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Empowering preschool teachers with leadership opportunities

Empowering preschool teachers with leadership opportunities

October 4, 2016 | By Ron Spreeuwenberg
This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #12"Empowering preschool teachers with leadership opportunities”.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 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 talk about mentorship and teacher empowerment in the child care setting with the director of education at The Childcare Network, Jamie Rechkemmer. Childcare network is the fourth largest provider of daycare and early learning services in America based in Columbus, Georgia. They are providing opportunities for childcare staff to take on a leadership role in their center through the education coordinator position. We also discussed the importance of taking professional development learnings and applying them in the classroom to learn more about how you can empower your preschool teachers by being intentional with opportunities for growth. Stay tuned for this week's episode of the preschool podcast.

Why don't you start off by telling us a little bit about your background and how you got into the field of early childhood education.

Jamie RECHKEMMER: I think I came into the field of early childhood education like so many of our professionals do. I loved kids. And so as a young person I was looking for a job after school and found a position and in early care and education program and didn't think from you know the beginning at the beginning that they would actually turn into a career.

But a couple of things happened when I realized that it just kind of filled something in my spirit doing good things for kids and families. Also I realized really quickly that children have an amazing capacity today to learn. And I've always wanted to teach but I had I wanted to teach big kids. And what I realized pretty quickly is that young children have this just innate desire to learn new things and to share that with one another and that is very rewarding for me as an early professional in the field. But I was really lucky to have some great mentors who gave me lots of opportunities in the classroom and outside the classroom so I've been a classroom teacher and I've been an early care and education program director. I have had the opportunity to work at a nonprofit with Child Care Resource and Referral serving both children and families and helping them to access high quality care but also working with leaders in early childhood to develop leadership skills. I was able to write curricula and publish which was a way of tying that early childhood field into another passion of mine which was writing and creative development. And then you know fortunately about seven years ago I entered into an amazing relationship with my company Child Care Network and have been able to have such a unique opportunity and working with kids and families and working with teachers here to you know provide access to high quality care to improve professional development opportunities for teachers to encourage access to higher education for teachers. It's just been what I can honestly say has been a dream opportunity. And I'm so thankful for that.

SPREEUWENBERG: Can you just give us a bit of a background on child care network.

RECHKEMMER: Absolutely. I'm a child care network is early childhood education organization based out of Columbus Georgia. We are the fourth largest provider of early education services in the United States. We have more than 200 schools and we serve I think upwards of twenty five thousand children and families across the states that we serve. Childcare network has you know a couple of missions in mind one of course is to provide high quality early care and education. We particularly want to serve our children and families as well. We participate in community partnerships. We support families. There are resources we partner with federal programs and state programs to offer different types of access to early care whether it might be through child care services or through head start services early Head Start public pre-K as well as having very comprehensive school age programs for when children are out of school and during the summer when they need full time activities in a summer camp environment and you know we really make it our goal to provide high quality safe educational programming that's affordable for our working families who need these types of services.

SPREEUWENBERG: As director of education this is quite a different role in a large company like child care network. That's the fourth largest provider of childcare services in the U.S. versus you know being on the ground working with children which is where your original passion was in getting involved in early childhood education what keeps you passionate in your role as director of education.

RECHKEMMER: Thankfully when I when I need it I can find a classroom and some kids because that that grounding and direct service to children getting on the floor and playing with toys and talking with kids and watching them learn you know that need never goes away. And so I'm so thankful that I can step into a classroom. You know any day of the week and still get on the floor and play. But for me today. And you're right it is a big difference. And one of the things I think today that helps drive me in this role as director of education for this large group is looking at the teachers and being you know part and of the work that I do as well.

So when I was a teacher in a classroom you know I saw my work as being in service of the kids and it still is obviously. But today I also get to look at this audience of teachers who is able to put some of that creativity and development in our curriculum into play in our classroom because we're not just growing high quality learning for kids we're also hoping to provide lots of learning opportunities for our teachers as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: And do you see that as a trend over the last few years where there has been more of a focus on providing those professional development opportunities for teachers and help developing leadership skills and your teachers both of which you mentioned earlier. Is that something that's changed quite a bit over the last few years. Do you think.

RECHKEMMER: I definitely think that that has become a primary focus and early care and education.

I have come to a point in time where we finally have really substantial research with longevity. Early Childhood is a fairly new field in the history of time and so we've we finally have had enough time and enough attention and enough emphasis on the value of early education to have some good quality research on you know child outcomes. And on the types of leadership competencies. One of the things I think that we realize in our field is that there is an absolute essential need for a higher education when it comes to high quality classrooms and interactions with children and outcomes for children.

But we also see every day that the high quality practice is just as essential and that practice comes from professional development opportunities and coaching with you know other experts in the field of professional learning communities where teachers can share their ideas with one another and share their challenges with one another and get support from their colleagues. And you know I'm thankful to in my career have had all of those opportunities. I think that being part of leadership cohorts and part of professional learning communities and having mentors who took the time to invest in me as a young teacher and a young professional in early childhood. Now I can give those opportunities back to the teachers that I interact with on a daily basis and we see that too. And you know our curious systems then in some of the standards that are coming out early learning guidelines and federal and state requirements for high quality there's a definite emphasis not only on formal education but also on professional development specific to early childhood best practice in learning environments with kids and then also with creating professional learning communities so that teachers can share their experiences with one another and benefit from that experience across you know all of the different types of classrooms we work in.

SPREEUWENBERG: Very cool. One of the things I've heard you mention a couple of times now already is mentors and how important mentors were for you early on. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

RECHKEMMER: Absolutely. I think that early childhood environment is very unique and in education in general is very unique in that you know throughout the day we spend most of our time with young people. We really come to know our classroom and we spend hours and hours with young people. And then you know we go home at the end of the day and we don't always have an opportunity to really find the adults that are in our career and in our experience and share what we're dealing with. And so I think an early child in particular we have to be very intentional about creating opportunities for mentorship.

And you know some of the ways that that has happened for me in my life certainly has been identifying teachers that worked at my school that had things about their classroom that I enjoyed and characteristics about their teaching personalities that I thought were you know really attractive. And so I would watch them and ask them questions and thankfully you know they were willing to share their experiences with me as well.

But I've also had the opportunity to participate in very intentional development of you know leadership teams and mentor teams where people were paired with one another around you know a common denominator. Maybe it's the age group that they prefer to work with or maybe it's geography or you know it could even be you know collective higher education experiences and they come together and observe one another and offer each other suggestions for things that they could do differently and celebrate the things that they're doing really well. I think that ultimately successful mentoring is a commitment to helping other people in our field become great at what they do because the more great people we have an early childhood the better insults we're going to have as a group.

And you know ultimately that's going to be you know children that are receiving high quality education and becoming lifelong learners themselves. I think that's the other critical element to you to any type of mentoring and coaching relationship is that we have to keep an open mind to learning at all times. And that has been one of the privileges that I've had and the mentors that I've been able to work with the coaches that I've been able to work with. You know they always saw it as being a mutually beneficial relationship. They were there to help me grow. But they you know also were looking for opportunities to grow themselves and celebrated with me when they were learning and growing and their careers alongside me. And so that just made the relationship you know even more special and it grew even greater for us both.

SPREEUWENBERG: One of our focuses with the preschool podcast is developing the future leaders of early childhood education and we think leadership is a key part of the field of early childhood education moving forward in a positive direction. And you mentioned not as well. We think that's super important which includes being open to learning all the time. And also something else which you touched on which I might just ask you to expand on a bit further. It being intentional in providing those intentional opportunities to develop your mentorship capabilities or your leadership skills. Are you doing anything like that at Child Care network in terms of being proactive to provide mentoring or leadership opportunities for staff?

RECHKEMMER: We are and I am super excited to be able to talk about it to you. So you know one thing that we do maybe more formally is provide access to a lot of professional development around being a mentor and being a coach. So that when teachers are interested in having a relationship like that with another of their colleagues there definitely is some nuance to being a supportive coach and being a supportive mentor and using your experience to benefit other people. But then we also you know have this really unique opportunity to create an environment that is a learning culture and to create an environment where people are encouraged to be supportive of one another and one way we've done that very recently is through the introduction of a role that we call education coordinator and the educator coordinator is a classroom teacher. As a classroom teacher, they have really demonstrated not only a standard of excellence in their classroom that is creating the best possible circumstances for learning for their kids but they've also shown leadership skills and shown an interest in developing others and shared an interest in sharing experience and being supportive and so in that role as an education coordinator they have the opportunity to organize training and deliver it.

Or organize morale building conduct observations and offer coaching you know spend some time in other teacher’s classrooms. Giving it the benefit of their experience to the other teachers. But like I mentioned before what is so beautiful about that is that in getting feedback from our education coordinators you know they all comment on how they have grown professionally through this experience and they see the work of their teachers, fellow teachers in the program and they bring that same experience back to what was already a high quality classroom that they were running. But they see the opportunity to grow you know in their in their roles as education coordinators. You know we also encourage our teachers to participate in community learning opportunities professional development with other early educators across the county that they might work in and we organize conferences for our directors to come together and not only be leaders in the company but also to see leadership from others. I feel like me we do an excellent job at that. We've taken a lot of cues from you know public school systems that are organizing professional learning communities. And certainly you know programs like Head Start and Early Head Start. And in our state pre-K programs that have super fantastic leadership that are all programs we are committed to bringing that type of leadership development to our early childhood program here at Childcare Network as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: Very cool. I really like this idea of the education coordinator. How does that work. Does somebody kind of put up their hand and say Hey I'd love to be the education coordinator or does the director of the center or somebody else in the organization say you know hey Julie in the toddler classroom is really showing signs of being a great leader and we think she'd be a great fit for the education coordinator. So let's talk to her and see if she's interested in that role. How does that work?

RECHKEMMER: I think honestly it's a combination of a couple different things and very unique to the setting that we're selecting the education coordinator in. So you know in some cases you might have a teacher who is very eager to take on more responsibility and have other opportunities within the organization. And so they will be you know very enthusiastic and very vocal about that interest and kind of throw their name into the hat as being interested in the education coordinator role at the school and in other cases. And I think that this is one of the things that is somewhat unique and special about early educators. Early educators are amazing individuals but they spend so much of their time celebrating children and families and others that they don't always know how to celebrate themselves. And so it is often times a director or a district manager will notice the leadership skills like you mentioned see the strengths in the classroom and then bring those to the attention of the teacher – Tash, you're doing some great stuff in your room. I love seeing you interact with the children and families. I've noticed how often you are in other classrooms offering suggestions and offering assistance and offering your time. I would love for you to do a lot more formally at your school. How would you feel about that?

So it's very much a mutual decision in that respect that a teacher will say that they're interested in being the education coordinator and then at the same time the director has noticed these capacities and wants that teacher in that role. So usually it's a perfect fit. And once we once we identify that person and they're feeling confident about their skills and capacities and that role and opportunity then we usually just see things take off so fast. And the benefits to the school are almost immediate in morale and in increased communication because we have another channel for bringing information to the teachers a little more informally. The parents you know notice the difference or notice the opportunity for the teacher. We try and recognize them in our formal way with you know a different name tag and a plaque outside their door. So it really becomes the community now the community family and the school that supporting that teacher and the role which then you know just pushes the cycle even you know faster in terms of giving them confidence and then they're more willing and able to work in the classroom. So it's just an overall really amazing opportunity for everyone involved.

SPREEUWENBERG: Very cool. One of the themes that we have on the preschool podcast really is about the importance of the environment and the culture in a child care center and that's something that's really hard to create and it takes a lot of effort and a lot of intentional planning with something like the education coordinator position. So that's a very interesting way to approach it. I like it. I think one of the things we hear a lot is you know instead of focusing in on a lot of the operational details of what's happening in terms of processes and this type of thing that focusing in on the really fundamental piece of culture is really what makes the biggest shift in a child care center so that's really cool to hear.

RECHKEMMER: I think that we have to look at relationships as being one of the essential functions for our processes and an early ed environment. So you know we definitely have come to believe in and find the benefit in having strong relationships with our children and families but we also certainly can find the benefit of having strong relationships with our teachers and our administrators. But sometimes the relationship that we don't spend enough time with is that relationship amongst the teachers themselves and the school family that we can create.

And so that's another you know great benefit of this of this role at school is they you serve as this kind of a leader of the school family. But interestingly enough one of the side benefits is those processes that when the education coordinator can be a leader in creating a culture at the school then the director can take a little bit of that off her plate and apply it to some of the other you know director related processes so we see that side benefit. And also in the operations at the school because there's just more cohesion and with that cohesion you know comes just a better a better process overall.

SPREEUWENBERG: I'll tell you what I love I love what you just said because what you're saying is essentially you're empowering the early educators on your team to take on more responsibility take on more accountability and not actually taking work off your plate as a director which I strongly believe in model because not only are you giving those great opportunities to people on your team you're going to create great culture amongst your team. Like you said it's also opening up time for yourself as a director administrator to focus on the things that you're passionate about and about delivering the vision that you have for your center. So that's really cool.

One of the things I wanted to just ask you about a little bit more. You've mentioned a couple of times. Professional development. I heard the term professional learning communities. Can you give us a little bit more meat about you know what do you mean by that like what does that look like, professional development opportunities.

RECHKEMMER: Well obviously you know it starts with formal education and formal education around early childhood has you know grown just exponentially even since I was in undergrad to work in early childhood. And thankfully that wasn't too long ago. But you know one thing that we unfortunately do notice at times in formal education related to early childhood is that there's not a lot of practical application opportunities. There's obviously a lot of classroom time but we don't see too many early education programs or I should say I don't see too many early education programs teacher education programs that have a lot of practical application working with kids. So we get a highly educated group coming in. But they still require you know training and professional development on the real life stuff that happens in a classroom and in areas like communicating with families and communicating with one another and building community partnership and accessing resources for families. But we also do obviously as we were building our school family and inviting children and families into our classrooms we see that each one of those children and those families come to us with a set of very special and unique needs. And so we need to train and educate our teachers around the needs of children and families. Whether it might be you know different family systems or diversity.

And you know culturally responsive care whether it's around autism or you know developmental delays if it's around helping children to manage behaviour better and develop social skills those types of things require regular and consistent emphasis focus and updated training. So we try and provide professional development in a number of different ways considering the needs of our staff. We have a number of online programs that our staff have access to and we offer these at no cost. So really it involves them finding the time and opportunity which we also try and support. There is no community access to professional development through agencies like Smart Start in our public school system and so we try to organize live an interactive professional development.

Internally we do other types of online learning. I've become myself much more much more qualified to deliver online webinars and we try and use platforms that are somewhat interactive so that teachers from Georgia to Florida to Texas and North Carolina to Kentucky to Tennessee can all come together online and use web platforms to speak with one another and chat with one another and share ideas. But I think the most important piece is that. After offering the professional development there are opportunities for reflection and observation. So we you know really encourage the teachers and provide opportunities for them to take that learning and apply it in their classroom and then either through an observation where we observe this working and offer coaching and feedback. We're through a reflection that the teacher offers on her own. We can hear you know how she feels like she applied or he applied that work in the classroom and what a difference it made and what learning they would like to continue.

So I think that the big picture is that we just try and stay in touch with our teachers and get feedback from them on a regular basis through surveys and reviews and whatnot knew what type of learning would you like more of, what are the learning styles that work best for you and how can we support you as you continue your professional development. Because we firmly believe that that is a key component to professionalizing our field which I think for anyone in early education is a primary goal so that our field our group of educators the collective knowledge that we have about children and families is respected and recognized. And in order for that to happen it has to be delivered by people that. Are you know highly qualified and highly trained and confident enough to speak about it.

SPREEUWENBERG: Absolutely. Working at a technology company I love that you're using technology to do online training. So that's great. As an engineer by study I also love that you're taking the learnings from your professional development webinars and following up with applying those learnings in the classroom because that's really important I think something that can go wrong with a lot of webinars and workshops is you know everybody's really excited at the time. But you got to follow through and actually apply that new learning in the classroom. And that's the real important part. We talked about a lot of exciting things that are happening in early childhood education, childcare network. What excites you most about what's happening in early childhood education right now?

RECHKEMMER: Well there's just so much to choose from. I think for me in as a director of education and you know one of the things that I am able to work on is curriculum development and I think that you know there are some definite standards when it comes to early education.

We talk a lot about obviously school readiness and preparing children to be successful in kindergarten. And I am particularly interested in and very passionate around some of the other areas of education that early childhood programs have the privilege of touching. So I you know get really excited about opportunities in our infant-toddler classrooms because we spend so much time and we dedicate so much funding to our pre-K environment and yet the research you know so clearly tells us over and over and over again that you're learning opportunities begin you know at birth if not before and not all of the learning opportunities that we're offering our infants and toddlers are creating this you know foundation for the morning experiences that don't have a pre-K and beyond to really settle and take hold that they've got to have, you know they've got to have the gray matter they've got to have the sponge to soak it all in in order to really make a success of it in pre-K and beyond. So I certainly get very excited when I have the opportunity to work with infant toddler teachers. I get super excited when I hear of no new funding that's being dedicated specifically to our infant toddler programs at the federal level and the state level which we've seen a ton of emphasis on lately. But then I also really love to see a trend towards professionalizing our infant toddler classrooms so we have long had formal education around pre-K and kinder you know around K3 but I'm starting to see a lot more emphasis on preparing our infant toddler educators in a very specialized way. Recognizing that the work that they're doing with our youngest learners is really creating you know the environment for what will come next.

And then also you know a completely different vein. But another area that I am very passionate around is some of the learning that takes place outside of various traditional areas around the fine arts and wellness. I'm very fortunate to have been supported in our efforts to include Fine Arts in our curriculum and include wellness opportunities in our curriculum and include really unique literacy activities in our curriculum that not only enhance the learning experience for kids but also really enhance the teaching experience for teachers and I think that for me is just you know the common denominator across everything that I do. You know the direct services to kids but I always have to consider our teachers as well because it's the interactions that they're going to have. It's the enthusiasm that they put into teaching. It's the you know interest and passion that they have for learning and developing themselves that is transferred to the environment they're providing for kids. So I'm always interested in how I can take any trend in early childhood and look at its application for kids and families and ultimately to where is the benefit for the teachers and how can we use that to grow them, as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah that's something we can't forget about. Is the teachers and I know we place a lot of emphasis on that at HiMama. Sounds like you place a lot of emphasis on it. Child Care Network and it's a growing question of obviously we're focusing on improving learning outcomes for children but by developing teachers capabilities. That's a really great way to ultimately improve outcomes for children by making them really great at what they do. So that’s very cool.

We also think it's very important that the early childhood education community shares information knowledge and learning amongst each other. Where do you go to get information online or otherwise about what's happening in early childhood education.

RECHKEMMER: Well I belong to all kinds of groups on Facebook and groups on Google Plus and I get news feeds and you know type in search engines. I am not a techie Ron. I have to admit that but I am thankful that there are other people who are who can set up my computer to just drop things like that in my inbox or things like that in my news feed. Thank goodness. But also very thankful for the early childhood community in general really provides a lot of access to you up to date professional development whether it be through state organizations or national organizations like NAEYC. I am privileged to participate with a group called The Early Childhood Education Consortium which is a collection of early childhood leaders in the industry serving kids state associations and then service providers that have a vested interest in a particular area of the early childhood field. And we all come together a couple times a year and share you know things that are going on for us individually but then talk collectively about what's happening across the field of early childhood. You know there are great publications and you know printed publications are kind of losing a little bit of their luster but I still like to turn pages at times and so there are some you know trade journals that I like to look at that are particularly written for early childhood professionals across all the areas of expertise and education so Early Childhood Exchange just one that I enjoy.

But then you know I also you know try to stay on top of some of the more academic journals. Because I think that in my role in particular as director of education knowing that I have a channel to communicate you know with our teachers and with our families. I think that it's one of the responsibilities I have is to stay very current in my knowledge of what's happening in the field and then take some of that maybe you know more technical language and research-ish stuff. And then you know bring it to real life application for our teachers and families. You know what does it mean when you know what the outcome is you know across a longitudinal study for X number of children. What does that mean to you and your family. What does that mean to you and your classroom. You know research is all well and good. If we use it if we apply what we learn through these research studies to the benefit of the children and families that we're touching on a daily basis.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah absolutely. I think applying academic research in the classroom is a big opportunity for early childhood education. So I'm glad to hear that you're doing that child care network because I think that's super key. So I'd love to see more great Economic Research and Early Childhood Education and definitely more people like yourself that are actually applying the learnings from that in the classroom. Last couple of questions if I'm an educator listening to this podcast and Child Care Network sounds like a cool place where can I go learn more about Child Care Network.

RECHKEMMER: Well you would go to our Web site and I guess would be the first place to start The ChildcareNetwork.com. Easy to find and easy to navigate.

SPREEUWENBERG: - OK.And if I'm thinking to myself Jamie sounds really cool I'd like to talk to her about early childhood education about child care network about anything. How would someone get in touch with you?

RECHKEMMER: I would love to say that I have a link to an account but I don't and I probably shouldn't admit that I don't know how to use LinkedIn right now. So the best way to get me would be via e-mail. I would suggest and I'm happy to share it jrechkemmer@childcarenetwork.com. Or just the old fashioned way, Google search Facebook.

SPREEUWENBERG: OK. Good stuff. Well thanks so much for coming on the show Jamie it was great having you as guest.

RECHKEMMER: Thank you for inviting me. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed it thoroughly. And gosh it's so great to have the opportunity that you know to talk about early education. So thank you very much.

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