So You Want to be an Early Childhood Educator. . .

I was honored recently to deliver the keynote address at Skyline College’s ECE/EU graduation ceremony, for early childhood educators earning their AA degree. Since it is graduation time everywhere, I wanted to share my thoughts here to anyone who is starting (or just reflecting on) what it means to devote your professional life to teaching and caring for young children:

First, I want to sincerely say congratulations. At a time when the field of early childhood education is pushing itself to become more systematic, you pushed yourself to go through a systematic and thorough course of training – and as a result, you are a trained professional. That is no small accomplishment.

Even if you have been teaching for some time, you are at the beginning of what will probably turn out to be a major – if not the major – phase of your career. At the beginning of your career, it’s worth taking some time to think about where you would like to be at the end of your career. When you leave the teaching profession, as I did last year, after 25 years – what would you like to have accomplished? What skills would you like to have mastered? What key experiences would you like to have had? Who would you like to have worked with and in what way? What would you like to know that you don’t know now?

So, as I thought about something really worthwhile and interesting to say to you, I began to wonder – what would I go back and tell myself when I was at the start of my career? I’m happy to report that, mainly I would like to say, “good call.” Early childhood education is now being recognized as a fundamental element of a healthy society. But there are a few key themes I would like to have at least reassured myself about:

Respect - you won’t get much. It’s better than when I started, for sure, when people would ask me, as politely as they could, “and. . . why do you want to take care of my child?” But some people will always see institutional care of young children as a “necessary evil” and skilled early childhood professionals as “glorified babysitters” – so you have to respect and reward yourself.

I encourage you to make a list of all the reasons you do this work, all the benefits you are returning to society, all the rewards you gain from doing it (besides money, which we’ll go over shortly), and all the skills and talents you possess. Keep it in your heart, if not on your wall or in your pocket. Revisit it when you or anyone else wonders when you’re going to get a grown up job.

Here’s a good rule of thumb about respect: Respect everyone but be intimidated by no one – build real trusting and affectionate relationships with co workers and families, so that you can give them the honest truth. Kids will learn this from you. That’s huge.

Time – be prepared for certain moments or mornings to last an eternity and for decades to pass in a heartbeat.

The most important thing I learned about time is that you can’t outrun it. You can’t be a great teacher by trying to get more done. You have to learn how to do less. How to, to use a popular term, “slow down the game.” Stepping back, looking around and calmly reflecting on what you see is a crucial skill, and one of the easiest to lose sight of. To accomplish this, you must let other adults around you do more. You have to trust them and communicate and delegate and collaborate. Kids will learn this from you, and that’s huge

Money – Money is a big issue in early childhood education. Because you won’t get much of it. On the one hand, I wholeheartedly encourage you to join the fight for worthy wages, and, beyond that, to set a standard of quality that demands greater status and pay. Do what you can to make more of your peers want to join the field. Increase the visibility and viability of the profession.

On the other hand, you have to accept that, in return for doing the most important job on the planet, you will earn less than you would if you bagged groceries. And you have to feel great about that.

There is an upside to this, however, which I learned by staying in the field through the savings and loan crisis on the early 90’s, the boom of the early 2000’s, the bust of the slightly later 2000’s, and the financial collapse of 2008. And this is it: Teachers are always needed.

You will feel underpaid in boom times, but you will keep your job through economic crashes. While others are scrambling to rebrand themselves, you will be in a solid groove. If you love the work – and love, not money, is really the only reason to take care of children for decades - keep at it, and you’ll find a way to have enough money. Even in the Bay Area. I promise.

Here is the most important thing I learned. I could have saved myself a lot of headache and heartache if I had understood this from the start. But, as we know, people are active learners, and I probably had to learn it by making mistakes over time. Here it is anyway:

There’s not so much a “right way” and a “wrong way” to do things– there’s your way, their way, and, most importantly – “our way.” Partnership, collaboration, and relationships are the tools of an expert teacher – not certainty or method. Questions are more important (and make you look better) than answers.

When I came out of school, I was so excited about the ideas I had learned that I felt they added up to a certain way of doing things. And you had to do them with ironclad consistency. I learned quickly that it doesn’t work that way. You have to learn about the needs and circumstances of the community you are in, and you have to partner with all the players.

Ours is a diverse community – that means different learning and teaching styles, different temperaments, different values and priorities. There is a place in it for your style and ideas, but you are part of a democratic process. Compromise, synthesis, balance, and, above all, respectful collaboration, are the core of good teaching. It is the process of working together that creates high quality care.

Very young children are learning, above all else, about the connection between home and school, and who they are in that new network. Your relationship with them and with the adults around them is what it’s all about. The relationships between the teachers, administrators, and families, are the educational philosophy and the curriculum. Kids learn this from us, and that’s huge.

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