Steven Hicks serves as Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Early Learning at the U.S. Department of Education. Mr. Hicks first began in the Department as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, having taught preschool through third grade in Los Angeles, California. He has helped shape the Department’s birth to third grade early learning agenda and works on two high-profile programs: Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge and Preschool Development Grants. Named a Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year and member of the USA Today All-USA Teacher Team, he also served as an on-line early childhood mentor and a contributing writer for early childhood curricula. As Los Angeles Region Preschool Coordinator for the California Reading and Literacy Project, he trained teacher leaders and early childhood educators for three years on effective literacy practices. He also founded the early learning center at his charter school. Mr. Hicks holds a Master of Arts degree in Early Childhood and Primary School Education and is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in Early Childhood.
PreschoolToday recently received this Tweet, “I really appreciate the efforts being made to change the face of #ECE. Please let us teachers know what we can do to help!” My first reaction, as an early education teacher of 20 years, was to be annoyed that teachers have to ask what they can do. Then I realized that this highlights the extent to which we have shut down teacher voices, especially those in early childhood education. In many schools and community-based settings, early childhood education teachers are not seen as adding value in advancing the current state of education, much less as being capable leaders. And that opinion is not only coming from administrators or colleagues, it’s also coming from the teachers themselves.
Somewhere along the way, early childhood education has been relegated by some to just a few notches above babysitting. I remember in my kindergarten classroom, the superintendent of a very large school district quipped as he walked through my classroom and saw children building structures at the block center, creating patterns with manipulatives, or exploring at the computers, “Oh this must be daycare.” Many on the outside don’t know the value of what we do, nor do they attempt to find out. If we are in an elementary school, we are often relegated down the hall, away from the ‘real’ teachers who teach the things that seem to matter, the things that are tested. And so, since what we do is not always respected on the same level as our colleagues, neither is our opinion.
According to a recent poll, only one-third of teachers feel that their voices are heard in their district, 5 percent in their state, and just 2 percent at the national level. This is for all teachers. You can imagine how much lower the stats would be if we just looked at early childhood teachers. Failure to leverage the voices and expertise of early childhood teachers in schools and community-based settings has deep implications for students, programs, and policies, as well as our profession.
Fortunately, the “face of #ECE is changing,” as the Tweeter reminds us in 140 characters or less. In fact, I’m thrilled to know that early childhood teachers, who have long been perceived as reluctant to embrace technology, are Tweeting. And they’re doing more than that. They’re blogging, Facebooking, Pinning, Instagramming, subscribing to list servs (like this one), and joining webinars and on-line communities using their smartphones, tablets, laptops and now watches! Hopefully, some of this time we spend on our devices is building our professional knowledge and providing ways in which we can find our voice to be not only great teachers, but also great leaders.
“What can we do to help?” Everything. What you do in your classroom is the most important thing you can be doing to ensure the success of our young children and the future economic prosperity of our nation. You are helping to build minds! But sorry, that’s just not enough. Each of us also should be a leader in our schools, communities, and professional organizations, a responsibility all early childhood teachers should embrace. We are the experts on early learning and development. We are the individuals who have the training and the experience to fully understand what children and families need, what is helpful, and what is not.
Education is always evolving with fads and flavors of the month to solve the never-ending challenge of closing the achievement gaps. But real progress happens when teacher leaders strive for changes in the culture of education and in the policies that affect our students. Teachers can find ways to lead at the local, state, and national levels. Often, change will occur because the astute teacher recognizes a void, something that must be done to move us further towards our goals of equitable educational opportunity.
At the local level, this can mean creating better systems for children as they transition from early childhood programs to elementary schools; serving as a mentor for new or experienced teachers; or advocating for better policies to address and reduce bullying, suspensions, or chronic absenteeism at the school or center. There are school board meetings, neighborhood associations, advocacy and union organizations, and advisory committees that would benefit immensely from the input of early childhood teacher leaders.
At the state level, decisions are being made that affect all children and families, from adopting curricula and assessments to establishing learning standards and workforce competencies. Right now, in some states, decisions are being made about mandating kindergarten, expanding early education funding, and setting standards for quality in programs. We should have an opinion on these issues and shouldn’t miss opportunities to insert ourselves into how these policies and issues are shaped.
At the national level, early childhood teachers can influence laws and policies that affect the entire country. Currently, Congress is negotiating the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, our nation’s education law and last reauthorized 14 years ago as No Child Left Behind. Other laws Congress takes up every few years for reauthorization are the Head Start Act, CCDBG and IDEA. When our representatives return after Labor Day, they’ll also be deciding on the new budget, which is due by September 30th each year. The laws and budgets affect our children’s futures, and teachers have multiple opportunities to make their voices heard.
An exciting opportunity early childhood teacher leaders have right now is through Teach to Lead, a joint effort of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the U.S. Department of Education, to improve student success by expanding opportunities for teacher leadership while teachers are in the classroom. Teach to Lead gives teachers a way to share their ideas for improving education in their community, state, or nation and to learn from their peers. Whether teachers are facilitating a professional learning community at their school or center; influencing changes in their state’s licensing requirements; or making comments on policies in the Federal Register, their voices can be a catalyst for systemic and sustained change. What can you do to help? #Lots. The important thing is to do something!