Origin Story: Part 1

Every passionately and annoyingly-obsessed early learning educator needs a good origin story.  So here’s mine:

After I graduated college in 2007 with a useless degree, I moved back to my hometown Seattle to be with my partner.  My long-held goals of working at a social justice type non-profit were recently dashed (here’s looking at you, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded!) and I needed to find a job.  I’ve always “liked kids,” and had experience doing volunteer childcare for a few community organizations.  I figured it would be better than working in restaurants or retail.  I don’t remember my thoughts exactly but I must have thought, like most people do, that it can’t be that hard to play with kids all day!

I applied to a few places without any training or background in Early Childhood Development.  I was lucky enough to be called in for an interview at a well-regarded place in downtown Seattle and as part of my interview was given time in the preschool room to observe how I interacted with the children.  I didn’t know anything, but at least I instinctively knew that a big part of the job was getting to know and building relationships with the children.  I got the job!  I was hired as a “floater” to help cover breaks, sick and vacation days in all the different rooms

The first 6 months was absolute chaos and destruction to my brain.  I had no idea that I could feel so physically tired but more so emotionally fried.  The first year and a half at least was a long trial by fire.  I learned, like many others do, that “liking kids” is just not enough to last.  I lost my patience and yelled plenty.  I held children to unreasonable and wildly developmentally-inappropriate expectations and then got angry with them for not living up to them.

I am embarrassed and ashamed about my practice at the time but I will not take all the blame.  I simply did not know any better.  The situation is much bigger than any one person’s background, training or intentions.  Nurses, forklift drivers, K-12 teachers, mechanics and more all need formal training.  In Washington state at the time, all that was required to educate and care for people who are at a vitally important stage in their growth and development was to seem okay enough during an interview!  I can honestly say I should not have been hired but I can imagine why the Director did.  She had children enrolled and she needed warm adult bodies to keep the rooms in ratio.  Maybe during my interview and observation time I showed I could possibly be trained to be a decent educator down the road.  Putting well-meaning but uneducated and untrained adults in a room with little people is a great way to get lots of bad and mediocre results.  Somehow the blame usually gets laid at our feet though, and not the people who currently have the power to build a better way of doing this.  This of course can be a whole other topic!

After a year or so I tried to switch fields.  I realized if I stayed in this field I’d make very little money and could not see any feasible paths for advancement.  I found work as an assistant at a non-profit that provided parenting support to new families across the state.   To make a long story short I didn’t even last there a year.  I learned I am not cut out to sit at a desk in a windowless office for 8 hours a day.  I made better money but I was miserable and in a bad mood.  (It did not help that I did not believe in much of what the organization did.  I truly think they would have helped struggling families more if they liquidated the organization and gave the money spent on the budget and professional salaries directly to the families instead).  I came crawling back to the same center quickly after.

I stayed at this center until 2013.  I learned a lot there and over time somehow grew into a by-some-standards acceptable educator.  By the time I left I was in the infant room most mornings and the lead pre-K in the afternoons.  I learned how to navigate and stay sane and on task in a room of babies or young children.  I changed my first diaper and then hundreds (thousands?) more.  I made tiny steps towards learning how to plan activities based on children’s actual interests.  I learned how to maintain consistent and (somewhat) age-appropriate expectations in a room.  I think most of all I learned on quite a deep level that our relationships with the children are the absolute foundation for anything decent that can happen in a childcare or early learning setting.  Nothing else can happen if those secure relationships are not in place.

Of course I did not learn this on my own.  I learned from the example and advice of many experienced and dedicated people there.  I appreciate their patience with me and I miss working with a lot of them.  I could probably write future posts just about them.

To be real I also learned some things that aren’t so great.  Many of the parents – Seattle lawyers and professionals – were very caught up in the damned fear cycle that surrounds so much misunderstanding of early childhood development and to different degrees we catered to their worries and anxiety.  In this world, earlier and more is always better.  Young babies need tummy time and walkers.  Toddlers need flash cards.  Preschoolers need to go over letters, numbers and to learn to trace their names and sit at tables to do activities that we deem are worthy.  Pre-K children need to learn letters, phonics, “work-time” activities and worksheets.

I didn’t know why, but had a vague feeling that some of this early academic stuff just wasn’t right.  Many times I rebelled by simply not doing these activities when given the opportunity.  I didn’t have any research to back up this stance, I just knew that it was not fun for any of us so why should we bother!  I just gave the children more time to play.  I remember talking to the head preschool room teacher about my concerns about and she agreed it wasn’t ideal to make 3 and 4 year olds sit down for these work-time activities.  Unfortunately this is what she felt most parents were interested in and paying all this tuition for.  It makes me sad to think of this conversation.  Early learning educators doing things they disagree with, that many children don’t enjoy, to keep well-meaning but wrongly-educated parents/”customers” happy.

There is a severe lack of understanding and trust in the capabilities of babies and young children.  I am now learning that we are rushing people through childhood too quickly.  For babies and young children, earlier and more is simply not better.  It is demonstrably worse.  Children need the time and space to learn, discover and grow at their own pace.  Taking issue with these ideas might be controversial to some and I can promise that many future posts will go into this stuff in more depth.

I do have to add the caveat that by many reasonable standards this center was and is good.  Most of the staff cared about what they did and built loving relationships with the children – which I still think is the most important thing.  Maybe it is presumptuous of me but I think we need to always strive the best possible standards at all times.  Our understanding of this will change due to new research and understanding of course.  It has been fascinating for me to learn how hardwired children are to learn, grow and develop on their own and learning more about these topics has given me an entirely new take and excitement for working in this field.  I kind of can’t believe I have had to work in this field for 8+ years until I discovered all the wonderful, inspiring and challenging pro-play and… um, realistic-view-of-children people out there.

What a surprise, this first post has turned into a full-fledged rant.  Anyways, in 2013 I left, because my partner got a post-doc position in Australia of all places and I followed along.  I guess that will have to be part 2.  Thank you so much if you actually read all this!

Future topics will probably include:

  • Being a man in this field.
  • How sexism and patriarchy effect this field.
  • How racism and class effect this field.
  • Being a human vs. a cog in the the “conveyor belt” of diaper changes and mealtimes.
  • Top down efforts to better and “professionalize” the field without respecting and trusting the experiences and ideas of educators.  The flip-side of this being educators needing to learn to truly trust and respect the babies and children!
  • Real talk about trying to operate each day from a deep pro-play place while still having lots of old-school thoughts deeply ingrained in my brain.
  • Real talk about documentation.
  • The absolute importance of teaching social and emotional literacy.
  • Why talking about our practice with other educators and others can be so hard.
  • Why I love Magda Gerber and want to learn more about Emmi Pikler.

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5 thoughts on “Origin Story: Part 1

  1. You really get down in there and grab facts and feelings. Nicely done truth telling. I backed into a job in a pre-school myself. Twenty hours a week for five years at nothing pay. Before that I was a medical technologist in mostly hospital labs, and after I had full time work in medical research … so it was – different. I already had a two year old when I started so learned some basics ahead of time, but still the variety of children is very teaching. It was near the end of this stretch that something popped up I don’t tell people about because it is an inconvenient fact when you are trying to be believed as a scientist. One day I learned before I left for work that my mother, three thousand miles away, was quite sick. I went to work worrying. When it came time for a free play time, a little boy walked up to me with a telephone handing me the receiver saying “Your mother wants to talk to you.” No one was told about my concern for my mother when I went to work. A little while later I decided to set up the poster boards for the children so they could do something new on them. I stood there and decided I’ve known these children around six months now, I’ll try doing tic tac toe with them. In my mind I was deciding on how big to make the grid. I had said nothing about this topic. A little girl picked up a black marker and made a grid in front of me the size and layout I had stood imagining in my mind. This subject was never spoken of previous to that or any tic tac toe played with them previously on anything. Nothing. This was pivotal for me. This was black and white and undeniable, and it ruined my feelings for the empirical method. As a medical researcher post those five years, I was highly creative and felt I had gotten a Ph.D. in basic creativity, but, in addition, knew, couldn’t deny, a feeling, a knowing, that I was living in a highly superstitious field, society, matrix. There’s more, but you get the idea…

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