This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #11 “Speaking out for preschool teachers”.
Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.
In this week’s episode we discuss the profession of being a preschool teacher. All the wonderful things about it as well as the challenges that come with it. Our guest Ashley Preston is the 2016 New Hampshire teacher of the year and is an active preschool teacher at Parker Varney Elementary School in Manchester, New Hampshire. I’ll take a quote directly from her 2016 Teacher of the Year application that I think sums up her views best “preschool students are often underestimated and I feel fortunate that I can be their voice. Help them gain the recognition they deserve and prove their learning is valuable no matter what it looks like from the outside”. To learn more about how we can speak out about the all-important role of preschool teachers. Stay tuned for this week’s episode of the preschool podcast.
Ashley, welcome to the preschool podcast. It’s wonderful to have you on the show.
Ashley PRESTON: Thank you for having me.
SPREEUWENBERG: First question for you is what brought you into being a preschool teacher in the first place.
PRESTON: Well, I actually didn’t start out thinking I would be a preschool teacher. I when I went to school I knew I wanted to work with younger students. I was young myself I didn’t really know a lot about public preschool and what was out there for preschool I was sort of ignorant in my thinking that preschool was really just daycare and childcare and realize how big of a presence it had in the public school system. So I went on an interview with my local district because I was hoping to be able to work where I live. And they had an opening in a preschool program so I figured I would go for it and kind of try it out and get myself out there. And I just loved it and I don’t think there’s ever another grade level I want to go to. I never thought I’d be here and now that I’m here I realize it’s a great level and age group that I belong my for sure.
SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. And how long have you been doing it.
PRESTON: This is the start of my 11th year.
SPREEUWENBERG: Cool. And what is it that you love most about what you do. I know that’s a hard question.
PRESTON: There are a lot of parts but really I think working with such young kids. I mean first of all we have natural development on our side and working along with us as teachers which is very very helpful but the progress that I get to see my kids make. And they’re so young they’re still so curious and inquisitive and they’re willing to try anything I put out there.
And because of that they learn these amazing things that they don’t even know because they’re not afraid to do new things and try new things and they’re not as worried about as older kids are about making mistakes or being wrong. And Manchester is an inner city we have a high refugee population and you know I have kids come in all different levels with you know not a lot of language or very low early academic skills. And just to see them be completely different kids when they walk out of my door two years later before they go to kindergarten you know speaking four sentences being able to work on a team being able to problem solve knowing their letters writing their names. It’s just seeing them and seeing them learn and their progress is the best part.
SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. And on the flip side what is the most challenging thing about being a preschool teacher.
PRESTON: Well I would say it’s sort of a twofold. Being a preschool teacher. Sometimes I feel like I get treated just like a preschool student. Like oh you’re cute you’re a preschool teacher like you can play and you don’t do anything important all day. There’s a lot of myths. So that just goes with there’s a lot of misconception about preschool and what we do and that our learning and our teaching it is super important and valid in the whole entire education spectrum. That’s one of the hardest parts.
I feel like I’m constantly defending myself our methods and our students as being an important piece of the you know. People say the K-12 education system and I would love to live in a place where we talked about the P.K.-12 education system
SPREEUWENBERG: Totally and just before we started this conversation I was just sort of looking around and I was looking at you know National Teacher of the Year awards. And I look through the past winners and since 1952 I think I see only two national teachers of the year which were at the kindergarten level and all the others were through K-12 and that’s why I think it’s really cool that we have you as a preschool teacher as the New Hampshire teacher of the year because I think that getting that word out like you said about the importance of preschool teachers in children’s learning in development and in the education system in its totality is just so important.
PRESTON: Yes. And in fact preschool teacher ever from New Hampshire. So that was like an awesome accomplishment for me that I was proud to be able to share with my students and my other preschool teacher friends.
SPREEUWENBERG: Totally. I know you’ve explained a little bit about what you’re what you find to be a challenge of being a preschool teacher. Why do you think that preschool teachers and students are underestimated.
PRESTON: Well the kids are little. So you know you don’t remember being a little kid you might remember when you if you have a parent when your kids were little, but I think they’re not given credit for what they can do and what they are capable of because we don’t do things like read and write stories we might not be able to draw the best picture because we’re learning how to use pencils and crayons. But people get caught up in all the things they can’t do. So they don’t see all the things that they can do. And then I think a lot of it is that people are still stuck in different mentalities from a different time of life. You know my mom didn’t have to work.
She got to stay home and take care of me. I didn’t go to school until I went to kindergarten. You know so people think oh it’s a parent’s job to do this early childhood education these people want preschool free preschool just want free babysitting and that’s not we’re not I’m not a babysitter. I’m a teacher. I’m giving these kids actual life skills that are going to help them not only in school but in their future life. Being able to communicate being able to work with a friend to solve a problem you know being creative. A lot of that stuff can get lost in older grades when we’re taking tests and you know have all these standards that we have to follow. We’ve got to get those critical thinking skills in there and they’ll learn to learning to learn how to be a student how to how to walk in the hallway how to sit in a group how to wait your turn. You know those are skills that we need in adult life too we just don’t think of them that way once we’re adults because we’re adults now so we think we have it all figured out.
SPREEUWENBERG: So kind of what you’re saying is that it’s the definition of learning. So I think like you said you know that we’re adults we think we have all everything figured out and you know reading writing and arithmetic is if you can do those things you’re learning a lot but it’s more than that.
PRESTON: People don’t realize that play is learning because when you become an adult you forget how to play and it is a forced notion and they don’t realize that when young kids don’t have all those like preconceived notions and adult biases that we develop in life that they just use their imagination and play and explore that paradox. That’s how they’re learning about their world you know and especially from a population where they might not have the life experiences that other children aren’t able to have.
You know that’s so valuable and important for them because I mean I see it the difference between the kids that have been and not just our preschool program but any type of program early childhood program that walk into caner and versus kids who have never been in school before and walk into kindergarten you know and those kids they’re at a disadvantage. The kids never came to any type early childhood programming before they are not only out how to be part of school they may already be behind in their academics you know they don’t know anyone they’re not they’ve been home for five years of their life. You know when the majority of their brain development happened and now they have all these demands and pressure and learning and you know you definitely see the struggle for those kids.
SPREEUWENBERG: Now this is a really tough question and there’s no easy answer to it. But do you have any thoughts about what we can do to change the view that many people have about preschool teachers and students.
PRESTON: A – Well no. I’m sure you know it’s hard to change people’s minds. People believe what they believe for their reasons. You know they have had their own past experiences that brought them to their conclusions. I tried to just open my classroom door and invite people in and gave them and meaningful conversations to try to tell them what I do. I mean people don’t not know to be mean and they’re not necessarily saying these things to be mean but it’s just their experience isn’t what is actually happening in preschool today. And they don’t get it and see it. And so I try to you know invite our school board members into our classroom talk to parents when I can talk to parents being able to be teacher of the year this year and get out there and network with people has given me a chance to show what preschool students are capable of and what kind of meaningful learning we as teachers provide them with.
So it’s just I mean just spreading the word is one of the simplest ways which is not necessarily hard in easy thing to do either. It’s a simple idea but not an easy thing to do. I think that people have to see it to understand it because I can talk until I’m blue in the face but that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to believe me.
PRESTON: Because I’m just trying to promote my own cause. When there’s cause there’s actually nothing to do with me. It’s about these kids you know and that is why winning meant so much to me not just for me I mean obviously that’s a huge event in my life that I will never forget but it meant a lot to me for my students. You know I had a great group of students that went through that whole process with me. And to be able to share that with them and because they’re the ones that made me shine you know in the department of that came into my classroom they weren’t talking to me they were talking to my students you know they were down on the floor playing with them and seeing how awesome they are and I still tell everybody that’s why I won. It had nothing to do with me, it was the kids.
SPREEUWENBERG: So it’s great that you have been given this opportunity to be a spokesperson for preschool teachers. And I think that’s super important. Do you have any advice for preschool teachers out there. Generally about speaking up for what’s right and for their profession. I know you mentioned meaningful conversations with families. Is that like the best way to really spread the word to parents and families about the importance of your work?
PRESTON: Well I mean I don’t know if that’s the best way I think that I think that’s like I said it’s an easier method because I think for teachers in general and this isn’t just for preschool teachers I think it’s hard for us to find our voice because there’s a lot of negativity around teaching. There’s a lot of bad you know rumors and stories and what we do and what we don’t do and teachers have a lot of fear for speaking up. I think I know that I was afraid of my voice even when this whole teacher of year process started you know now that I’m sort of coming to the end of my year I feel less afraid of my voice and more believed in my voice more. But I think we need to believe in our self and not be afraid to have those conversations and not just with parents with other teachers. You know I’m in an elementary school so I’m able to get out there and work with the kindergarten teachers and we’ll talk to the first grade teachers and have fifth grade students come down and read to my kids and develop a partnership so that it’s not just like me knowing. It can’t just be preschool teachers that know how important what we do and how important our students are.
We have to talk to other teachers talk to school board members talk State Department. All very scary stuff. I mean I still don’t like to do any of that stuff but we just have to believe in our voice and not be afraid to use it because our kids don’t have a voice and someone’s got to speak up for them. And I think just educating the public and having those conversations getting people in your classrooms is one of the few ways to start because it’s not like the research doesn’t exist to show about brain development and why you know the science behind preschool is out there. I don’t know why people like to listen to it but you know worrying about that more about yourself you know I’ve been trying to have more of that like science and data research when I do go out and talk. So I’m not just telling my stories. I think our stories are the most important thing because people can make emotional attachments to them. But I think we need those like scientific facts with us so that the people that doubt can then have more concrete things to grab on to.
SPREEUWENBERG: Absolutely. And we actually just that in our last episode of the preschool podcast talking about brain development and all the science behind it. And you’re absolutely right. There’s a ton of information there which says very conclusively just how important learning development is between the ages of zero and five. Now you said that you’re coming up on the end of your year as New Hampshire teacher of the year and that’s giving you more confidence in speaking out about what you believe in and speaking out on behalf of preschool teachers and teachers generally.
What motivated you or inspired you to go down the journey of teacher of the year in the first place.
PRESTON: Well my principal nominated me. I was quite shocked to be honest with you when I found out about my nomination. I didn’t actually believe that e-mail was real. So you know I was kind of sat on this path and I could have gotten off of it but I sort of decide to ride it out sort of to see where it was all about.
And then the deeper I got into it I saw how me as a preschool teacher being a part of this process and making it through this process was really important for the rest of the preschool world out there. Because we have never had a preschool teacher of the year in New Hampshire I don’t know of any state has ever had a preschool teacher when their state teacher of the year. I know in my class from across the country there were a few kindergarten teachers first and second grade but there was no other preschool teachers. Once I started on the path I just decided to keep riding and I didn’t want to get off. I wanted to be able to keep talking about preschool. People were always paying attention to us and I didn’t want to let that go because we are poor and we’ve been ignored for a long time.
And I think our students are super valuable and if we had more kids in preschool and we were educating them and helping them earlier maybe we would have less of the issues we have in the older grades. All of our students are working in preschool through 12th grade but we’ve got to start helping these kids earlier so that we don’t need to help them as much when they’re older and then said we can be setting them on further paths of success. You know instead of failing on them before they even walk through the door.
SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah I mean that’s where it all starts right. I just want to change direction just a little bit here. You were talking before about you know having those meaningful conversations with families and educating families about what preschool teachers do. I see also you’ve spend some time working child find, where you meet families. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do at child find?
PRESTON: OK so child find is the simplest way to explain I guess it’s our intake department for preschool students. You know typically an elementary student if they’re in school and there becomes concern that they might have special education needs. There’s a whole file process that works within the school because preschool students are in school. They go through the child find agency. So when I was there I did some of that academic testing so I was just doing evaluations to determine whether or not they had needs in special education needs. But I was mostly there to facilitate meetings and work with parents and sort of guide them through the special education process. Figure out what the best program needs for their children and kind of educating parents about what we’re doing and you know the special ed component adds a whole another layer to preschool. You know we keep parents that are resistant to that because they don’t like to have an IEP and I don’t like to even say there’s anything wrong with them because there’s not anything just because your child has an IEP doesn’t mean anything wrong with them but they have a different learning style that we need to figure out so that they can be successful on life and Manchester has a really big refugee population.
So there’s a lot of cultural barriers in the special ed kind of department. So it’s just I always tried to be a reassuring voice that what we’re doing is we’re helping your children. And it’s at the preschool level is one of the great things about little kids that nobody realizes what’s different about you versus me versus him versus her. They just all are together which is always so awesome to see him and to have these super diverse classes of kids that come from different backgrounds and different countries and different cultures and some have special needs some don’t have special needs some speak different languages others don’t. And to see them like coexist in this happy little place is you know it’s nice see and it gives me hope for the future that maybe you know we can get ourselves back to a place where people can get along. But a lot of parents this is their first experience and you know they’re finding out that their child does have difficulties and struggles. And we have to be there to reassure them that what we’re doing is helping them and we’re not just playing all day and this is how they’re learning and that’s not the stigma you know having an IEP isn’t a bad thing. It’s a way to help your child.
And we all learn different. I mean in reality everybody learns different you could you know, special needs are, I think everybody has some degree of special needs and things are good at and things are bad and I just try to reinforce that you know in some ways we want to individually educate all of these kids. That’s the move that we’re making that more individualized education and personalize learning and really an IEP is a personalized learning plan you know for federal regulations we have to put special add on it. But we can look at it as a positive thing and not a negative thing.
SPREEUWENBERG: What were some of your learnings from those conversations with the families?
PRESTON: Well I was able to you know being I you know I was born in Rhode Island and now I live in New Hampshire. My diverse myth was not very large until I started working in Manchester and I was able to learn a lot about different cultures and what why people have these preconceived notions and how to help parents and reassure parents. Just learning about what parent you know when I started I didn’t have any children of my own. So you know I’ve worked hard to try to put myself in these people’s shoes and think about what would I feel like you know now I do have my own daughter.
And just to try to see where they are because we need to be a team. It doesn’t it can’t be like a parent and a teacher needs to be a parent with a teacher working together. I only spend two and a half hours three or four days a week with these children. Their parents are their first teachers. Their parents are their biggest teacher at this point and if we’re not a team word the success is isn’t going to be there as great as if we do work together
SPREEUWENBERG: Totally which I think speaks to why it’s also just so important for families to understand the importance of early childhood development. Right.
PRESTON: Yes most definitely because I have grown. And so what are we going to teach. What are they going to learn. Like they want like oh we’re going to learn X Y Z like they want black and white concrete answers on what we’re going to learn and I’m like well that’s not what we’re about. We’re kind of about like learning to learn we’re learning to be a good friend. And it’s not that we don’t do academics because we do academics but it’s kind of when they’re ready and at their pace and we do have preschool standards in Manchester.
But it’s a world map it’s not like everybody has to fit into this column on this chart. It’s like this is the path we have to take to get to be college and career ready someday. So it’s nice to have that guide but I always make sure that when I talk to parents I talk to other colleagues that aren’t sure you know this isn’t like take a test get a A or B and go on. It’s a whole curve it’s a whole process and it’s you have to follow it naturally because at this age you have to work with the natural development or you’re going to end up stunting them and causing them to hate school because you’re going to fight what’s naturally happening with them.
SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah absolutely. Absolutely. One of the things that we also think is really important for the progress of the field of early childhood education and for preschool teachers is getting knowledge and information about what’s happening what’s important what are people talking about so that as a preschool teacher you’re also learning all the time. Is there certain places where you go to get information about what’s happening in the preschool or early childhood education world.
PRESTON: Well I mean I do. So our preschool we don’t have a central preschool location in Manchester. We are spread out through some of the elementary schools but we’re lucky enough that we have opportunities to collaborate and talk to each other as a team and I think teachers need to stop shutting their doors and working as separate islands and work together as one group because any time I’ve gone to a conference or a workshop or a training I learn the most from the presenters when they’re in the trenches in the field walking out of like they just walked out of a classroom yesterday to come and give me this workshop today. Not the person that you know was a consultant 25 years ago and hasn’t been doing what I do because what I do now as a preschool teacher is very different from what preschool teachers did even from when I started 10 years ago 15 20 years ago it’s completely different. So I think we need to utilize each other as resources and I try to do that as much as possible. I mean I look to professional organizations. You know there’s a lot of early childhood groups in NAEYC you know I look to those resources. I try to find learning opportunities. Teacher workshop opportunities that are specifically geared towards preschool which is is a harder path to take unfortunately.
You know a lot of things they call them early childhood that they really focus on kindergarten first or second grade and despite popular belief preschool and kindergarten. And while similar are very different creatures. You know a four and a five year old are not alike in as many ways as people think they are. Three and a four year old are not alike. Three and a five year old are nothing alike you know. So we get that water down learning a lot unfortunately. I’ve been lucky enough to be doing this for 10 years now and working with people who have been doing it even longer that we’re going to go into these things and taking what they are kind of watering down for us inferring how we can make it work for what we know and who we work with. But I think my co-teachers are one of my vast resources which is sort of a great thing but then a sad thing because there are so many resources available for teachers of other grade levels. And it’s that again that preschool kind of gets pushed aside and brushed under the rug and I would just read the kindergarten book and then kind of figure it out. You know hopefully as early childhood is gaining more importance across the nation more of those real learning opportunities and networking groups and organizations will kind of open up for us.
But it’s hard because and a lot of it you like for teacher your preschool teachers use to not even be eligible because preschool wasn’t in the public school because the teacher of the year is in the public school thing. And that’s understandable. But they weren’t even eligible to be nominated. And I think we need to stop working against each other you know they have childcare versus daycare versus public preschool and we almost feel like seem like enemies on the outside and I don’t think it should. I wish it wasn’t like that because I think that we can all work together. People fear public preschool because then there will be no child care and all those places will go out of business. But I don’t I mean I don’t necessarily know that’s 100 percent true. I mean public preschool wouldn’t work for me because I worked full time and it’s a half day program. My daughter had to go to a private preschool. Some parents have it works for them. So I think we just got to help each other and work together.
SPREEUWENBERG: The children’s education is not so black and white as to say preschool versus public school. It should be a continuous process that’s really irrespective of those different notions really isn’t it. What is exciting you most about what’s happening in early childhood education right now.
PRESTON: I’m just happy that people are actually talking about it. It’s nice to see that there are more people taking it seriously. I was fortunate enough to go to a conference in Washington and met this woman from Alabama who actually is not even in education she’s a lawyer but you know she grew up and had a really rough start of life and preschool saved her life she says and she now hass, it’s so important to her even though she’s a lawyer not in the education field. She goes out and she talks to school districts and school boards and she worked really closely with the Alabama Department of Education and Alabama state of Alabama is on a 10 year plan right now for universal preschool for four year olds. That preschool pre-kindergarten those words I feel like mean different things get used interchangeably. I’m one of the people that use them interchangeably. I know there’s a big push for that four year old to get in school which is great we have three year old and four year old preschool in my school district.
It’s not universal it’s mandatory for special ed students we get title 1 funding so it’s not mandatory for title one but we do have a title one kind of preschool population. They are in the same classes. It’s not like self-contained classes and then title to what classes we have you know have full inclusion classrooms which is awesome but it’s just it’s nice to see it more places and being considered a more valuable thing. I think we have a really really large mountain to climb but it’s nice to know that there’s more people kind of like joining the hike and believing in the power of preschool.
SPREEUWENBERG: And last question and a difficult one. As a preschool teacher how do you go about being a leader in early childhood education to be this voice and get the word out there?
PRESTON: It’s a tough one. You know I really like on a personal level I struggle with that whole word leader because I don’t I don’t see myself as a leader. But I think that actually is happening even if I want to keep denying that it’s happening.
How to be that leader is it takes a lot of confidence and believing in what you’re saying and I just think being an advocate like I said you know what I’m going to go speak at the school board meeting next week I talked to our officials when they come in the building like when we have those you know city officials here I try to make sure I’m out there and I say hi and oh I’m the preschool teacher did you come to my room and see what we’re doing. And I tried to get them to engage because we’re not perceived as leaders so we need to get the people that are like public be perceived as leaders on board and on our side to help elevate us and kind of unfortunately we need somebody out to help shine a light. And that’s why when I met the lawyer I loved her because she was standing up in front of a group of people that I don’t know would have taken anything I said seriously. But because she was a lawyer, they were listening to her even though her cause is the same as my cause. I felt like, sadly it had more weight coming out of her mouth. But the more people like that we have on our side we can work together and become leaders together.
SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah. And surely if she didn’t have an amazing preschool teacher that gave her this strong feeling about how important it is she wouldn’t be up there speaking.
PRESTON: Yeah her life could have been a very sad different path. I mean she told her whole story of people and people were crying. I was very sad. And she’s like preschool saved my life and I was like yeah. She made my heart my very happy that day I went and introduced myself after I just said you know as a preschool teacher I just thank you for being on our side and for having somebody else.
Because like I said I can think I’m a leader even if I don’t think that I can think I’m a leader and talk away. But if people just keep looking at me like the cute little preschool teacher like I sometimes feel like they look at me like I’m four it doesn’t matter how smart I sound or how great what my message is. If people don’t take me seriously. But we have to also take our now seriously and believe that we’re important and what we’re doing matters.
SPREEUWENBERG: I think that’s a very important point actually. Preschool teachers showing the world that the work that they do is important and they should be treated with respect. And also the perception that they are professionals is I think a very important point. And like you said it starts with the preschool teachers themselves and it sounds like you know with hearing some of your stories that if you do an awesome job at what it is you do which is working with the children your relationships with the children and the families and spreading the word in your local community about what you’re doing as a preschool teacher if every preschool teacher did that. Then the word would spread and it would spread pretty quickly.
PRESTON: Yeah. And just believing in our students and it’s hard to sometimes because with all like what I call the teacher hate out there to not get caught up in the negativity and what they can’t, I mean we get caught up. Everybody has their moments you know because I work with kids I have so many struggles and trauma and issues. You have to rise above that so that they can rise above that and not think about what they can’t do and find what they can do because they can all do something. And then when we hone in on that and elevate that all the other stuff will fall into place and rise up with them.
SPREEUWENBERG: Totally. Ashley thanks so much for coming on the show. It was really wonderful having you some very powerful stuff there. And I think it’s amazing that you’re going to be a spokesperson for preschool teachers everywhere.
PRESTON: Thank you so much for having me. Pleasure talking with you and I’m glad to be able to get out there and just remind everybody that preschool matters