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Taking control of your early childhood career

Taking control of your early childhood career

August 8, 2017 | Carmen Choi

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

The more we learn about leadership, the more we realize that successful leadership hinges on authenticity, not authority. This holds true in early-childhood education as much as any other field or industry. Leaders in early-childhood education that have the most impact build communities that work towards a common goal with their team.

Studies have found that this team mentality, founded on the relationships that people have with their peers and superiors, is highly correlated with teacher retention in the high-turnover sector of early-childhood education.

Our guest Belinda Costin talked with us about how joining the right association can help early-childhood educators find like-minded people that can act as a support system when navigating the many challenges in the role. She offers actionable steps to find and/or build a community by being proactive about professional growth. Let's dive into it.

Belinda, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

Belinda COSTIN: Thank you. I'm happy to be here, Ron

SPREEUWENBERG: So let's start by learning a little bit more about you. And I always like to start off learning a little bit about how you got involved in the field of early-childhood education.

COSTIN: Alright. I received my Bachelor's in Elementary Education. So I actually started my career teaching in second grade, and then I got my Masters in Educational Administration. And I became a principal, and I was a principal for a private school and I also taught sixth, seventh and eighth grade. So I really had taught second through eighth grade and was administration. But then when I moved back to Ohio my teaching license wasn't current. So while I worked on making my license – or getting my license current – I started working in an early-childhood setting with toddlers. So I went from being a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher / principal to becoming a toddler teacher. And it was the most shocking experience in one way, because you realize how little control you have when you're working with toddlers. And you have to be so much more creative. It was such a wonderful challenge, and I wondered if I would survive.

But once I got past that hump of, “Okay, this is the reality of toddlers, and life is different. And you are not the one who can say, ‘I'm the principal – you need to listen to me or call your parents.’” It's very different with toddlers. And I began to appreciate and respect the brain of a toddler. And I did research about brain development from infants up to age five, and I realized – or I should say I re-realized – that that's where all the learning first begins. And that is the most valuable time, is the zero-to-five.

And then instead of going into elementary school I became a director of one of the childcare centers where I had been teaching. And as a director I realized more fully that the teachers in the classroom work with the children tirelessly. And I realized I wanted to work with the teachers rather than work with administration. And I realized I wanted to do it within the zero-to-five age group. I wanted to make a difference because, first of all, I had a deeper respect for infant-toddler-preschool pre-K-kindergarten teachers. And I really wanted to help them so that they would love their job more – if they did already – and maybe love their job if they didn't. So that's really how I never went back into elementary school or back into being a principal, how I remained in order to get an education degree.

SPREEUWENBERG: Very neat. And question for you, and you talked about this a fair bit in terms of learning or re-learning some of the things about brain development and the challenges and rewards of working with children age zero-to-five, but: Coming from a grade school, sort of Grade 7 and 8, what was one of the perceptions that you had of early-childhood educators or the early-childhood education field that you had going in that changed once you had that experience?

COSTIN: That's a great question. I will never forget preparing my lesson plan and going in and executing my lesson plan in a preschool classroom for my interview that would lead to my teaching the toddlers. So I had this well-written, thought out lesson plan with about insects. And I had printed off pictures of insects, and I had some activity for the insects. And I remember, in my head, I envisioned these little preschoolers were going to sit in a circle with me, quietly captivated by my story and my pictures, and were just going to sit with me and we were all going to learn about insects together. And I quickly realized that they don't sit as long. Again, I should have realized this; I should have known this. But they don't sit as long as you do, and you have to be a lot more creative with how you're going to approach a subject with children. And having a piece of paper with a two-dimensional object like an insect is not going to get their attention. So that was probably one of my big reveals.

And I think the other thing that I realized was: I think I still had an idea that infants through preschool, in particular, was really kind of glorified babysitting. And because I had forgotten about the brain research and the brain development I had learned in college, I didn't realize that there is so much going on in their brains, and that there is a way to tap into it. And that it's the teacher that can make a difference in the classroom, whether it's glorified babysitting or worse, or whether it is high-quality interactions with the teacher and the children, where learning and researching together is going on.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, and that's one of the things that always strikes me in doing the Preschool Podcast, is that the perception of early-childhood education and the reality is almost on completely polar opposites, in that generally you kind of think, “Okay, you're working with younger children. The subject matter is very, very basic. You know, I'm not teaching them mathematics and reading and all this other stuff.” But actually the reality is it's so much more complicated and it's so much more dynamic to manage. And you can't just teach them as you plan to do so thoughtfully going in, and you quickly realized, “Wow, this is really challenging.”

COSTIN:Yes. That is very true. I thought teaching seventh and eighth grade was challenging, and it is because of their attitudes sometimes. But the creativity you need with infants, toddlers and preschool is… no one really realizes, if you haven't been in an early-childhood education classroom you don't realize the creativity and how you're always on. Like, with seventh and eighth graders I could say, “Okay, everybody read that chapter and take notes.” And then I could go over to my desk and maybe plan what I was going to do, whatever I had to get ready. Whereas with toddlers, you had to be on all the time. You had to always be thinking on your feet what you were going to do next. And the energy that it took… I just don't think even other teachers in the field realize it.

SPREEUWENBERG: It's crazy. “Work tirelessly,” as you said is a very, very accurate description. And so now you are the president of the Ohio AEYC. Can you tell us about what Ohio AEYC is and how and why you havce become the president of this association?

COSTIN: Sure. So when I got into early-childhood education and realized that I wanted to stay there I also realized that, since my degree had been in elementary education and in educational administration, “I need to do some deeper research into best practices for early-childhood education.” So I began to find out about and read a book called Developmentally Appropriate Practice [Carol Copple & Sue Bredekamp, eds.]. And it was a publication from an association called NAEYC, or National Association for the Education of Young Children. And as I delved into that deeper I asked other people around me – coworkers – about NAEYC. And they informed me that actually this national association also has state and local associations.

So I wanted to get more involved in my state association because it is an association for early-childhood professionals; it is for the teachers. It's not for the owners or for the directors or for the people doing professional development. It is it is really geared toward the professionals. And I firmly believe that the teachers need such support in the classroom. And so I felt like if I could get more involved in the state association and I could learn more about what it is and what it does for professionals then I can get the word out to other professionals so that they can get involved in this association and feel some support, either by coming to a conference or even going to the website. All of their publications – they have a magazine that gives teachers ideas for what they can do in the classroom, regarding everything from STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] to language and literacy. And then you get books, and all the books are research-based and they have a variety of topics.

And so I got involved at the local level in Ohio AEYC, and then gradually got on the board. And then I realized that we have some changes going on in the state and nationally, regarding the association. Associations are not… the membership is declining. And so we're trying to find new ways to bring in new members to get the word out. And so I realized that I really wanted to get more involved with that. “How can I get the word out?” Because I believe no matter where you are, that if a teacher – especially early-childhood teachers who feel sometimes isolated – could find an association or a group, that they can meet other teachers who understand what they're going through, then maybe they're more likely [to] either stay in the field or get reinvigorated for the field. And I know that was a long answer but that's really how I got into Ohio AEYC and how I ended up becoming president.

SPREEUWENBERG:It sounds like some of your early experiences working with toddlers in the classroom helped inspire you to come to this conclusion that the early-childhood professionals need support because their roles are so challenging.

COSTIN: Absolutely. At one point I was an educational consultant. I was within the same company that I worked for that I went from a toddler-teacher to a director, and then I just went to them and I said, “You know, I really just feel that the teachers need more support in the classroom, and I feel that I would be able to. Could I try that?” Because I really believe that relationships are so important. So if we can develop relationships with each other then we can help each other to grow. And so I took on that role of being the education consultant or education director of the seven different centers.

And I was concerned that the teachers would perceive me as one more supervisor that they had to jump through hoops for, or one more person who had more rules besides the state rules and the QRIS Quality Rating [and Improvement] System rules, that I would be one more person that they had to stand at attention for, so to speak. And then as I was doing my job one day I walked into a building, and a teacher came up to me and she said, “When are you coming to my classroom?”

So then I knew that I was making a difference for her in the classroom because she didn't see me as one more supervisor – she saw me as an advocate. And I think that I knew what to do to help them because of my involvement in the Association and reading the books and finding out, “What is high quality? What does a teacher need to do to help them, give them ideas for classroom management, for example?” I don't know if that answered your question or not.

SPREEUWENBERG:Yes. And it's a really interesting point when you describe that story because, we know there are so many requests and administrative burdens put on early-childhood educators. “Can you do that? Can you report on this? Can you do this as well as part of our quality-reading program?” And all these things obviously have good intentions, but it reminds you that there's almost an immediate caution amongst the early-childhood professionals when there's another individual or another process or another thing that's happening in their role, which goes to show you the benefit of someone who can step in, whether that's an individual or an association that's actually there to help them and relieve some of all this stress and all these tasks and things that they're required to do in their role. Because most of the time it's more burden and more things to do, as opposed to empowering and helping them do those things.

COSTIN: Right, and building them up. Exactly, it's more things for them to do, not building them up and helping them feel that they're doing well what they're already doing, which is amazing. What they're doing already is amazing, and then they have to do more. And then I worry that there's no one there saying, “You are doing an amazing job.”

SPREEUWENBERG:And one thing that you touched on as well is the importance of relationships with each other. And I think that is also very important, sort of this concept of a community and having other colleagues and peers that you can speak to about about challenges, about things that are working [or] not working in your classroom. Is that something else that the Association can support with?

COSTIN:Absolutely. Looking at Ohio AEYC, and looking at NAEYC – wherever a person is, if they can find an association that does that. For Ohio they have tried to they tried to get the voices, have people be heard. We as a board have done a listening campaign, so that we call members and we ask them, “What are your challenges? What is going well? Where do you wish you were listened more?” And NAEYC, actually they put out a question to the membership throughout the whole United States, and then everyone from any state can respond on what they think. So for example, the question for this week is, “How do you celebrate Father's Day?” And then given out to the whole United States and then anyone who wants to can respond. And then everybody reads these ideas and then they can implement it in the classroom if they want to. So that's one of the reasons that I do like the Association, because they have different ways in which members can reach out to each other as well as have their voice heard.

SPREEUWENBERG: And I think that's important, given all the things you've described about the challenges of the role, how much energy it takes to do your job every day as an early-childhood educator. So I think it's important to be part of those conversations. And a lot of those are happening online, too, so it's great that we can take advantage of that.

Now, you know that one of our passions in starting the Preschool Podcast is to empower and inspire the future leaders of early-childhood education. Do you have any tips or advice to the younger generation starting out careers in early-childhood education, as it relates to leadership and starting out their career in this field?

COSTIN:Good question, Ron. I would suggest that those starting out in the field be patient with themselves, because I have heard that it can take sometimes ten years for you to feel really comfortable in your own skin, in the classroom. And so a teacher may say, “I don't want to do this job,” when actually they're still getting their footing.

And then secondly I would encourage them to ask their administrators or their principals, could they observe a master teacher? Someone like… When I first started out I didn't feel comfortable always with my own classroom management, and I wanted to make sure I was using what was developmentally appropriate in early-childhood. So I asked my director, “Could I observe another toddler-teacher who has good classroom management skills?”

And I think the third thing – and I’m going to sound like a broken record – I do feel that I wish everyone starting out in the field had an association that had research-based, high-quality but not college professor Ph.D. language necessarily. So, language that is understandable to everyone in the field, that they could use these magazines, these books, the online listening to each other so that they have a support. So I would say, if you go to an area – if you're somewhere where there isn't a support group – then see if you can create one, either online or even at your center say, “I found this research-based book,” or, “I found a book on classroom management or a well-known speaker, and I was wondering if other people would like to read the book with me, or listen to a podcast or watch a speaker – a TED talk, something that you can, if it's not there, reach out so that you can become the catalyst to be a support to others. And then I think in the end that they will support you.

We had a director’s network in my Toledo, Ohio area, and at first only a few people came because everyone was suspicious of other directors in early-childhood education because it does have a setup of being competitive. But we kept it going, and it's now been several years. And more and more directors are coming because they're feeling like this is a safe space where they can be honest with each other about what's really going on in their centers. And I feel that that's the same way for teachers if they can get to that safe space where they can share with each other: “This is really going on in my classroom. Can you give me advice? Or, where can we go together to look? Or, what could I read?” So I think just listening, being patient, observing another teacher if you're comfortable. And if there is an association that you can join to get that support, join it. It probably has an annual membership fee, but it's worth it. And if there isn't an association then try to get together with other people at your center or in your city or town where you can sit together and… we joke that there's that commercial that talks about “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” So it's sort of that idea that this is a safe space. We can show what's going on, just to get support for each other.

SPREEUWENBERG:And it sounds like one of the themes of your advice – which is great advice, by the way – is to be proactive in reaching out to others when it comes to your own career and continuous professional learning, and I think that's excellent advice.

COSTIN:I had to do that myself. If I had waited for me to figure it out through trial-and-error, or for some magical person to walk in and tell me what I'm doing, everyone else is busy with their own lives, and maybe you're being observed once a year. But you really need to be proactive, also because it stays in my memory because I did the work to figure it out and to do the research to find it.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah. And I think that just the concept of taking ownership of your own your own career and your own professional learning is a very important one. Absolutely. And whether that's through informal mentors or relationships you build with other teachers in your community, or through associations and the relationships you build there, I think you can't go wrong with either of those.

COSTIN: I agree.

SPREEUWENBERG: Well, Belinda, it's been wonderful having you on the podcast. I've learned so much, as I always do doing these. Last question before we wrap up here: If people want to learn more about the Ohio Association for the Education of Young Children, where would they go to get more information?

COSTIN: They would go to www.OAEYC.org.

SPREEUWENBERG:Wonderful. Belinda, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

COSTIN: I really appreciated this, Ron. This is wonderful. Thank you so much.
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