Importance of Building Community in Pre-K

Importance of Community in Pre-K

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Episode #140 – Teaching pre-K can sometimes be isolating. In this episode, we talk to Vanessa Levin, creator of Pre-K Pages. We talk about bridging the gap between pre-K and K-12, as well as raising awareness around the importance of pre-K as a foundational part of education. She also speaks to her creation of The Teaching Tribe as a community for early educators to share resources, best practices, and tips.     

Resources mentioned:

Episode Transcript

Vanessa LEVIN:

Just the fact of knowing that other teachers are going through the exact same thing makes them feel so much better and makes them feel a little less overwhelmed because then they can brainstorm answers together. Like, “Here’s what’s worked for me,” that type of thing.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG:

Vanessa, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

LEVIN:

Thanks for having me. I’m super excited to be here.

SPREEUWENBERG:

We’re super excited to have you. And for our audience, we have Vanessa Levin here today. She is a consultant, author and speaker. She’s also the founder of www.Pre-KPages.com, a website with all kinds of awesome content for early-childhood educators. So great to have you on the show, Vanessa. Let’s start off learning a little bit more about how you got into the world of early-childhood education and then moved into this career that you’re in, where you also have all these resources for early-childhood educators.

LEVIN:

Right? Well, the story is a little out there. I of course taught in the classroom for 20 years. I taught public pre-K, a little bit of Headstart in there, and I absolutely loved it. But in 2001 our school district gave a mandate, those things that you must absolutely do. And the mandate was to create a website. And the purpose was, of course, to communicate with parents. And they unfortunately didn’t provide us much training in that. So I spent an entire summer creating Pre-K Pages on my own and learned something called Front Page, years and years and years ago.

And my site was born. And believe it or not no parents ever visited it, but teachers found it. And all of a sudden my world opened up because as teachers were quite often isolated in those four walls with all the little bodies all day long, and we don’t get to collaborate share and do all these great things. And so I found this whole world just became unlocked, and it was magical to be able to communicate with teachers around the world. And so it grew into its own and it became a full time business in 2011.

And people started asking me, “Will you come to my school and talk about this stuff? This is amazing!” And I kept saying, “Oh, no I don’t do that, I don’t do that.” Until finally it just was an overwhelming thing and I just had to break down and try it. And of course that unlocked another new world of helping teachers and training teachers. And so that’s how the whole thing that started. And it’s kind of just taken on a life of its own and turned into this thing that it is today, which is it’s a business. It’s consulting; it’s training; it’s a resource; it’s for teachers.

And I just created it based on what the teachers asked me for. If they needed something they would ask me if I had it. And I started sharing what I had, and then I started making things. And it’s just been a really wild and wonderful ride.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Cool. Sounds super, duper, duper useful. Obviously [it] resonates with me because it was a big reason why we started the Preschool Podcast, as well, was just to share resources and allow educators to learn together. And so [we] certainly understand that. What has been the feedback from early-childhood educators that are using the Pre-K Pages website? Like, what are the things they enjoy about it? What is the value they’re getting out of it?

LEVIN:

Right? Well, I think that what really resonates with our visitors is that everything that I share or make or whatever it is that we’re sharing at Pre-K Pages is always founded in research-based best practices of early-childhood education. And it always goes back to those roots. So if I’m sharing something I try to say, “This is kind of the Why we do this, the Why behind the What. So here’s the thing that we’re doing, right?” I’m looking at the site right now, and here we are, there’s a play-dough activity. Here’s why we use play-dough in the classroom. Here’s an activity you can use to support this, why we do this. And I think teachers really appreciate that because so often they’re told what to do, right, but not always the Why we do this. And I think they really appreciate that.

I also try to keep things very simple. I try to explain things because teachers are busy, right? They don’t have a lot of time. So I try to give them information they can quickly consume and then take back in these and use in their classrooms right away. And I think that’s what resonates most with our visitors.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Cool, that makes a ton of sense. And you’re also an advocate for bridging the quality gap between early education and the world of K-12.  What’s the sort of rationale behind that advocacy?

LEVIN:

Well, I think that really stems from all the years I spent in public pre-kindergarten programs. And for any of you out there listening who also teach in a similar setting, you may have felt this way. I know I felt this way for 20 years. I felt that we weren’t really embraced as part of the public school system. We were often ignored, overlooked, underfunded, and it was a very, very frustrating as a teacher to always feel that way, to feel like we’re not a part of something. And we know in our hearts and our brains, right, that we are extremely important.

And I think that when Pre-K Pages kind of became its own entity I just knew that this was my inspiration and life was to bridge that gap, to spread the word that pre-K is not a separate entity when it’s included in public pre-K. It is part of the process of learning. It’s the foundation upon which all learning is built. And so that’s become my mission, is to spread that awareness and make it more of a cohesive part of the k 12 unit.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Cool. And something else that you are passionate about, from what I can tell from your website, is work-life balance. I’m just looking at a quote here about “a place for pre-school teachers who want to bring their A-game to their kids and still have a life.” Why is that something that you feel is important?

LEVIN:

Well, all those years I spent in the classroom, I certainly learned a lot over time on how to teach smarter instead of harder. But the one thing I didn’t have was I didn’t have a lot of the resources that exists now. I didn’t have a community of teachers online to connect with. And I felt like a lot of what I spent my time in the classroom doing was reinventing the wheel. And therefore I worked really long hours; I worked on weekends. You know, teachers, they work at home, they work 24/7. And I really didn’t have a good work-life balance. And looking back on it now, I feel like if I had had all these resources at my fingertips back then I would have had much more time for living my life, right?

So that’s kind of one of the things I’m passionate about now, is helping teachers going forward balancing that. You don’t have to take on that heavy bag every single night. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are resources out there that can help you and that are research-based and that are high-quality. And that is one of my other passions, you’re right, absolutely.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, it’s a really good point, actually, because I think a lot of other sectors out there outside of education, and in particular outside of early-childhood education, I might argue do a better job of sharing some of their best practices. And sometimes it can be hard for us to fly out to a conference, for example, because we don’t A) have the time and B) have the money or resources to do that. So certainly the online community is really where we can leverage the fact that it’s much more accessible for us all to have access to.

And so part of what you’ve done to help address this is you’ve got this site called the Teaching Tribe, so tell us a little bit more about that.

LEVIN:

So the Teaching Tribe was really born out of this realization that I had about 2015 or 2016 that teachers don’t just need resources, right? They don’t just need things to help them teach better. They also need the training that goes with it and the community. So if you were going to look at the full package – what does a teacher really need to be successful? – it’s not just the tools, the resources, the things, right? The teddy bear manipulatives and the blocks. You actually need training in community because you need feedback. You need a sounding board. You need people to share with and to talk through your issues, and you need training.

And so I had been providing these resources for all these years and I was frustrated because I felt like when I would share a resource I would just get so many questions back, like, “Well, this is great, but why are we using this and what is the purpose, then?” So I just said, “Well, why should I stop at resources? Why shouldn’t I also provide teachers with all the things they need?” Because I was consulting and I was presenting but none of it was tied up in a package with a bow, right?

So that’s how the Teaching Tribe came about. What if I could offer all of these themes in one central place that included all of those things that we just talked about? And that’s how the Teaching Tribe was born. And teachers just love it. They can consume it on their own in the comfort of their own home. Like you said, they can’t always travel to a conference or afford a conference ticket. And so here they can take the training at home – we call it “PD in your PJ’s”. They can browse the resources, pick and choose the ones they want, get the training they need and then talk with other teachers. And I think that has made a huge difference in our offerings.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, it makes a ton of sense to have that two-way dialogue. And we talked a little bit about flying to a conference, even then you notice a lot of the value is actually in the dialogue and conversation that happens amongst your peers, as opposed to a one-way presentation from somebody on stage to the teachers. So it certainly makes a bunch of sense.

For those early-childhood educators out there that aren’t online and aren’t part of these communities and accessing these resources, what do you think is holding them back? Is it that they don’t know it’s there? Are they maybe just too busy and don’t have the time?

LEVIN:

I would agree. I think that usually what happens is if somebody finds us and they haven’t heard of us before or they haven’t had that experience of finding this type of thing online, they usually say, “Where has this been all my life?” I think that they they’re super-busy – all teachers are super-busy, extremely busy. And sometimes it really is just not knowing that these things exist.

I remember in 1999 I got my first personal computer and I typed “teachers” into Google – or whatever the search engine was back then – and this chat room came up on my screen. And I think I spent five hours chatting with teachers around the world, and my mind was completely blown. Like, I didn’t even know that was a thing. So I sure there’s tons of teachers out there who are just not discovering things because they don’t even… I would never have dreamed something like that would have existed. So I can see how if they’re busy or they don’t know what’s out there, I can see how that would be.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah and it’s kind of like the catch 22, right? Because if you spend the time to find the resources and have the conversations with the community you might end up saving that much time or much more by not having to reinvent the wheel and things, as you say.

LEVIN:

Right. A lot of times we get folks who find us and say, “I’m not a teacher but my daughter is or my daughter-in-law, I’m going to share this with her. She’s too busy.” And it’s just so funny. We’re, like, “Thank you!”

SPREEUWENBERG:

And it’s like… the other one that reminds me of is Bill Gates, he’s quoted as saying he reads a certain number of books every year, which I’m always, like, “That’s an insane amount of books, and this is must be one of the busiest people in the world.” But he finds the time to learn because it’s so important.

LEVIN:

Right. I think teachers are lifelong learners, too. So I think that a lot of that that lifelong learning spirit brings them to us.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Totally, totally. So what about… getting a little bit pragmatic, let’s learn something from you and all this great content you have. We talked we talked a little bit about work-life balance, and it can be a stressful job as an early-childhood educator. What strategies or advice do you have for pre-school teachers out there that are feeling maybe a little overwhelmed in their roles?

LEVIN:

I think that often when we feel overwhelmed one of the biggest things that can help us is knowing that there are other teachers out there that feel the same way. And I’ve had a lot of folks come to… we have a free Facebook group called “Pre-school Teachers Are Superheroes”, because they are, right? And they come into the group and they’re completely overwhelmed. They post their question or their struggle and they just get 50, 60 sometimes even 100 comments from people saying, “I am right there with you, you just described my day.” And just the fact of knowing that other teachers are going through the exact same thing makes them feel so much better and makes them feel a little less overwhelmed because then they can brainstorm answers together, like, “Here’s what’s worked for me,” that type of thing.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah I can certainly, certainly relate to that. So as a business owner I am part of peer groups where I can talk to peers who kind of have the same challenges and issues as me. And tt is very helpful to have that peer group to talk to. So if I want to check out some of your materials, maybe join a community of teachers to start this dialogue and learn, where can I go to access this?

LEVIN:

So our main hub, obviously, is Pre-K Pages, and you can pretty much get to everything from there. Usually what happens is somebody comes to Pre-K Pages, they find something they like, they pin it, they do something with the information. But then when they want a little more a lot of times they’ll join our free Facebook group and they start getting a feel for what we’re all about and what we do, and that’s called “Preschool Teachers Are Superheroes”. And then a lot of times they end up joining the Teaching Tribes so they can get all of that package that we talked about, all of the training and the resources of the community.

And then the final piece of that, one thing that – and you didn’t mention this yet, I hope I’m not jumping ahead too far – but one of my goals is to provide teachers with free training, right? And so we started the Preschool Soar To Success Summit last year where we had 26,500 attendees globally online so that we could bring high-quality training to teachers around the world. And we’re doing it again this summer, July 15th through the 19th. And that’s the Soar To Success Summit.

And it’s free for anyone to attend. And if you want any of the extras like recordings and the handouts and the certificates and all that, that’s separate. But if you would just like to attend and get high-quality training from leaders in the industry, then that is a place that a lot of people have really they really enjoyed so far. And I’m thrilled to bring it to them.

SPREEUWENBERG:

And when is that?

LEVIN:

It’s July 15th to the 19th. And each day we have four speakers and teachers can tune in and watch those four sessions at their convenience during that day. And then the next day we have four more. And it goes on for a full five days. So lots and lots of free training opportunities for teachers on lots of very meaty topics. So last year one of our most popular sessions was read-aloud. Like, what are the most engaging, fun read-alouds that will hold your kids’ attention? That was a hugely popular session. We had Dr. Barb O’Neill on and she was talking about behavior. We had all kinds of great speakers. And I think there’s a little bit of something for everybody in there.

SPREEUWENBERG:

And is there a separate website from Pre-K Pages for that?

LEVIN:

Yes, I can give you a link to that that you can share. That’s actually hosted on the Teaching Tribe but it’s available for everybody. We just did that because it was so popular that it would’ve crashed Pre-K Pages to put it there.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Okay, cool, very awesome. So many great resources out there, and that’s what I always try to remind our audience is that you don’t have to go and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on training. There’s so much awesome quality training online.

LEVIN:

Absolutely, yes.

SPREEUWENBERG:

And one of those places is through Pre-K Pages. Vanessa, thank you so much for creating this wonderful resource for all our early-childhood educators out there. So much to learn and access from that website and others that you’ve helped create. Thank you for doing that, and thank you for coming on the show today.

LEVIN:

Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Our pleasure. Thanks, Vanessa.

LEVIN:

Thank you.

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