Exploring the realities of today’s early childhood educators
Episode #83: Listen to Johanna Richardson, Lead Teacher at Christian Life Academy in Bensalem, PA describe life as an early childhood professional. Even with observations and challenges and stress of the role, Johanna says “early childhood is fun!”. Johanna finds ways to appreciate the power of her role and how to have a positive mindset in the daily interactions with children. She teaches us that early childhood education is not for the faint of heart and that being an early childhood professional is so much more than teaching a letter, or playing.
There are so different needs and your role is to meet all the unique needs in the classroom. She also describes how social and emotional needs are increasing for young children as a result of the opioid epidemic in America. If you have a child in childcare, if you work in early education, this is a MUST-LISTEN episode.
Resources in this episode:
– Johanna Richardson is a finalist in our ECE of the Year Award 2017
– Teacher Spotlight on Johanna featured here
HiMama Preschool Podcast, Episode #83 – Johanna Richardson Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – Feb. 08, 2018
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It’s not a babysitting issue. You’re really developing these children, because the impact that you have today will continue for years to come. Because you’re kind of setting those foundation blocks down. And I think that’s pretty exciting to be a part of.
Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.
Johanna, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.
Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.
So, Johanna, what got you involved in early-childhood education?
Well, I’ve always had a love of kids. And I’ve always worked with them: I started babysitting when I was 11, and I was a camp counselor from teen age through early adulthood. And I’ve always enjoyed being with them. And when I went to Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, they had a great elementary and even better early-childhood program. I just had really fantastic education professors in general. So it was eye opening; I didn’t know what to expect. And I had one in particular in early-childhood that made me realize what a huge undertaking becoming an early-childhood teacher is, but what a satisfying thing it is. And it truly makes a really big difference, and that just appealed to me.
So with every ounce of energy that you pour into it I saw that it was worth it, and that excited me because not everyone gets to say that with their job, that “I’m going into something that I know is really making a difference,” or that you could have fun. Early-childhood is fun. It’s a great place to be and work.
But one of the things I did experience while I was at Kutztown: we had to do some observation hours and I was in Reading, Pennsylvania. And it wasn’t the best area. And I was really appalled more at the attitudes of the teachers and the language that they use. And there was this one boy in particular… and it just made me realize that I wanted to do better. I wanted to make it better. So that was kind of my turning point, that I really want to be in the field. I want to make a difference and I want to be with these kids who need us, and really we are sometimes the ones that are there for them. It might not be something that they’re getting from home. It might be them coming to school where they’re getting those basic needs being met. So that was kind of the turning point for me.
Totally. So let’s start with the point about being difficult to become an early-childhood educator. Can you tell us a little bit more about why you think it’s so difficult to become and to be an early-childhood educator? Because I think a lot of people in society might not necessarily understand just how challenging it is.
Absolutely. I actually recently saw somewhere a saying that said: “Early-childhood education is not for the faint of heart or for a passive person.” And I was, like, “You know what? That is so true.” Because it’s demanding and it’s so complex, because we are no longer… we don’t have the role of just the traditional teacher any longer. We’re like a curriculum specialist, a diagnostician, health care providers. We’re counseling parents, we’re counseling families sometimes. We’re child advocates or child developmental specialists.
There are so many things involved. It’s like putting on a different hat every day to meet all of these needs that need to be met. So it’s demanding in that way because being in early-childhood is so much more then playing or teaching a letter, and it’s just all encompassing. And you really need to know that [with] child development you need to know that not all children are alike. There’s many different needs and you have to be able to meet all those needs at some point within a classroom.
And I don’t know about the majority of other states, but I know for us our ratio is one teacher to ten kids. So for example I have 20 children in my classroom. There’s two teachers, and that’s fine on paper. But the reality is there are so many different ability levels; there are so many needs. And especially if you have children who are on that very thin line of not quite needing therapy you have a lot of different personalities. And it’s hard to meet the needs and be able to make it quality education for every child. But that is our goal. So it’s a huge challenge.
Yeah, I was reading the other day – I forget where – but you mentioned you have a ratio of one early-childhood educator for every 10 children. But actually if you want to really focus on quality, ideally you’d have an even lower ratio, and you’re just kind of doing the best you can read. I mean it is 10 individual children with 10 individual needs.
Exactly. Yes, lots of different personalities. And all the while you’re trying to do that you’re singing and smiling and leading circle time and teaching the letter of the week. It’s a very complex, it really is.
That’s where the “Not for the faint of heart” thing comes in.
Yes, I read that. I was, like, “That is so appropriate.”
Now what about on the side of families? You mentioned sometimes children may not have the support that they need and should have at home. As an early-childhood educator, what is it that you look for from parents and families to really support their children in their lives?
The biggest thing is communication. It’s so important. They need… I mean, a lot of the families that we have here, we’re with the kids more during the week than they are when they’re at work. So we really do get a good feel for these children and their needs. And just communicating what we’re seeing… What are you seeing? Like, if we’re seeing something at school we want to know your end, what are you seeing? Like, let’s work together. We can be a partnership. And really just trust in knowing that what I’m doing for your child or what I have in mind for your child is at their best interest. That’s what I have in my heart – I want to do what’s best for each child.
And sometimes there are some situations that are not as easy. Some parents are very open to having if there’s an IEP [Individualized Education Program] involved or if there’s that difficult conversation that you have to have about behavior or something along those lines, sometimes that’s difficult. And just to have a parent that’s open and willing, and it’s not often that way. And in all reality we’re just trying to help your child to thrive, and with their support, it’s just so much better knowing you have the parents backing you. And in turn the school is backing the parents… it’s just really beneficial.
So we touched a little bit on challenges and difficulties, a little bit about parents. And we interviewed you before for a spotlight on your work. And one of the things you mentioned was something about an opioid epidemic. And this is I think a really good example of something that I wouldn’t know as someone who’s not in your shoes is something that you even have to deal with. So can you just bring to life a little bit more about your challenges with that and what that means for you in your work when you’re dealing with situations like this?
So it’s definitely… it’s a prevalent situation right now. My husband is actually a police officer, so I know that piece of the story. But it’s all around and it’s affecting more and more people than you realize. And the young children that are in these situations, like I said, it happened it happens fast. It’s not something that we have researched on, how this affects these children. But we’re just noticing the social and emotional needs that we are having to meet. And it’s not that they can… they don’t come in and you can say, “Okay, we need do X Y and Z.” You really just have to feel out, “Okay, they need more support here or they might need a little extra time or they might need a little extra love.” It actually… we treat it the same way that we would treat any other situation. Another type of need.
But the hardest part is, you just don’t know how they’re being affected and what they’ve been exposed to. And it comes out little by little and mainly a lot of it’s behavioral that we see and being able to take the time to give those children what they need. And it’s really… it’s difficult but sometimes it’s just extra love. They need to know that they’re safe, that they’re okay and that they’re loved. And this is a great place for that because that’s certainly… we help all the children feel that way.
But yeah, really it affects them differently and it affects their families in a different way. There might be a single parent, they might be living with grandparents, so that’s a whole another facet of it. It’s just every situation that I’ve been a part of that has dealt with an opioid issue is different. And that’s why it’s not clean-cut; it’s not clearly defined. And we’re trying best to figure it out. Like, how can we help these kids and give them some stability when sometimes they’re feeling a little out of whack? If that makes sense.
Yes, and I think it kind of goes back to your point before about the importance of the early-childhood educator, especially in these scenarios where sometimes you may be the most stable person in that child’s life. And so just imagine the impact that you have in those situations is so significant.
Absolutely. And we definitely… like, I find myself taking a step back when we we’re doing our smooth routine and everything is going well and a situation arises. I just I say to myself, “Okay, we’re taking a break from this. I’m going to go be with that child and we’re going to talk it out.” We do a lot of emotion stuff when we have puppets and we have a peace flower. We use all these great tools and it’s so important to show this child how to use those tools and that it’s okay to feel that way, But why are we feeling that way? So I definitely am not afraid to deviate from, “Okay, we should be working on this right now and everything was going great but you need to handle this at the moment.” Because we’re teaching her, we’re teaching this child how to have those skills for when she leaves my school, you know what I mean, when she moves on and she can better handle things without having a tantrum that’s explosive. She’s learning to recognize the emotions and work through things. So you definitely have to deviate from what you’re planning on doing or what you’re in the middle of doing when these things arise.
Absolutely. So we’ve talked a bit about a lot of the challenges and difficulties that you face as an educator. What about the other side of the story? What are some magic moments you’ve experienced in the classroom, or joyful experiences that you have in your day-to-day work?
And this is seriously one of the reasons why I love my job the best, because they happen daily. It could be a hug; it could be someone writing their name for the first time; it could be a defiant child using their words kindly, or a parent showing immense gratitude. It literally happens daily. And when you have a week of those little things, and then at the end of the week it’s just such a satisfying feeling. Like, “You know what? It was a great week because all those little things happened.” One of the things that stands out in my mind: I had a child once, he was 5 [years old], and developmentally he was 2. So we worked really hard on walking to the classroom, finding his cubby – like, basic things. I worked on some life skills with him. And we also worked for him to get his services. And before he actually got his services he started doing some of these tasks on his own. And I’ll never forget the day that he came in and he took his jacket off and he put his jacket in his cubby, and I was, like, “Yes! You did it!” And he was excited and he was clapping. And being able to transition from “Through the door to the cubby to circle time”, he had never done that. And to see him do that for the first time, it just it brought tears to my eyes. I was, like, “This is amazing.” So I knew that those little foundations, those little things that he needs to build upon, he was getting them. And in the long run it was going to help himself. Just… the little things are the big things, in early-childhood, to be honest.
Yeah, and those are the big things, right? I mean, no matter what early-childhood educator you ask I think most will say that that’s really where you can find the balance, right? Because it is so, so hard and so challenging, but also so, so rewarding to have those experiences.
It is so rewarding. Yes, absolutely.
Cool, cool. Well, thanks for sharing that. So you’ve been an early-childhood educator for quite some time, and I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of stuff you’ve learned over your career as an early-childhood educator. What are some of the tricks or tips that you’ve learned over time that maybe you wish you knew back in the day, or do you wish others knew about in order to be more supportive and service their children even better?
It’s hard because I feel like there are no tricks, but definitely the trends are changing so frequently. I don’t know, I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to be right now in a school that is so supportive and so dynamic. I’m really proud to be a part of this. I have worked in other schools where they weren’t quite there. And I know, for me, I just tried to do the best that I knew how to do. And it might not have been supported by the director, but I always kept in mind, “Okay, I’m here for these children.” And I think teachers need to remember that. “I may not be getting paid a lot,” or, “This may not be the best school, but I’m here for these children. I’m here to help them to thrive. I’m here to make a difference. And regardless of how tough the day is, I am.” You have to keep that in mind: “I’m making that difference.”
I definitely had mentioned to Amanda when she did the blog about having a tool kit prepared. I wish my 21-year-old self had this tool kit that knew what I was going to need twenty years later, I really didn’t realize the amount of diversity that was going to be within a classroom, whether it’s emotionally, socially or even cognitively, it’s really pretty immense. And recently we’ve been doing a lot of social stories and using these emotion cards because right now that’s an issue in our class: We’re struggling with expressing ourselves emotionally. So we’re working on that. But as a 21-year-old I didn’t know that… “Oh, wait, that that child is not the same as that’s child in that sense.” It’s just… I think it was a lot more overwhelming than I thought it was going to be when I initially started.
And then once you’re into it it’s, like, “Okay, I get this. There’s lots of different needs that need to be met, but I can do this because I have the tools. And I’ve gained the tools from the excellent director that I’ve had, from trainings that I’ve had.” And I think it’s really important that there are directors out there that are providing the training needed for these early-childhood educators because, really, you can’t just go in and… you’re not babysitting. You’re helping them develop as a whole, whether it’s spiritually, cognitively, academically, socially, emotionally, it’s a whole faceted thing. And I think it’s very complex and I wish my 21-year-old self had that toolbox of all those things that I would know to do at 41. But I think that comes with experience, too.
That’s actually a really excellent message. So your tip is that there is no simple tip?
No, there really isn’t. But the more you teach, the better you get. I know that sounds crazy but it’s, like, natural. I can look at a kid and I can know, “Okay.” You just catch on to things quickly. You can… I don’t know, you recognize things sooner than you would when you’re younger. But I think the more experience you have the easier it gets. But it’s really important to have the training, and it’s all relative to the facility you’re working in. But I think that’s huge, continuing education and allowing your teachers to be aware of the many different areas where they need strength or work.
But I really do think it’s a great message. And it connects with your point earlier about how difficult and complicated it is to be an early-childhood educator, that you do need to learn these things over time and it takes experience in order to get there. And if you asked a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer, like, “What’s your tip or are tricks for the trade?” Those would be difficult to answer, right? Because they would say is, “I went to school for 10 years and I’ve been doing it for 20 years,” or whatever, right? So it’s the same idea, which is great.
I would even say every year within a classroom, like what we did last year, half of that didn’t work for this year’s class. So we re-modify every year. So every year it’s different. So you really just need to go back to a resource of, “Okay, what did I do in the past?”
Yeah, that’s a good point too. Like, you always have to be learning and improving and be willing to be dynamic, too, right?
Awesome. So we’re running short on time. But before we wrap up I just want to ask you one more question, which is: What’s your advice to the younger teachers out there, ECE’s [early-childhood educators] that are maybe just starting out their career? What advice would you give them in their early days as an early-childhood educator?
Well, first of all I want to commend them, because I think it’s awesome, because we need more great teachers in this area. And just don’t be discouraged. I don’t know the way it is all over the world but I know for us in Pennsylvania we do not have a high pay rate. And one of the things is, it’s not public education. And I feel like it should be accessible to all children. And, again, if it was public that the salary would be better. But in terms of that, like, don’t get discouraged by that, because in the end if you truly love what you’re doing, that matters most. I mean, I often think: “Would I rather be rich or would I rather be happy?” And I truly am happy in doing what I’m doing. And just continue – continue learning, and try to bring to the table everything that you possibly can. Don’t just think it’s… like, I keep saying the babysitting, the dreaded b-word. It’s not a babysitting issue. You’re really developing these children, because the impact that you have today will continue for years to come. Because you’re kind of setting those foundation blocks down. And I think that’s pretty exciting to be a part of.
Yeah, that’s an awesome, awesome message. Thanks, Johanna. And thank you so, so much for coming on the show, and thank you for all the awesome work that you’re doing. It’s been such a pleasure having you to learn about the complexities and difficulties of early-childhood education, and how to overcome them by having a positive mindset and keeping in mind all the amazing impact that you’re having on the children you work with. So thank you again for sharing all that.
Thank you so much. And again, I really value the work that you’re doing. I think it’s awesome. And you keep up the good work too.