Q: Your new book, Good Morning, Children, is about your challenges and successes as a beginning teacher with the Teach For America program. What was your biggest challenge?
A: Transitioning from an undergraduate focused on just my own studies to a teacher responsible for the growth and development of a group of children proved more challenging that I initially anticipated. First, I had to develop the confidence needed to assert my authority as the classroom leader. Then I had to create and implement plans that reflected the needs, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses of my students, which required me to become incredibly organized and efficient.
Q: What would you consider your biggest success?
A: As a pre-K teacher, I had the unique opportunity to introduce my students to school and the responsibility of providing them with the enriching and engaging first year of school they deserved. My most significant success was sending my students to kindergarten with a solid foundation of skills and positive attitudes towards themselves, others, and school.
Q: You speak a lot about parental involvement as a critical part of a child’s success in school. Can you elaborate on that?
A: Teachers maximize their impact on student learning by building strong relationships with all individuals who exert influence over the development of young children. Family members are crucial partners in these efforts, given their direct, substantial, and ongoing involvement in the lives of their children from birth. Early childhood teachers should seize the opportunity at the outset of a child’s experience at school to engage families as active players in all aspects of their child’s education to positively influence the trajectory of home-school connections across the pre-K-12 spectrum.
Q: What do you think are the best ways to get parents involved in their child’s education?
A: Family engagement, just like any other component of teaching, is a process that requires sustained commitment to developing certain skills and attitudes. First, teachers can cultivate a mindset conducive to strong home-school partnerships by recognizing the role of family members as a child’s first teacher, an important contributor to the realization of their child’s potential, and a valuable source of insight into student interests, strengths, and weaknesses needed to advance student academic and social growth.
Second, teachers can combine this mindset with specific strategies aimed towards building partnerships grounded in mutual trust and respect that strengthen a teacher’s ability to meet the needs of all learners.
Third, teachers should critically reflect upon their family engagement efforts on an ongoing basis and be open to revisiting old strategies or adopting new ones better able to forge productive relationships.
Q: How do you think Teach For America prepared you for your current and future endeavors?
A: Teach For America fundamentally changed my understanding of both what it will take to ensure all children in our country have equal opportunities in life and how I can best contribute to those efforts. As a classroom teacher in Newark, I saw firsthand both the reality of the achievement gap that starts even before students enter kindergarten and the potential of all children to realize their potential regardless of their birth circumstances. Academic analyses of socioeconomic disparities turned into concrete stories of children too often written off as hopeless victims of intractable factors beyond the grasp of schools.
Contrary to that popular narrative, my ability to foster significant growth with my students despite external pressures and my interactions with other teachers having similar experiences convinced me of the power of highly committed teachers operating as leaders. That success required me to develop a wide range of skills and a strong sense of perseverance and urgency that will prove invaluable in any difficult situation, but particularly in efforts to foster change in the education system. My experience as a corps member provided the insights and conviction I need to be an effective and lifelong leader in education reform efforts.
Q: What advice would you give to those students who are graduating now and embarking on a teaching career?
A: Pre-K teachers have one of the most important jobs in our society. Early childhood educators introduce children to the institution that has the power to significantly influence their life trajectory. You should enter this profession aware of the incredible responsibility you have in laying the foundation of skills and attitudes a child needs to succeed. That task, while seemingly intimidating, can be empowering if you approach each day and the year as a whole as an opportunity to give young children the highly enriching and engaging first year in school they deserve.
Given the high stakes involved, you should become a pre-K teacher only if you are willing to invest the time and energy needed to meet the unique needs of each student. Concern for the well being of children is necessary, but not sufficient to be successful. Similarly, knowledge about child development without a sincere belief in the ability of all children to succeed regardless of their birth circumstances unjustly limits the life paths of children. You need to commit to leading your class toward significant growth in all developmental domains and be willing to reflect critically upon and improve your own practices to achieve that goal.
Q: What are some of the challenges you see in attracting more teachers into the profession?
A:Many people do not realize the complexities involved in being effective early childhood teachers who can identify and meet the needs of their students in all developmental domains. This perspective translates into disparities in salary, benefits and degree requirements between preschool and the K-12 system that deter individuals from the field. Even in cases where state pre-K offers the same salary and benefits and requires the same degree credentials for pre-K and K-12 teachers, pre-K teachers still face misconceptions of their work being like babysitting.
Q: What are your hopes for the new administration with regards to education policy?
A: A system capable of fulfilling the promise of public education must include high quality education during the most critical years of a child’s development. I therefore hope the new administration sustains its commitment to early childhood education as a central element of its larger education reform efforts. These efforts should focus on building a more cohesive early childhood system with greater equity in funding and standards across the pre-K-12 spectrum. The administration needs to provide incentives for and model examples of initiatives that foster collaboration and alignment between Head Start, state pre-K, and private providers. Any proposals to recruit an “army of new teachers” include targeted approaches to recruit and train high quality teachers for early childhood programs in both schools and community based organizations, the latter of which often experience greater difficulty because of low salaries, fewer benefits, and longer hours. Beyond actual funding commitments, the president’s attention to early childhood education can help change perceptions regarding the importance of early childhood education and the level of prestige associated with the profession.
Early childhood education is necessary, but not sufficient to give all children real choices in life. The administration needs to build a more robust and seamless pre-K-16 continuum that makes teacher quality and accountability at all levels a top priority.