This post is a bit of a brain dump as I’m unwinding a cognitive knot. It is the result of my participation in a few book studies, both personally and professionally. The books we read were Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer and How We Show Up by Mia Birdsong.
My personal reading of Braiding Sweetgrass led me to some deep reflections and contemplations about my relationships with plants (in addition to animals). Kimmerer’s words really slowed down my experience outdoors and allowed me to focus on small moments.
How We Show Up challenged me on a deep personal level. As an introvert who values my independence and singlehood, I found myself questioning what it means to live alone. The chapter about queering friendships, specifically, got me in the feels.
But it wasn’t until I discussed these books in their respective book study groups that I truly felt transformed by the knowledge gifted in them. I’ll share a few examples of things that we questioned and the new understandings I have come to.
Through a conversation about Braiding Sweetgrass we got to a point where we were talking about gifts, and how when you give a gift you shouldn’t expect a gift in return. One person shared that if they were to give money to someone sitting outdoors, they would do so without strings attached, meaning that they trust the person would spend the money on whatever they need, not expect them to purchase food or clothes or save it. They said that there shouldn’t be an expectation of return within our reciprocal relationships. But as a group, we lingered on that, because is that not part of the point the reciprocal relationships? If we are in two-way relationships, can we not trust that we both give and receive? I felt stumped by this for a second and I didn’t see a way out. But then another person offered a path forward: aren’t we still talking about being individuals rather than being truly interconnected? An systems of interdependence mean that what we give, we do get back. In interconnected systems-thinking, we are constantly giving to each other and ourselves. This also means that survival occurs through unity; all flourishing is mutual. In this way, giving money is act of perpetual, unconditional kindness, but it also questions and resists the ownership and hoarding of money. To give is not necessarily to expect to receive, but it is to know that people around you and before you are looking out for you. If we all take responsibility for our part in a community, we all survive and thrive. So ow does this relate to being an educator? My explanation requires a reflection on my next book study: How We Show Up.
This book is a critique of the racist and heteronormative American Dreamism culture and a reimagining of family, friendship, and community. Early on in the book the author makes a point of how family units are a replication of our toxic individualist culture in North America, whereby we exist separately from our neighbours, and things like relying on friends for childcare is considered a shameful last resort for many people. For middle-and lower-class families, paying for childcare seems to be the dominant idea of “what is best for the child”; yet, this rationale reinforces the idea that early childhood educators know what is best for children and that somehow other adults like family and friends do not. I’ve been trying to challenge this notion because, despite our specialized knowledge and years of experience, we are not more knowledgeable than parents, elders, and generational or cultural wisdom. Our collective vision of parents is to see them as capable and competent; therefore, our role becomes slightly challenged when we shift to viewing our livelihood as interconnected communities rather than supporting toxic individualism. If we don’t have the expertise we think we do, then why are we demanding higher pay? If we are as capable and competent as parents and families, then why should we be asking for better occupational conditions, when this is straying further and further away from the home-life experience. How might we lean into these questions, rather than been threatened? I’ve provided a consideration from the book Illuminating Care to demonstrate this notion:
In our conversation about this book we talked about our differing perspectives on individualism. Myself and another person shared that we experience intimacy as threatening, whereas another felt that they had always had friendships that pushed boundaries of intimacy. We discusses our experiences of living with or feeling connected to family, but then realized that family to us, is something that tends to feel permanent whereas friendships can feel transient. We were sensing agreement that the transientness of friendships came with grief, protectiveness, and a resistance to change. We talked about what it means to move, to leave behind communities, and how some folks can feel quite angry when our good friends move. This is especially relevant given our current life stage, not quite 10 years into our careers when moving can happen frequently. But I recalled something that was getting called upon within me: Mike’s wisdom of how home is created and recreated on our paths throughout life, with new people. It’s not about the structure and it’s not about who is kept in or out of a space. It’s about community, bringing people together with the struggle of food, survival, and hard work. I think he would have liked this book a lot.
So again, what does this mean as an eduator?
To that I would ask, am I not recreating home indefinitely? Am I not embracing the transientness of children temporarily being in my care? Do I not enter into very intimate relationships with families and children, even becoming part of families? Am I not empowered and humbled by this, rather than threatened? Do I not operate within a community hub, bringing families together, supporting children’s young friendships, and fostering dispositions for lifelong learning? Do I not uphold community through my responsiveness to both individual and group needs? Don’t I turn local wisdom and familial cultural practices into sacred, shared experiences for all children to benefit from? Do I not prioritize my relationships above almost all else? Am I not a reciprocal partner, ally, and co-conspirator in children’s lives? Defender of wonder, play, and joy in ways that invite children into relationship with humans and the more-than-human world? Do I not resist toxic individualism almost as a job requirement, whereby I use systems-thinking to understand, extend and support the many interlocking relationships I have entered? Am I not a keeper of this community knowledge, resources, and connections?
I think am and I do. And this is how I am choosing to reframe myself. I’m not just a researcher, co-leaner, play partner, care mentor, and nurturer; I am a community keeper.
If you’ve read my blog before you’ll know that I have two major sources of inspiration: Ann Pelo and Margie Carter’s From Teaching to Thinking, and my outdoor education experience in high school with the late Mike Elrick. I’ve been returning to their wisdom in the past few months with a refreshed lens, and I am taking away new insights.
I often think about the way Ann describes her experiences outdoors with children, in-particular the stories of the skunk and the trees in Chapters 1 and 2 of FTtT. While I read some of her writing this morning, I was prompted to think about how I could bring these attitudes into the workshops I’ll be facilitating over the next few months. How can I translate some of this inspiration into digestible prompts for diverse groups of educators?
While reading Ann’s story, I imagined myself in her position. What would I do in response to children asking ‘why do the leaves change colour?’. What have I done in the past? I can’t quite remember. I thought about how some educators would say that they would reflect the question back to the child “I don’t know…why do you think they might change colour?”. Another might say that they would discuss the changing seasons or the amount light during fall. Another might say they don’t know, so they would engage in research to bring books into the classroom to answer the question. Another might say that, since there are filling many other roles while outdoors, such as counting children, putting on mittens, and watching for parents, they are unlikely to feel like they have time to appropriately answer this question and do it justice. Someone might say that in their culture changing colours of leaves holds particular significance. There are so many beautiful ways to respond to this question as well as systemic factors to consider.
I contrast these answers to what Ann did in her experience, which I elude to below. And then I re-thought what I would do again: what would I do if I had enough time, space, and resources to respond in a way that aligns with my pedagogical commitments?
When young children ask “why”, as in, “why do the leaves change colour”, I doubt they are searching for an answer.
I honestly believe, instead, they are reaching for guidance on how to think about this perplexing concept. They might be looking for how to build their skills to follow their curiosities. They might be asking “how do I respond to this inquiry?” or “what should I do when I feel this sense of wonder” or even “this feeling of reverence is powerful! Am I okay?”.
Our job as ECEs is not to be a first responder in these moments. It’s not to react with answers, wisdom, or solutions. I believe, instead, that our job is to take our training and use it to linger in these moments of questioning. Rather than answering in-the-moment, how might we slow down time for children and think though these dilemmas with them. If our job/training/philosophy is to scaffold children’s schemas in meaningful ways, then it’s clear that providing quick answers does a disservice to children’s learning. Instead, I wonder, how might we answer this question slowly, over time? How might we collaborate to think about our own answers to this question? Is a scientific fact really what is being asked for here? Or is it a larger life question about birth, death, and transformation as Ann suggests. Thinking in this way, my role as a co-learner might not even be to think in scientific terms about this. Nor is it to bring in books about trees and seasons. Perhaps, instead it is simply to commit to watching the trees more, learning from our senses, and creating our own language to articulate what we experience here. What do we call it when we feel the exhilaration of noticing a leaf fall, twirling from branch to ground?
Ultimately, I am currently thinking about how children are seeking guidance on their own learning, rather than factual answers, when they ask why. Providing provocations through engaging environmental set up, the use of open-ended play/learning materials, and the intentional use of questions can extend these curiosities through scaffolded guidance, support, and co-learning.
Forgive me, this may seem like a pointless question. And if you regularly spend time with children over the age of five, you’d likely whole heartedly say “yes”. But I’ve spent the last year thinking deeply about engaging with children under the age of four. In all honesty, mostly about toddlers. And I can’t help feel discomfort when I think of the purpose of games. Pedagogically. Developmentally. And meaningfully.
These thoughts are the result of being a teaching assistant (reading and evaluating pre-service educators programming ideas for young children), a previous practicum student in Quality Initiatives for early years programs (where I heard supervisors reflect on their quality goals), and a masters student studying early childhood educators’ workplaces. It is likely also because I am reading From Teaching to Thinking and The Goodness of Rain by Ann Pelo, and I am being challenged in my thinking about what are quality, meaningful, and transformative early learning experiences. Why are we replicating the use of games? Is there a purpose beyond developmental appropriateness? It feels like there is a difference between experiences with routines and games. For example, I feel that shared routines (e.g., I chase children with a puppet before we begin our morning meeting), action songs that are requested again and again (e.g., “baby shark”), or even experiences of sharing informal rules and patterns (e.g., watching two children run back and forth in a space and copy each other) then formalized games that have one way to be played.*
This feels like the difference, in my mind, between informal games with rules, and well-known games passed on my generations, such as duck duck goose or musical chairs. When I read Ann’s stories, and I think about the time I’ve spent with children, the use of games with toddlers feels so incredibly useless to young humans. I would so much rather use myself as a tool to facilitate wonder, spark inquiry, visit a forest, observe an inset, or inspect a crack in the sidewalk than pass on knowledge of childhood games. I just feel so much resistance to spending my time and energy on these things. I don’t feel like there is an authentic purpose to many of these games, often they are exclusive in nature by eliminating someone each round, and I don’t see how they support the development of dispositions for lifelong learning. I also don’t see a clear connection with Ontario’s early learning framework, which is centred on the foundations of wellbeing, engagement, expression, and belonging. Are games even engaging if it’s not your turn?
I should probably back up here and provide some context for my opinions. As a child, I did not like games and I found most of them intimidating. I was fairly sensitive and the “thrill” or excitement of a game was easily mis-felt as anxiety. As an adult, I still don’t really like games. I love to share experiences with people, and when and if we come up with a game spontaneously, I love it. But I hate entering into a kind of dynamic that is arbitrarily designed, easily forgotten, prescribed for strategy that I can’t yet forsee, and that plots me against my loved ones. I just don’t find most games enjoyable. They’re up there with not understanding social rules in certain spaces/places. Which, I might add, is not because I don’t value cultural norms, routines, or rituals. I’m someone who actually enjoys things like silly small talk, the awkward “hello” passing someone in the street, and the game of how long to I hold the door for the person behind me?!? Those things have value and meaning to me.
I should also consider that perhaps I don’t like games because I’m not good at them. But, that wouldn’t be correct. I actually am often good at the games I do try, even if I’m new at them. I’m often called “smart” (which I could spend a whole other post deconstructing), and I know how to feign a good time, joke about what’s happening, and poke fun at my own mistakes. I don’t think it’s that I’m too serious or too awkward. I think it’s just that games are SO random to me, and they often are not introduced in a gentle, meaningful way. They begin abruptly and it’s a sink-or-swim mentality that I know I do well with. Why waste this skill on a game, when I have grad school to survive? Anyway. I digress.
Beyond my own perspective, I have started to wonder about the developmental significance and appropriateness of games even for preschooler aged children and beyond this age range. How can you determine when children are developmentally able and interested in playing Duck Duck Goose? On one hand, I can think of many developmental skills that can be facilitated through participation in these games. Like gross motor skills, expressive language, sharing space and resources, learning social rules… But on the other hand, I feel that these games are so incredibly arbitrary, unauthentic, and, in some cases, a result of lack of adult imagination to partner in more spontaneous versions of play. There are probably well-outlined answers to these perplexing thoughts, so I likely need to just do some googling. But before I did that, I wanted to document this naive disorientation in case any readers wanted to join me in this journey.
*Note: as I type this I begin to feel that the lines between these examples of what is a “game” and what is a routine or pattern are becoming more and more blurry for me. Perhaps I can actually see a rationale for when, how, and why to include games, and their pedagogical importance for demonstrating relevant concepts. Of course, the intentional use of games can be quite useful for creating a sense of belonging, understanding social rules, and for creating healthy experiences of joy, competition, and how to respond to all of the feelings that arise from things like not winning, working hard, being exhausted, and anticipating your turn. I get that.
But are games play?
Play, as I know it, is voluntary, purposeful, and done for its own sake or enjoyment. I don’t understand why there is an emphasis on gamification within play. I briefly consulted the Right to Play website, and the first image is a child with a backpack, and the second are two photos juxtaposed: one of children kicking a soccer ball and one of professional athletes playing soccer. These suggest to me that the purposes of play is for either school-readiness or professional-level entertainment and skill. Neither of these reflect play for its own sake, nor do they represent why play is meaningful and useful to children during childhood. Even when I read the UN right’s of the child, the elements of play are focused on games. Childhood is so much more than preparation for the future and deserves its own quality of life. Have we forgotten what play looks like outside of games? Beyond rules, there is so much room for playfulness, rigor, competition, and measurement of excellence. I wonder if in this reliance and focus on games and rules, might we forgotten the value of spontaneity, engagement without reward, and crafting our own journeys. In higher-ed I often hear that undergrads don’t have skills to self-direct their learning, to chart their own course, and/or to manage how to meet competing priorities. But learning processes are disorienting and knotted, and they require so much inner navigation to begin with. Do we train children to learn rules of specific games and then punish them later in life for not learning the larger games of life, learning, inquiry, and love? That’s a question well beyond the limits of my knowledge, but something I am pondering.
All of this, of course, must be contextualized based on each group of children, what their shared interests are, and what developmental skills they currently have opportunities to engage with. Should I ever have a group of children asking to play Duck Duck Goose again and again, I will (and have) honoured that. And I have participated whole heartedly in the joy and journeys within games such as this one. I think in writing this, though, I have realized that questioning the use of games is entirely appropriate, fair, and necessary. They have a (clearly) place in childhood, but they may or may not meet every purpose in my care, pedagogy, and exploration of interests with children. I likely won’t be able to look at games the same, and would like to be quite intentional and where, when, and how I encourage the use of games with children. I plan to consult a few more resources on the use of games in early childhood to better understand in which situations games are a valuable approach to supporting children in their play/learning/development.
This past year I have been fortunate enough to be a teaching assistant (TA) for some of the early learning courses I took in my undergraduate degree. This has provided me with an opportunity to revisit many of the topics I learned previously, and engage with them on a deeper level. Simultaneously, I have been mentored by knowledgable and wise educators, as was highlighted in my graduate practicum with the Region of Waterloo. During this placement I was tasked with learning about and summarizing information regarding measuring quality in diverse early learning programs, and considering how to support programs in meeting their goals to elevate quality. This opportunity not only led me to acknowledge the many competing priorities that early learning staff face, but to reflect upon how learning happens for adults and how change occurs in workplace culture.
This learning was not just a typical kind of maturation or response to exposure; rather, I believe it was some intentional growth after being challenged and engaging deeply with my work. Below I outline and synthesize some things I have learned and experienced within this practicum happening in tandem with my learning as a TA. I also consider what might be necessary to evoke change, learning, growth and transformation in other educators.
Quality learning environments: what is quality, how can it be measured in various settings, and how can it improve?
This is an inherently complex and contextual question, and reflecting on this has often led me in circles rather than to an answer. The longer I ponder these questions, the less clear I become on how to define, capture, and enhance quality. Something I keep coming back to, though, is that quality is not static. While outside funding providers may want statistics or quantitative evidence that quality is improving, I have realized that measuring quality is not as objective as it appears. It depends on the relationships that exist, the training of the staff, and the support staff receives for trying new things. Many systemic factors influence quality and yet we expect staff to work with the resources and within the parameters they have to still provide quality care. From this perspective, the “standard” for quality moves in response to what occurs in settings, and I do not yet know how to articulate that in a consistent way in order to measure it. This responsiveness implies that to be a quality learning environment means that it improves. It means that adults are supported to engage in data collection (observation and assessment) of things like their program plans and pedagogical documentation, their responses to the children, the opportunities available to children, and the circumstances of the families and communities that are served by the program. Data collection and review should prompt the adults and staff to then reflect upon what is going well and what can improve. This data can be shown and shared so that many stakeholders can have their perspectives considered (i.e., going public with these ideas in order to get additional feedback and perspectives). Like pedagogical documentation, this data can prompt a conversation to spark further curiousity, not certainty. Therefore, with everyone’s perspectives considered, next steps and scaffolded goals can be created to address the curiosities or improve areas of need. Without consulting parents, educators, supervisors, parent boards, and administrative staff, there is no guarantee that all stakeholders have the capacity to reach the goals, that everyone can be committed to the goals, and that the goals can/will be shared appropriately.
But this process should be more than consultation, I have realized. To truly foster a democratic culture that is open to supporting development, learning, and growth, this needs to be a community conversation. This kind of community conversation is not just a one-time “check-in” between a supervisor and an educator, but rather, an on-going dialogue where each individual feels connected to, inspired by, and committed to the process. How do we foster this kind of thing in early learning when pay isn’t great, educators are exhausted, and under the current circumstances of the additional complexities of operating during a pandemic? I have some thoughts from my observations in practicum.
Creating Cultures for Change.
Similarly to how it is difficult to give feedback to families unless we have strong relationships with them, it is difficult to give our colleagues feedback unless we have relationships with one another. Workplace culture must support staff wellbeing (as I am learning about in my thesis). In order to create spaces where adults feel safe to come forward with their concerns, and where leaders are in a position to hear these concerns, hold space to grapple with these concerns, and make offerings to resolve these concerns collaboratively, these spaces must be an extension of supportive relationships that already exist between staff. (The high turn over of staff in early learning programs does not just influence staff-child-family relationships, but affects staff-staff relationships, workplace culture, and larger visions for programs.)
Without fostering supportive spaces and relationships, how can we expect educators and supervisors to share their honest opinions? Goal-setting is a messy and non-linear process, and it creates a disequilibrium between what is currently happening and what will occur in the future (Ministry of Education, 2014a; Robinson et al., 2009). Admitting that change needs to occur is often uncomfortable and therefore requires that staff feel empowered to be brave. This bravery can be supported by a move from fostering safe spaces to fostering brave spaces (Pelo & Carter, 2018, p. 86; Arao & Celemens, 2013), and this disequilibrium, Carter articulates, is a space to linger in, and even set up camp (Pelo & Carter, 2018, p. 220). This brave, discontented space, when used for goal setting, can be motivating and lead groups to create higher expectations and improve their performance (Ministry of Education, 2014a).
Transformative Learning (for children and adults).
Lingering in generative space (Pelo & Carter, 2018) is, arguably, where learning happens for adults and children. As I implied above, being able to linger in generative space has some prerequisites in terms of relationships and support for one another. We know that learning happens when the foundations of well-being, expression, engagement and belonging are upheld (Ministry of Education, 2014b). Through attending the Block meetings with the Region, I have realized that facilitating generative space and the lingering within it, can happen in a few ways, and it is not so different from fostering nurturing learning environments with young children (as mentioned by Pelo and Carter (2018)).
For example, explicitly celebrating success, authenticity and growth can create a sense of community and connection, even in a brief meeting. This means taking time to reflect the good things you’re hearing in your encounters with staff and children even if it is slightly off-topic.
Fostering a culture of inquiry can be achieved by promoting the sharing of ideas, questions and resources by everyone, not just those in hierarchical positions. Like supporting children in their inquiry by offering meaningful questions and materials, staff can be supported with similar offerings (e.g., “I wonder what would happen if…” questions). Engaging with educators as you’d hope they engage with children not only provides role modelling for the educators, but promotes their unique journeys (Pelo & Carter, 2018).
Similarly, administrative or pedagogical leaders can be co-learners by standing side-by-side and walking with educators and supervisors on their individual and collective learning journeys (Pelo & Carter, 2018). This involves meeting each person or program where they are, currently, and scaffolding support in a meaningful way. Inherently, this requires collaboration, compromise, and a willingness to listen to one another in a “meeting of the minds” (Pelo & Carter, 2018).
Relationship building operates on unique time, and sometimes prioritizing the relationships above other goals is necessary to achieve long-term change. Fostering trust and confidence is likely the foundation (of brave spaces) that is required prior to expecting people to be comfortable being authentic and honest with their needs and desires for change. It is also likely required to journey to the roots/sources of problems to then resolve them.
In summary, I have realized that these are all skills and considerations I would like to continue to foster for myself to support both children and my fellow educators on paths that not only lead to learning, but transformation.
So far, I have resisted in discussing transformative learning, I am hoping that I am leading you to a place of pondering what it might mean. What does it mean to be transformed? When have you felt yourself pass through a threshold into a new way of understanding or integrating knowledge? As identified by Mezirow, transformative learning occurs through problem solving and communication, and is a process whereby individuals or groups move through a state of disequilibrium and critical self reflection, engage in goal-setting that identifies resources required to meet the goals, and into a willingness and bravery to try out the new roles/strategies/tools (Western Governors University, 2020). Next, I explore how I might use this knowledge in three specific ways after my experience with observing transformation and being transformed by my practicum.
The role of community.
Despite being a fairly independent, reflective, student/employee, I had a huge light-bulb moment when I realized that I am so limited by my own mind when I don’t “go public” with my ideas in a community space. For most of my life, I have been a reflective observer, an introvert, a highly sensitive person who has required space and time to decompress in private. But there came a point in time where I realized I need more information than what my own mind and readings can provide me. Learning happens in relationships; I need to actively experiment with my ideas in the moment and get feedback on them. Similarly, I love to support others in their idea-grappling as well. It has only been through my experience of supportive relationships that I have learned what it feels like to be respectfully challenged in my thinking, in a way that upholds my agency, integrity, and curiousity. Framed differently, having experience being supported as a capable, competent, and curious learner on my own journey is what has allowed me to become a brave student/employee who will bring forward concerns and ideas.
Prior to being able to offer support to other adults, I needed to feel supported in my own journey, and I needed to feel a sense of trust, respect, and familiarity in this process. I have realized that a benefit of entering into relationship with others is that I can grapple with ideas in a way that disrupts my own dominant ideas, can prompt a state of disorientation, and can begin or resolve my search for alternative ideas or perspectives prior to feeling confident in trying out my next steps to address the ideas I had.
The role of resources.
Additionally, despite feeling like I am a competent researcher/ knowledge-seeker, there is something absolutely magical about being given learning materials/quotations/alternative perspectives in-the-moment in response to what I am grappling with. It is not just the freedom of choice and my autonomy that bolstered my learning and transformation, but it was the deep listening of my mentors who then responded with a resource for me to explore. This is similar to the feedback supervisors had after the Block 2 meetings with QI: that having the PRC provide resources in the moment was useful and meaningful. There is nothing quite like the feeling that you are heard and that your peers are brainstorming solutions with you.
Therefore, I aim to be a responsive peer armed with useful or meaningful resources. This means I pay attention to my own learning journey and to questions, “aha” moments, and cognitive knots that I have – and what readings, conversations, or webinars moved me from a place of discontent into a new understanding. Clearly, encounters with materials, whether I unearth them on my own or am given them by a trusted peer, are a powerful source of learning that sparks and extends inquiry into resolution.
The role of reflective practice.
A final way I have noticed transformation during practicum has been through my commitment to and engagement with using reflective practice as a means to grow. For me, reflective practice includes moving through a critical reflection cycle (Gibbs’, Brookefield’s, Schön’s; or some combination of these) to describe my observations, to articulate and evaluate my reactions/behaviour/ideas, to actively visit perspective(s) where I am wrong, and then to explicitly consider what I will do differently with this newfound knowledge and insight. In this way, I continue to revisit my epistemological orientations and to refine my axiological and pedagogical commitments. My teaching philosophy statement is in a state of flux; and yet, I do not aim to be extractive in my moves towards self-improvement. I consider knowledge as something we enter into relationship with (Wilson & Hughes, 2019), and something that I sometimes need to respect as a whole (i.e., not to always just extract the most useful pieces). Therefore, I have realized that documenting my reflections, keeping track of those resources and community conversations that have pushed me in my own journey, and going public with my new insights keeps me accountable to the knowledge sources I am learning from. What I mean by this is that I do not want to become a resource; rather, I want to continue to be a responsive human. I want to pass on whole resources for others to consult as they need, not to gate-keep access to these sources, take credit for them, or misrepresent the use of sacred teachings.
A Transformative Learning Environment.
My encounters with knowledge is something that feels intimate to me, and by challenging that very notion it has sparked a learning journey beyond any that I could have predicted a few years ago. In 2018 I re-entered undergraduate education with modest hopes of upgrading marks, with the clear intention of becoming a RECE as a “stepping stone” for my career, and with a fierce vision to capitalize upon the experiences. By happenstance, this meant that I deeply engaged in the learning process which forever changed what I consider to be the purpose of education and care. I hold educators to a high standard because I believe in their vast potential, and I believe that there is nothing wasted in terms of developing pedagogical practices.
I believe transformative learning environments foster community, offer resources at varying levels of engagement, and nurtures self-reflection. It does not impose any particular worldview or approach, but supports each learner in developing their own. The environment should have natural learning consequences built in: dead-ends, responsive curriculum, and further questions to consider. It should support the creation of a brave space through its avenues of participation, active learning, private reflection, and responsiveness to inquiry. These spaces are built collaboratively with the instructors and learners, and they reflect all the things I have mentioned in this post so far. As I move forward in my identity as a RECE and as a hopeful future educator, I have intentionally decided to include “fostering transformative learning environments” in my teaching philosophies for working with young children, undergraduate students, and in-service educators.
In the preface of From Teaching to Thinking Ann Pelo writes about the feedback people gave her about getting graduate level training and working as an early childhood educator, which suggest that further education is wasted if one is working with young children. This section (along with the explanation of some of the history of Reggio Emilia and the connections to the first chapter, The Heart of Education) has moved me to tears both times I’ve read it. “What reality does this weave”? Ann asks. What a contradiction to not value the education of educators. What a contradiction to undermine their professional development. When I first read these pages a year ago for my Pedagogical Leadership practicum at the CCLC, I was in a different place: not yet a RECE, not yet enrolled in a Masters program, not yet convinced I belonged in early learning. Yet after lingering in the questions I had about early learning I realized that those were the questions that most excite and motivate me. I wandered and wondered my way back to reading these same pages in response to my own reflections and as next-steps for myself in this practicum. I revisited these ideas, by going deeper and with a new lens as a researcher, on my own accord upon craving further questions to my questions – and ended up going so deep that I planted roots. To be able to spiralize my own learning is not a skill I would ever would have thought I could come out of my ECE training with. What a privilege to have enough authors names, books, webinars, blog posts, and articles to last me the next several years to think through. Little did I realize a few years ago that I would feel at home in early learning because of the disequilibrium and disorientation I was supported in grappling with. I lingered so long that I set up camp and stayed, without it being my intention, which, in many ways, is the essence of what it feels like to be transformed by problems, discussion, experience, environment, and community.
Wilson, S., & Hughes, M. (2019). Why research is reconciliation. In Wilson, S., Breen, A. V., & DuPré, L. (Eds.), Research and reconciliation: Unsettling ways of knowing throughIndigenous relationships (pp.6 – 19). Canadian Scholars.
As friends and family gatherings begin this season, I inevitably embrace questions about my career. I have been fortunate to have received superior training regarding entering the ECEC field, and I anticipated some skepticism about my ECE training and desire to pursue graduate school. Completing a second undergrad degree while meeting the requirements to get my ECE designation, with the intention of going to grad school next fall seems strange to people. ”But the pay isn’t that good, is it?” “Have you thought about going to teacher’s college instead?” “But you wouldn’t want to work as an ECE once you have your masters, would you?” “So what kind of a job could you do?” Fortunately, I know of a few people who took this route and am comfortable answering these kinds of questions. After responding several times, I figured I could put together a whole paragraph(s) of my answers that should cover all the typical skepticism that arises:
I do not believe there is such thing as an over-qualified educator. I’m today’s world, educators do more than just “teach” and ECEs do far more than provide supervision while parents work. Working with young children has been a passion of mine for over 10 years, and I am so delighted and privileged to be able to complete the courses required to register with the college of ECEs. Seeing children reach their early life milestones brings me so much joy, and building intimate relationships with many families is one of the most wonderful aspects of my career. I fall more in love with the early learning field as time goes on – particularly because there are incredible movements happening in this sector. Further, I absolutely and fundamentally advocate for emergent curriculum: it is the way I naturally tend to engage with children, attempt to extend learning, build opportunities, and deepen relationships. It fosters the foundation for life-long learning, and it is inherently inclusive. I am very hesitant about teaching school-aged children in the school system due to the set curriculum, and that has been my main reason for committing to completing the ECE requirements prior to graduating, and staying for the summer semester after my cohort leaves. Returning to do a second undergrad degree was a challenging, intentional, and deeply reflective process. Part of this process has been my gravitation towards research, and finding ways to participate in projects and labs in a variety of capacities. I was lucky to find a professor who had both an available project and the willingness to take me on as an undergraduate thesis student, and mentor me through executing some of my own research. And I realized that along with working with young children, research is my other passion. I want to do more of it. And in true emergent/inquiry-based learning fashion, I shall follow that interest until it is exhausted.
As someone who will begin her masters at 29 with limited work experience and a winding path of career interests, it has been challenging to not feel self-conscious about my choices. I want to be able to both practice as an educator and engage in rigorous research regarding human development. It is a shame that ECEs aren’t fairly compensated for the work that they do, but avoiding the field and squandering my passion due to poor pay won’t evoke appropriate change. I am hoping to build a career that involves both my skills as an educator and graduate-level training. I already have training in basic counselling skills, advocacy for the professionalization of the field, social policies, observation and assessment, and understanding ethical and professional issues within the helping professions. Regarding what kind of job I will have: the thing about completing graduate education is that you become educated and trained on a topic that has emerging employment opportunities, depending on the evolution of the field. Some jobs I might be a candidate for include: pedagogical leadership, case worker, policy-related work, knowledge translation, education administration, and program evaluation. The one stable thing I have moving forward is my training as an ECE and it’s inherent continuing professional development opportunities, and that will always open up job opportunities for me. Our world lacks educators who remain in the field for a long time and who complete higher-level education, but I will be one of them.
It is evident to me that ECEs are not publicly viewed with the same respect as teachers – and rightly so. I have long-thought that teachers and early childhood educators deserved the same respect. But I have realized that they do not. The amount of time I spend in washrooms helping children learn self-help skills deserves different recognition than what teachers who spend equal time on their math lessons for the week deserve. The amount of time I spend problem-solving tuen-taking and fostering social skills for children who have emergent communication skills deserves different recognition than teachers spending equal amounts of time on reading skills each week. The amount of time I spend observing the children in my care, document their thinking, planning based on these observations, and sharing this cycle with families daily deserves different recognition than what teachers receive for their planning time each week. I finally realize that the fight isn’t for equality with teachers – early education is its own field for a reason. Teachers deserve all the respect they receive and more. And they are fighting for some of that right now in Ontario. This fight allowed me to realize that some of their stable recognition and ability to fight is due to unions. ECEs have little protection due to un-unionized employment in a patch-work system of childcare in Canada. And yet it is this same system that was able to evolve and update effectively to implement emergent curriculum, Ontario’s guiding pedagogical documents, and the world-wide movements toward more outdoor play. I am a proud educator (in training) who is willing to constantly update my skills and learning in-line with future field updates, and I am proud to be an ally to teachers at this time. We have so much growth still, and so much to offer the fields of education, social services, and business.
Moving forward I plan to find a concise way to share these thoughts when they come up during small talk. I value every opportunity I have to discuss my field, though, and I do not want the questions to stop – it’s likely what the sector needs to move forward. Childcare can be a hidden and unanticipated cost for families that is very burdensome, and this strengthens the notion that accessible, universal childcare is essential in Canada: for the children’s, families’s, and educators’ sake. This season I have been fortunate to have been able to reflect on these questions and formulate some adequate responses. I can’t wait to hear what my responses will be in a year from now as well.
This is a reflection from my first practicum placement to meet the requirements to register as an early childhood educator in Ontario. I began my 12-hour/week placement in September 2019 and wrote this reflection mid-October in response to my initial reactions to my experience.
Upon beginning my first ECE placement, I was really impressed with how the educators were using resources such as space, materials, the outdoor environment, and their documentation skills. It took me a couple weeks to feel comfortable working with the children and get used to being observed. A big surprise for me was not so much regarding something about myself, but regarding something I was observing: the ways in which the educators interact with the children. I saw educators hugging children in the classrooms and yelling “I LOVE YOU!” back and forth with children on the playground after they had moved to other classrooms. I also saw educators kiss children on the cheek, squish children’s cheeks with affection, and cuddle on the couch. Additionally, some educators expressed exhilaration when a child reached a milestone and frustration when a child had been crying for most of the morning. These observations were something I remained “stuck” on and they held my attention during my initial days in practicum.
These interactions made me feel uncomfortable:
something was not aligning with my understanding of best practices for working
with young children. I felt a bit let-down during these first few days, because
something was not meeting my expectations. I felt as though the educators were
being unprofessional, and this challenged some of my recently-formed beliefs
about quality in the ECEC field – was this the kind of behaviour that makes
people question the professionalism of ECE’s? I began questioning the “educated
educators” myself and felt that these affectionate practices were especially unprofessional
for a lab-school centre that provides high-quality childcare and learning. I started
wondering why I was not noticing the educator-child interactions I was
expecting and that I assumed were necessary for extending learning, scaffolding,
and fostering autonomy, self-regulation, belonging, engagement, and expression.
Considering my background with (pre)school-age
children in their homes, schools, camps, and playrooms, the public image and
customer service considerations were often prioritized over physical comfort
and affection for the children in my care, and litigation and suspicion loomed
for anyone who was too intimate with the children for too long. Considering
that my previous experiences trained me to be aware of my physical contact with
children, I realized that I may have entered my placement with a skewed perception
on what “care” means for young children. Although I have hugged children
many times, I would: a) always ask before hugging, b) often not let the hug
linger, and c) redirect to high-fives in the school setting. Observing these different
practices caused me to reconsider my approaches. Through reflection and further
observation, I realized the educators oscillated between various kinds of responsive
interactions and I had not noticed the extensions of learning because it was
done subtly and smoothly, while I was focussed on the affection. Further, my
knowledge of child development informs me that young children learn through
relationships, co-regulation, and their senses, and as such, physical contact,
at times, is likely essential for young children learning to navigate the world
and understand themselves. Thus, physical affection makes sense for young
children, and my own practice likely needs to change. Additionally, spending
time “collecting and connecting” with children, rather than constantly guiding
behaviour, is an element of process quality that educators should strive for in
their practice, as these educators do. Realizing this consideration resolved much
of my discomfort.
Moreover, I realized I was initially surprised
by these observations because I was expecting educators to take an idealized,
hands-off approach to fostering independence and autonomy in a way that would children
that would “wow” me. I was expecting the relationship-based approach to
resemble shared experiences through discussions and play, not through affection
and intimacy. What I saw reminded me of what I have witnessed in many other childcare
settings. I felt I was seeing some raw emotions from the educators: from joy and
passion to fear and exhaustion. Considering the educators’ well-being, I eventually
realized I was impressed that the educators felt comfortable expressing
themselves and to be authentic and caring in their interactions with the
children. Perhaps I was even a bit jealous that the educators at the lab-school
were able to be considered in high regards while still retaining the special
and personal relationships with children that created the foundation for many
of us to enter this field in the first place.
This reflective experience has softened
my own approach, causing me to consider what it really means to grow with young
children. I recently learned that sometimes educators are considered “extended
family”, and intimacy makes more sense when considering the family context and
educator-parent-child collaboration. I can now consider relationship dynamics
to better inform the context of the affectionate moments I witnessed within
relationships I am not yet a part of. I now expect to be able to tune-in to other
interactions and recognize strategies I want to integrate into my own repertoire.
I also now assume that the educator’s interact differently with different
children, such as hugging and kissing those form families they are closest with
and whom they have cared for longest.
I suspect my biggest challenge for the
rest of the semester will be to let my guard down in order to participate in
authentic and affectionate moments with children, without feeling like I’m
crossing a boundary – and this will only be done through getting to know their
families. I have struggled in my personal life to be honest in expressing my
feelings, so I will have to find the right language and timing for respectful
expression of my range of emotions, which I hope my lead teacher will help me
with. That kind of balance is what I strive to achieve in my future career as
an educator and researcher; however, that should I ever mentor students, I
would want to have intentional conversations about some of these intimate
interactions they may witness in order to clarify the expectation for students as
new personnel and aspiring educators. I now have a renewed hope for myself, and
respect for the educators, in providing comfort and warmth to young children.
As an aspiring ECE, and a student planning on pursuing graduate work in the helping profession that is related to child development, I put a lot of thought into creating a personal philosophy statement regarding working with families. Although this particular statement is heavily related to educating, I believe it applies to working with young children across various capacities. I am sharing it here to indicate to my audience a transparent presentation of my values.
Personal Philosophy Statement
philosophy for working with children and families considers the notion that all
individuals are competent, curious, capable, and curious life-long learners who
are entitled to access to life-long and developmentally appropriate learning
opportunities within the context of, and in collaboration with, their community
and family (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014). I employ a
relationships-based approach while working with children and families and
believe that we can all learn from and grow with each other best through our
relationships. Further, I highly consider the neurocognitive processes and
right-brain to right-brain synchronicity when building these relationships. My
personal approach to teaching focuses on the social-emotional readiness for
learning and facilitating emergent and responsive key experiences that consider
familial and cultural contexts to help children actively engage in their learning
in meaningful ways (HighScope inspired). Thus, I believe good teaching employs
a wide variety of observational, facilitative, and assessment strategies in
order to offer unique opportunities to each specific group of learners to allow
them to explore their interests independently.
specifically, I believe that high-quality teaching practices requires an ebb
and flow between: minimal direct instruction (Montessori-inspired); scaffolding
for extending learning (constructivist approach); behaviour guidance in
collaboration with the learners (HighScope inspired); preparation of the
environment to not only act as the “third teacher” (Reggio Emilia inspired) but
also to help offer a calm learning environment (Shanker, 2016); monitoring and
modifying for facilitating belonging, engagement, wellbeing, and expression (Ontario
Ministry of Education, 2014); facilitating active engagement with, and investigation
of, the learning materials (constructivist approaches); assessing and
considering stages of development in program planning (Piaget’s stages and Best
Start Panel on Early Learning, 2014); and hands-off supervision during times of
exploration, experimentation, and opportunities for logical consequences to
unfold (Montessori approach).
Moreover, I execute
the Self Reg steps when children are upset (Shanker, 2016) in order to relieve
their stress and prepare them for learning. This approach works well, but
sometimes requires collaboration others to truly uncover and resolve conflicts.
I use the HighScope conflict resolution approach wherever possible (The Active
Learner, 2018), which is extremely effective in revolving immediate conflict,
but requires substantiable follow-up for resolving on-going tension between
individuals. However, both of these incidents and interventions would cause me
to reflect on the environmental influences, including the influence of routines
and expectations, on the learning space and consider whether there are changes
I could make to further facilitate safe, nurturing, supportive, engaging, and
developmentally appropriate learning opportunities. Additionally, when
considering various developmental and interests of the children in my care, I
incorporate physical objects as well as books and pictures that are responsive
to (and that sometimes combine) these factors. This process is very trial-and-error
based and often requires in-the-moment modifications to ensure appropriate
engagement. We may remain on these topics until the children indicate they are satisfied
and no longer curious about the topic.
Emergent interests and abilities, play, and inquiry are at the heart of my pedagogical practice and made possible through program plans that are developed based on observation, documentation, and reflections. A circular, rather than linear, view could be used when considering my approach (Stacey, 2009). Further, although ideal programming is child-centered and open-ended, my teaching practice also includes my personal strengths and natural talents, so that I can capitalize on my shared interests with the children, am a present and active co-learner, and form authentic relationships. More specifically, nature-based play, music, expression through movement are some of modes I prefer to use while teaching.