and see and wanted to implement?
Yes. So, my vision as a director is, I really, really am adventurous when it when it comes to making them come to life. I’m not afraid to take a risk and try something. And this is such a great age group to try all different things that I think of. And I just really love providing hands-on experiences for my students. And what that involves a lot is reaching out into the community. And in order to make these ideas I have come to life, it’s just communicating with the people, around me making myself present in Chicago and just being really creative.
And I think what drives me the most is my creativity. Something just sparks for me – I have an idea, and then when I have that idea I get excited about it. And that excitement leads to me doing research. After doing the research I follow through on the research. And then I bring that… it happens in the classroom, it happens at the Center, that hands-on experience is right in front of the students. And I really get to see the joy.
For example, I reached out to, recently, the fire department here in Chicago. And the students – there is a national holiday called World Gratitude Day [September 21st]. And the students wrote Thank You cards to the fire department. And they were so excited – “Thank you for what you do; Thank you for keeping us safe.” The fire department received it [and] they wrote thank you letters back to my students. It was such a great connection.
After that my idea was, “Why not bring a fire truck here? How cool would that be?” So I would say for three months I reached out to the special events coordinator here in Chicago for the fire department, made a relationship with him and he brought a fire truck here to my school on Wednesday and the students were just so excited. I had some of them [crying] tears of joy. It was amazing, the pictures are unbelievable. The firemen brought hats for the students to wear. It was really inspiring. And we wrote them Thank You cards to hand them right there. And then we even had the commander come into the school after and give a huge presentation on fire safety.
So one little idea that came just from something that was just fun, reaching out to the community. Thanking them turned into this huge experience and then it just built and built and built. And all it took was for me to make a relationship, reach out, follow through and then provide that “Thank you, look at what you’ve done for my students.”
So I’m really creative when it comes to bringing in those hands-on experiences into my center. And I’m really lucky because the owner here allows me to just kind of flap my wings and fly. And my teachers just love the ideas – they come in, they bring in their ideas to grow what we have going on here. And so we’ve just done many things like this, many opportunities, many activities for the students that are just so different than they may typically have on a daily basis.
Yeah, and you mentioned the owner, and I think that’s really important because certainly we see often that the owner-administrator level is oftentimes where things get restricted and you don’t have the opportunity to do these creative and fun things that [are] what makes it a special place and also what really the kids love and helps with their development. And so it’s a very important point. And I think you positioned it well around the creativity but combined with the action-orientation, right? It’s great to have good ideas, but you have to do them, too, and execute them.
And so it’s awesome that you’re working with somebody that is allowing you to have that freedom, and I think that’s so important. And you can take that down to the next level, too, right? I’m sure you’ve taken that and applied it to your teachers to allow them the flexibility as well, would be my guess?
Yes, absolutely. I think that one of the things that makes me the administrator that I am is my relationship with my owner and the teachers here. We are a team. I’ve been a teacher – I know what it’s like when there’s a chaotic day and this and that is happening and it’s hard to get the room under control. So my view as administrator is, I just want to comfort and support the personal needs of each of my teachers and their classrooms.
So I really view my job as: The owner supports me, I support the teachers. And when that trickle-down effect happens it all shines down on the students. They feel every bit of inch of support, of comforting, of happiness, of positivity. And when you really work as a team, you make everything come to life. And the students, it really just changes their lives.
I’ve been working at schools before where, as a teacher, I had a disconnect with my administrator. And maybe that’s because the administrator was so busy that she couldn’t check in with me. Maybe the owner was never there. I think being present is really important.
So I’ve implemented things that my center, like, every last Friday of the month, my classrooms. I ask each of my lead teachers to stay in on their lunch break – of course they get to eat – and they sit with their assistants and they have a classroom meeting. That’s every last Friday of the month. Every last Thursday of the month I do personal meetings. So I meet with each teacher that Thursday all day long, find out what their needs are in the classroom, how are they doing. What goals do they have for themselves, for the students? [Are] there students that I need to observe and give them some extra support?
So touching base with my employees is really, really important. Total communication, honest communication. I have open door policy: “Come in here, let me know what’s going on.” And then I take action. And whatever it is that you need, if that means me staying till 9:00 at night I will do that, because that’s how you stop turnover; that’s how you create happy employees; that’s how the parents feel confident bringing their child to the Center. They have somebody to rely on who will always be here.
So really making a community… I don’t view my school as a working establishment. I really view it as a family. I have three teachers here that I’ve known for five or six years. And I met them a long time ago, and then I became the director here. We’ve stayed in touch and now they are here. And I know a lot of people say, “A boss shouldn’t be a friend to their employees.” My perspective is different. I need to create a trusting relationship with you, an honest relationship with you and a loving relationship with you. And if that means that that’s friendship then I’m so down for a friendship.
But I also have a boss hat to where I do have to make sure that rules are being followed and policies are clear and defined. And that just comes with respect on both ends of that relationship. So I really try to be that administrator that’s just understanding, empathetic, but also make sure I have to be organized and make sure I’m following through with those communication days so that I’m always touching base with my teachers. I want to know what’s going on so that I can be there for them. And you know what? Then they’re here for me, too.
Yeah, and I think you really nailed it that when you said earlier that you think about it like, “We’re a team,” from the owner to the director to the teachers. Doesn’t matter who you are – you’re on the same team. I think that’s a great way to think about it, and I’m certainly passionate about leadership, especially in the context of early-childhood education.
And you talked a little bit about the friendship-versus-boss kind of conversation, and I would agree with you because one of the key points that we keep coming back to when we talk about leadership is, is your team following you because they have to do what you’re telling them to do, or because they want to do what you’re asking them to do?
And those are two very different things. And you’ve created a culture and a team where you’re friends, but people respect you and they trust you and therefore they want to go along with your ideas and activities. And it’s a conversation as opposed to a very directive, hierarchical goal, like, “I say go and you guys go and I say stop you stop because that’s what I said.” It’s not very collaborative.
And well I just want to touch a little bit more on some of your specific activities because you’re doing so many cool things. You mentioned a little bit about the local community and working with the fire department, but I also understand you’ve done some things even internationally with the students, too?
Yes. So I was laying in bed one night, and I wanted… I was just, like, “How do I get my students and my teachers to think globally? So, how can I get them to understand – the students to understand – that there’s different cultures out there and that everybody is unique – where they come from, how they look, their personality – and how do I get them to understand and respect the differences that we all have?”
So my best friend from preschool – which is really cool, too, she decided to teach abroad. First she taught abroad in Korea, and I thought it was just so cool. And she teaches in the same age group that I have at my school. So she’s a pre-k teacher, and she started in Korea, and then now she’s in Brazil. And we were talking one day and I was, like, “What if we connected our classrooms?” And she was, like, “Oh my gosh, that would be so cool.”
So we started talking about, “How do we do that. How do we make this clear for the students to understand what exactly they’re participating in? What is the value of that?” Then when I was laying in bed one night I’m, like, “How do I make this happen? What can I do each month to have my students think globally?” So it started with the idea of the pen pals. And I did research online – there’s tons of pen pal groups. And I was, like, “You know what? Let’s have my older students – ages three to five years old – write letters to students around the world.” So I was, like, “Okay, let’s pick one country a month and we’ll start by a pen-palling them.”
So we said to my friend who was teaching in Brazil: “Dear Brazil, we are so excited to meet you guys. We can’t wait to hear about your classroom,” and all the students get to chime in and say what questions they may have. “Where is Brazil? What kind of food you eat there? Etc.” So they write this pen pal letter and then we send it. So that’s the first week of the month. Then we want to learn more about Brazil, so we do something called Skype around the world. And this is where my job as administrator comes in because I have to set up the time, stay in communication – time differences can be very hard – explaining about the concept – I need to make sure it’s clear for the person who is going to be connecting with us.
So we Skype that classroom; so we Skype to Brazil. And she showed us outside the window what’s going out, what does outside of their school. And oh, look, there was a monkey swinging from a tree. And then we showed her, “Oh, this is Chicago, we have a park right next to us. Oh, look, there’s a car; there’s traffic. Here’s what we’re looking at. Oh, this is what we’re learning in our school. This is what our classroom looks like.” And the students get so excited. And the face-to-face communication through a screen, I’m creating a bridge to connect cultures, which is just really, really cool.
The students absolutely love it. I still hear about, “How they’re my friends in China? How are my friends in Brazil?” And I’m, like, “Do you guys want to talk with them?” And sometimes I reach out to them again and we connect again. And it’s just a really, really cool way to connect cultures from here in Chicago to wherever in the world. I really try to challenge both the educators here and my students to think globally and embrace different cultures.
So also I then was, like, “Okay, what else can I do with this idea?” So they do the pen pal, they do the Skype session, and then I was, like, “Let’s do something really cool.” And I was, like, “Let’s taste the world.” So then I do my research, I find maybe a little snack or treat, maybe I have a little side dish of a traditional meal or treat from that country, and I bring it in here and the students get a taste of Brazil. So each month they get those three activities to really understand different cultures and they get so excited about it.
And a lot of centers challenge how much money they can spend on activities like this. It didn’t cost us a penny to do this. All it took was effort on my part, my support for my teachers to carry it through, and now it’s turned into this really, really cool enrichment that we do each month. And it’s just made it a really great impact on my students.
So cool. And I think what really resonates for me with that is it’s such a simple concept but so powerful in the impact it has on the kids, right?
Absolutely, and that’s so true what you just said. It is powerful. And I look back on when I was in pre-school and I don’t remember too much of this kind of activities being implemented. And that’s okay – times have changed. But it’s 2019 and it’s so important to understand that around the world people look different and they have different backgrounds and families and there’s something beautiful about each person’s individual life. And in order for my students to leave the center by the time they’re ready for kindergarten I leave at least have provided them a base of, “You know what? Besides Chicago there is places around this world that you should take interest in because there’s so much to learn from it.”
Yeah, that’s wonderful. We’re quickly running out of time, but I did want to ask you quickly about your experience with Early-childhood Educator of the Year. Did you know you were being nominated? What was it like when you found out you won? And how was your feeling through that that process?
So it was honestly the most the amazing feeling in the world. I did not think I had a chance. But first of all, so I did not know who nominated me. And I really liked that it was kept a secret. I actually didn’t know I was nominated until I got an email, and I’m, like, “Oh my gosh, who did this? Like, wow, somebody really is seeing what I’m doing for the Center and they think I’m a light in this field and I’m shining.”
So when I got that first e-mail I was, like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing. What an honor.” And then I read what was written about me, and I was just, like, so touched because I really put my heart into my job. I just love students; I love providing experiences for them that they’ll remember forever; I love being the leader of my teachers and supporting them and having them grow their career development, just keep moving forward. And so somebody saw something in me that I was just so thankful for.
Then I received the e-mail that I won and tears came to my eyes. I just couldn’t believe it because I’m still… I’m going to be in this field forever. I hope to be at this school for forever. I really love where I work. It was just an amazing accomplishment and I don’t think that I will ever forget that feeling. And then I received the plaque and that was just awesome, too. And when people come to my school it has provided… that award makes them feel confident that where they decided to enroll their child or they’re looking to enroll their child is run by somebody who’s passionate. I’m not here to make money; I’m not here to grow my resumé. When I received that award I looked at that as a light for a school, something that shined on my school and what we’re doing here for the ones that are here.
And Children’s Creative Center is growing. We’re looking to open another facility very, very soon. This is our second facility that I run, and it’s just really great because I believe that the parents, educators and the kids come here and they know that they’re getting something out of every second of the day. I want them to know that their feelings are understood, their words are heard and that we just want to grow them cognitively, developmentally – we want to support them every second of the way.
So this award shines light on my vision and it just really kind of solidified for me and my crying parents that this was the career choice for me. And it just, it really has opened up doors. I’ve received e-mails to be on people’s websites, zero-to-three websites; National Louis is going to share an article about me. And it’s just really opened up doors, and I really hope to continue to be a voice in this field to make a difference. This field needs to be known because we’re changing lives and this is such an important age group. So I’m really, really happy to be a part of it and I’m honored to receive that award.
That is so awesome. And I think certainly a big part of it is showcasing the amazing work of early-childhood educators. And also I think it’s wonderful to get more mentors out there in folks like yourself that other [early-childhood educators] who are newer to the field can reach out to and get some advice from. And speaking of which, one last note to leave on: for those early-childhood educators out there that might be starting out their careers, what advice would you give to them?
First of all my first advice is to network. Reach out to anybody and everybody and get their perspectives of the field. Go into a classroom; sit back and observe. I also will say, reach out to me. I can be a voice for anybody. I will always be here for people who are passionate about the field. I make myself as available as I can be. So if somebody is looking for a specific mentor, look out reach out to me. I can provide my email: It’s Belmont@Children’sCreativeChicago.com. I love being a mentor and inspiration for people looking to be in this field. I think research is important, and making connections with people in this field that can help be your guide to a successful career for yourself.
So I really, really… I also think taking a risk is important, so dive in and don’t be afraid. Know that everything that you do you can learn from if you make a mistake. And things that you do great, remember your strong aspects of yourself and that will push you to be the educator that you want to be.
Awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that with us, Halle.
So for those of you who want to get in touch with Halle again, the e-mail is Belmont@Children’sCreativeChicago.com. You can also go to their website: www.ChildrensCreativeChicago.com and also find it there. Halle, it’s been wonderful having you on this show. Congratulations again on being Early-childhood Educator of the Year. You’re doing some awesome stuff there. It’s so great to have you on the show.
Thank you, it was such a pleasure to speak with you. This was such an awesome opportunity to be on your Podcast. This is just so awesome. Keep doing what you guys are doing. And to all of the early-childhood educators in the world: keep inspiring and changing lives because we are making a difference.