Sound Advice for Healthy Families

Last night I got to briefly chat with many moms that I know in my community. I was standing at my table promoting our new Music Booster’s Club and had our first bake sale. After about the third interaction, I thought about the Peanut’s character Lucy who would set up a booth and charge her friends for her sage advice.  I didn’t actually use Lucy most famous reply, “Snap out of it! Five cents, please.” Rather, I listened and nodded my head in understanding. Life is busy and so many things are all happening simultaneously that we often feel like we just need to take a moment to check in with a friend.

Image result for peanuts comic advice five cents

So if you are looking for some “sound advice” about parenting and raising healthy kids I narrowed it down to three main thoughts.

  1. Families are busy, but more than anything our children need to know that we are there to listen day or night. Our relationship with our children is built on trust and open communication.
  2. Children need daily unstructured outdoor time in order to thrive. Childhood is short and we should protect their time to be kids. We should turn off our own devices and head outdoors with them to boost our own health! Wellness is achieved by daily healthy habits which can be a simple as a walk in the neighborhood or playing in the backyard!
  3. Eat dinner together as often as possible…I think shared meals is the best way to reconnect with one another. Both positive communication and healthy foods feed our children and ourselves. Take the time to make sit down at the table together!

I don’t think I will build my own booth like Lucy…but I do intend to write my weekly blog posts as a way to help parents and teachers find simple ways to ‘grow a holistic view of childhood’.

Be well,

April

“A growing body of scientific evidence identifies strong correlations between experience in the natural world and children’s ability to learn, along with their physical and emotional health. Stress levels, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, cognitive functioning—and more—are positively affected by time spent in nature.” ~Richard Louv

Grieving While Teaching

 

Reflecting on our values and our teaching practices is one of the most powerful ways to deepen our roots and to grow. Sharing those reflections with others is one way that we can mentor or support other teachers experiencing the same thing that we’ve gone through. So I offer my reflection of figuring out my core values while grieving, and how to navigate grieving while teaching….and I hope that it helps in your own journey.

As a lifelong learner, I continue to learn and grow. I believe that my teaching evolves each year, but at the foundation is one core value that I hold as my ‘true north’ ~ “LOVE”. Throughout my career my administrators, co-teachers, assistants, families, and children all remark how my classroom feels warm, nurturing, and safe. It’s a place that oozes with love and positivity. Parents especially appreciate how I create a sense of belonging and the trust that they feel by my approach with their children.

The fact of the matter though as teachers some years are tough because of our personal lives and so I want to share about one of my most difficult years of my life. One week prior to the start of school, my father passed away suddenly from testicular cancer and all I wanted to do was to climb into bed and keep the covers over my head. How on Earth could I manage to pull myself together to be an upbeat, organized, and fully present preschool teacher?

By some sweet miracle the school contacted me and said that preschool would have to be delayed opening by one week because of the odor of the gym floor being replaced. I was so grateful because I needed that week to pull my emotions together after the grief of losing my father. I felt like I needed to spend more time outside in nature alone, and to explore my own roots – who I was, what my values were, where I was going in my life, and figuring out who I was.

Before I knew about the delay in our start for preschool, I was so torn about taking care of my own health and being a fabulous teacher. I rarely take sick days, strive for perfection, and am in over-drive creating the best possible classroom that I can. At that time though I knew I couldn’t “pour from an empty vessel’ and knew I needed to take time for myself, time to grieve, and to process my emotions. So a huge gratitude to the universe for the delay in the gym floor so I could miss a week and still be there to start the school year with my preschoolers.

Creating community is one of my top priorities in teaching, and so I knew that I need to get the school year going on positive note despite my deep sadness. Chester Raccoon from the book “Kissing Hand” became my mascot in my classroom. I bought a raccoon puppet and used the puppet to teach about emotions. I thought a lot about how that kiss left in a palm could travel to the heart at anytime so the love of a parent could be felt, whether or not they were present. Though the book is about separation when a child goes to school, the parallel for grief work was very healing to me.

In many ways as we work through grief we wear a mask. Especially for our students and our own children at home, we want to be able to be present and upbeat so we put on the mask of ‘happiness’. Though I realized that I also needed to take time to grieve and to heal so I had to prioritize my ‘alone time’ when I didn’t have to have the ‘everything is okay mask’. This part of the grief journey means connecting to others who have experienced the same loss and who support your vulnerability.

At this same time my mother was also undergoing ovarian cancer treatment which meant that I was making frequent visits to be with her. My parents had been separated since I was three years old, and so the chances of them both having cancer at the same time was more than symbolic to me. As I visited with my mom we chatted about many things and I felt more comfortable to ask her heartfelt questions than I ever had as a child.

It became clear in January that her diagnosis was terminal and I tried my best to come to terms with losing both parents in less than a year. It was simply unfair and unjust. I went through a phase of anger, but I knew that I needed to find “BALANCE” in my life to not be swallowed up by grief. This journey helped me become much more intentional about how I spend my time and how I prioritize my own personal health and the time that I have for my own family. At first it felt selfish but I realized that I taking care of ourselves, including taking sick days and bereavement days, is how we can continue to be our best selves.
On Easter Sunday, I sat by my mother’s bedside and held her hand as she took her last breaths. The words to the song, “Turn, Turn, Turn” were playing in my mind as I sat there taking in the fact that this was the last time I would be with her. My lifelong champion, confidant, and closest friend would no longer be a phone call away. How could I live in a world without my mother? My ‘true north’ felt completely pushed off course and I knew that reorienting the sails would take work and effort. That night as I laid in the guest room bed, my mind was spinning, and I cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, I felt something renewed in me a deep sense of purpose.

With the loss of my mother, I decided to take two full weeks off before going back into my classroom. I knew that my assistant teacher would do a great job, and that the children would be just fine without me. Letting go of perfection or thinking that I needed to put on a superhero cape was a HUGE shift in me. During those two weeks, I let myself truly grieve.  I reflected on what I needed to do to be able to survive the last couple of weeks of school. Some days it felt like a survival situation and ‘just keep swimming’ was my mantra. The end of year tasks weren’t completed with perfection but it good enough really was enough. This was the first time in my career that I understood the vital importance of life / work balance, and when we reorient our priorities to care for ourselves we feel like we matter.

Five years have now passed since my father’s death and through reflection and inner work I can offer these thoughts:

– By striving to be a nurturing mother to my own children I honor the memory of both of my parents.

-By letting go of perfection and being a ‘flawesome’ teacher, parent, or spouse, I am happier and more content with my life. Owning our flaws is the best way to stop perfection from gnawing at us. My new mantra is “Purpose over perfection”

– By living with intention, I re-prioritize my life so that the precious time that I have here is lived fully, in alignment with my values, and with JOY. Before I commit to something, I check in to see if it fits with may values and life goals.

-By connecting with others I can create a new sense of “BELONGING” and though I felt like I had lost my ‘true north’ my memories always connect me to my parents, and other family and friends who have passed away. Connecting in real life to a small circle of friends who support and cheer each other on is vital to our health and happiness.

-Gentle self awareness and daily self-care makes the grief journey easier. Taking time to pause, breathe, and to remember that kiss in Chester’s palm is way that I can reset.

-I believe that when we are clear on our core values our decisions and path is easier to see. For me, my core values of love, balance, and belonging help me keep my life steered in the right direction.

 

Grieving while teaching can be very challenging and if you find yourself in that journey…my advice is to be gentle with yourself. Take time when you need it and communicate with your school team & home team when you need support. I believe that when we let go of ‘perfection’, we give ourselves some breathing room.  As I think of the two people who had a profound impact on who I am, my parents, I know that their best qualities are deeply rooted in me and that keeps me grounded. Taking the time to grieve, to rediscover our roots, and to connect to others is essential.

“But what do you do?”

“But what do you do?” ~ when I hear the question I have to quickly decide if I give the full speech, a one minute version of the speech, or just a few words.

Most people within my professional circle know me as a “preschool teacher”. A kind, warm and fuzzy teacher who ties shoes, wipes off messy faces, sings songs and teaches about manners, nature, art, and social-emotional skills. My last eight years in the classroom were spent in preschool, and I came to realize the power and fundamental role that early childhood has on both the academic success in school and lifelong impact for children who have access to high quality early childhood programs.

When I took on a new role of entrepreneur and creating a business as an educational consultant, my friends didn’t quite know how the presumably soft skills of preschool teacher would translate into a business model. Surprisingly, learning how to take care of young children prepared me well for working with a wide range of groups because nearly all people find it refreshing to work with someone who is both kind and a go-getter!

Back to the question…”But what do you do?”

In a few words ~ I am an educational consultant.

One minute speech ~ I am an Early Childhood Educator and I work with schools, child care centers, businesses and organizations to develop programs that support a ‘holistic view of childhood”. With my almost twenty years of working with families and children I know the silos and obstacles that exist within our system and I can help facilitate ways to improve our programs to have a greater impact on children.

And for those who really want to dive into more of the details….I typed up an even longer description!

April Zajko, M.Ed. is the owner of April’s Teaching Tree, an educational consulting business with a mission of “growing a holistic view of childhood”. April has been leading professional development in education since 2003 and is licensed in Vermont as both as an Early Childhood Educator and Reading Specialist. April has built a solid reputation for providing relevant, engaging, and motivating programs that take theory and put it into actionable steps to improve outcomes for children.  Over the last school year, April has led professional development in Vermont for child care centers, regional Head Start teams, Starting Points networks, and private programs. April has partnered with several nonprofit organizations who are working toward improving educational programs for young children, including the Vermont Community Engagement Lab and the STEM Lab at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium. Over the last eight years, April has led trainings at the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children fall conference and developed master level trainings in science. Since 2016, April has taught early childhood courses for the Community College of Vermont in Saint Johnsbury, and has helped many new professionals get started on their career path in early childhood education.

April is committed to workforce development and knows that as we empower early care providers we strengthen our system and practices of care for ALL families.

April is passionate about advocating for nature-based learning and puts creativity and PLAY at the center of the curriculum.

April believes that ALL children thrive when we design inclusive programs that offer supportive and warm environments that cultivate nurturing  and responsive relationships.

April’s Teaching Tree gives voice to the vision and mission of “growing a holistic view of childhood”. To read my weekly blog post subscribe at http://www.aprilsteachingtree.com

*Help me spread the word by sharing this post *

If your program or organization wants to create custom professional development or partner on projects for the next school year, please email April directly at aprilzajko@gmail.com

If you are an individual and want to sign up for a course of program led by April Zajko, visit this link which will be updated as programs or classes are added ~ https://aprilsteachingtree.com/upcoming-trainings/

If you would like to be part of April’s ongoing women’s leadership group called P.O.W.E.R.~Path of Wellness, Environment, and Relationship ~ send an email to get more information ~ aprilzajko@gmail.com

“You may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results.” ~Gandhi

Educational Journey ~ First Job in Education

 

Sharing our story and our journey of how we got to where we are is a powerful way of connecting to each other. When we look at our resume we know which of the jobs had the greatest impact on the direction of our lives. Often it’s the first jobs that we have that have the greatest impact.

My very first job in education was at Minnick Education Center in Roanoke, Virginia. It was private day school for students who were not meeting with success in traditional public schools. The program that I worked in was alternative high school program with a small group of mostly African American young men who were at risk of dropping out of school or going into juvenile detention centers. The commonality between the group were a diagnosis of Emotionally Disturbed, disruptive behaviors, and extremely low literacy levels. There was no option for these young men to return to their home schools because of their previous behaviors, and therefore there was pressure to make sure they met with success with us so they could either graduate with an alternate diploma or earn their G.E.D.

By far, it was the hardest teaching position that I have had in my career but I was committed to those young men. I was determined for them to meet with success. Each student had a three inch binder that contained “their story” and it was shocking and heartbreaking to read.  How could these young men only read on an early elementary level? How had they fallen through the school system and not have received effective interventions earlier? How had they made it this far despite the obstacles they faced? Could someone have prevented their behaviors from escalating to the point that they were expelled? What could have changed their trajectory so that learning differently didn’t mean failing school? And most importantly, how could we help set them on a path to a vocation that could become independent and productive citizens?

That first year was also my last year in that type of educational setting because it was too overwhelming for me. As a compassionate and empathetic educator the experience of working with a group of teens who were in the midst of trauma was too much for me. I remember telling my principal how I was feeling at mid-year; he nodded, asked me to finish out the year, and said this field has a high turnover rate because most educators want to fix problems that they can’t.

That first teaching position helped me realize that my strengths were in working with younger children. I wanted to be an early childhood teacher that help start children’s trajectory in a different way. I wanted to learn how to teach ALL children to read and to honor that different ways of learning could be supported in a traditional school.

Luckily near the conclusion of that school year, I was accepted into a program with the Western Virginia Public Education Consortium that was offering a ‘career switcher’ Teacher Preparation Program. The Virginia Department of Education recognized that people like me who already had a Bachelor’s degree and a fiery desire to make a difference in children’s lives needed a pathway to teacher licensure. This was a godsend because going back for an education degree was not financially possible for me at the time, and the career switcher program was fully paid for by the Virginia DOE.

For one month in July 2001, I was able to live on campus at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia and take part in an intensive training to become a provisionally licensed elementary teacher. Later that summer I was hired as a first grade teacher in a public school, was assigned a mentor teacher, and received support throughout my first year from the Consortium to ensure that I was able to effectively teach younger children. My first year in public school I began to take graduate level classes in order to become a reading specialist and was determined to ensure that every child I work with finds reading to be a joyful experience. One of my foundational beliefs is that when a child knows how to read an entire universe opens up in front of them, and that there is freedom and knowledge awaiting us all when we read.

I often think back to Minnick and the lessons I learned from that group of young men. I don’t know where life took them, but I carry with me a piece of their story. Each of those young men’s stories are important, and each of the children and adult students that I work with have important stories to share. When we share our stories, whether written or orally, we create connections and foster an environment built on respect.

I know when I look at my resume that the one year at Minnick had the greatest impact on my career. As educators, we have the power to influence the trajectory of our student’s lives when we don’t let any of them slip through the cracks. As early childhood educators, we truly set the foundation and groundwork for the rest of their academic lives so it is both and honor and responsibility that we advocate for what children need.

Analysis of the Vermont Northern Lights Career Development Center

 

In Vermont, early childhood and after school professionals have a tremendous resource in the Vermont Northern Lights Career Development Center. Northern Lights, as it is commonly referred to, is an organization that continues to evolve and change in order to provide current and relevant information for professional development and career planning. The organization strives to be “consistent, accessible, and comprehensive in meeting the needs of early childhood and afterschool professionals from entry to advanced levels” (VNLCDC p.1). There are a wide variety of tools and resources available through the Northern Lights’ website so at first it may seem confusing and cumbersome to new users. I think the best way to understand the wealth of materials on this site is to spend time searching around and reading the content. Luckily, Northern Lights is also staffed by a great team of individuals, so you can reach out and discuss your questions with a person if you cannot find what you are looking for on the website. As of January 2018, there is a new “Northern Lights at CCV Team” which is comprised of the director, managers, and local resource advisors who are all working towards creating a strong workforce for Vermont’s young children. This team is located around the state, so individuals can also make in person appointments to meet their local resource advisors which is a wonderful tool for individuals who are weary of technology.

The primary purpose of Northern Lights is to serve as a hub to provide resources for the variety of individuals in the field of early childhood and after school within the state of Vermont. As seen on the home page of the website, there are navigation tools for three main areas: career pathways, training and coursework, and roles. By clicking into any of these three broad categories web users will be directed to another page that further explains the topic and provides a wealth of links and printable resources. For individuals exploring their role as a director it would be imperative to read the Vermont Competencies for Program Directors (VNLCDC p.2) and use it as a self-assessment for all five knowledge areas the document outlines.

It is important to understand that Northern Lights works with many different partners and aims to unify and enhance the professional development system, but Northern Lights does NOT provide every resource so professionals will need to know where to go for that information as well. Northern Lights does not list current professional development opportunities, but there is a link on site that will take you to the Bright Futures Information System (BFIS) Course Calendar. Northern Lights also offers links to BFIS so individuals can see their quality credentialing and program accounts, where their professional development is documented and credentials are stored. Northern Lights is not ‘licensing’ so individuals need to go to Vermont Child Development Division to read the child care licensing regulations that pertain to their program. Lastly, for early childhood teachers who are licensed through the Agency of Education, such as myself, there is another set of parameters for maintain a teaching license that is outside of the scope of Northern Lights. Efforts are underway to ensure that less duplication is happening so that licensed teachers are not having to submit course work and their IPDP to both BFIS and the AOE, which saves professionals time.

            Northern Lights is an online tool that serves a critical component in the career success of individuals who work in both early childhood and after school programs. My suggestion is that individuals should begin by looking at the Vermont Career Ladder img_0619(https://northernlightscdc.org/career-pathways/early-childhood-pathways/). Individuals can begin at any level on the career ladder depending on their prior coursework, credentials, degrees, and years of experience. A career pathway provides professionals with defined routes to improve their qualifications, recognize professional possibilities that exist in the workforce, and assist individuals in being compensated appropriately (Sciarra 45). This ladder serves as a tool for an individual to use to navigate how to progress in their career, which I feel can be empowering to someone just beginning in the field. At first glance it seems like a lot of work to climb the levels of the ladders, but the Child Development Division offers bonuses ranging from $100 to $1200 dollars as recognition of the hard work it takes to attain a level within the ladder. Program administrators need to be familiar with this process since they will have many staff members who have questions and concerns. It is important to note that climbing this career ladder increase the salary potential for individuals and therefore is worth investing the time and energy into attaining higher levels. For programs who participate in STARS the career ladder is tied into the arena of Staff Qualifications so the higher level that staff members attain, the higher the score for the program.

Over the course of the last eight years working in the early childhood field in Vermont, I have used the Northern Lights website in a variety of ways. Over this time the content and clarity of the information has changed and evolved. I have occasionally emailed or called to ask clarifying questions for myself, my staff, or my college students and have found the Northern Lights staff to be very responsive and helpful. Most often I go to the website to refer to the career ladders and to access the core competencies. I find that the core competency documents to be well written and great resources to answering questions. Northern Lights has also served me as an Approved Instructor, with password protected portions of the website pages that allow me to access course materials and resources when teaching the Fundamentals course.

In summary, I feel that Northern Lights is a great resource and will continue to refer to it for professional growth and learning. It is worth investing the time and energy to be familiar with the layout and content for both myself as professional and as a resource to share with my staff.

 

Works Cited

Sciarra, D. J., Lynch, E. M., Adams, S. M., & Dorsey, A. G. Developing and Administering a Child Care and Education Program. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2016

Vermont North Lights Career Development Center. Competencies for Program Directors of Early Childhood and AfterSchool Programs. 2009 Retrieved on January 21, 2018 – https://northernlightscdc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/competencies_program_directors.pdf

Teacher Burn Out

For me, one of the hardest parts of being a school teacher was that I gave nearly all of my energy to my job, saved a little bit for my family, and was left with only a few drops for myself. Most evenings after tucking my own children into bed I would sit on the couch, often with an unhealthy snack, and either finished up something for school, answered all the emails that accumulated or continued designing a workshop that I was creating. This pace of work was becoming unsustainable, but I felt like my ‘ticket out of the classroom’ meant creating a new career before I called it quits.

balancing rock formation
Photo by Tina Nord on Pexels.com
It should have been easy for me to see, but I was developing a serious case of ‘teacher burn out’. I was burning the candle at both ends and it was becoming hard to manage. Last spring,  I began feeling swallowed up by my teaching job and felt like I wasn’t able to do enough. In fact, the more that I gave to my job the more I felt was expected of me. The more I questioned things that were happening in my school, the more I felt that my school did not care about it.
As I have shared my personal ‘teacher burn out’ story with close friends nearly all nod in agreement. Regardless of their profession almost all can relate to my struggle and many applaud me for having the courage to leave.
Telling my story though feels vulnerable because I feel like if I had been a stronger person I could have weathered the storm better. Somehow I still feel selfish in deciding to walk away from a profession that I love, but deep inside I know that I could no longer stay. I feel like I gave up on the kids or my colleagues, but I also know that I wasn’t able to continue to give without completely depleting my personal well.
It’s easy to say that we know that we need to prioritize ourselves or take care of our colleagues but in my experience teachers are notorious for being such good care givers that we fail at being care receivers.
I realize that I need to find the courage to pursue a new a career path and to get comfortable even when there isn’t a paycheck being direct deposited into my account. I feel called to help others prevent teacher burn out, to offer wellness and meaningful stress management tools that all of us can use. I hope to create both online-communities for teachers who are reaching out for resources for personal wellness & creativity. I also feel called to going back to my first career, in creating in-person opportunities for  holistic health, such as offering retreats, workshops, and community based wellness services. I feel the need to advocate for balance and wellness in our schools and community. I am also exploring how to offer teaching artist residencies that focus on creativity & wellness for both students and staff. All of these divergent ideas will converge into a rewarding career path…I am sure of it!
One of the books that I am currently reading is Brene Brown’s, “Dare to Lead”. Her approach to full-hearted leadership and being brave is just the message I need right now. Brene’s take on how vulnerability can be used as an asset seems to be the opposite of what we are taught makes a good business person. I am trudging through that vulnerable space and trying to figure out how being a full-hearted person can become one of my super powers instead of a liability.
Though my business plan is not all sorted out, and I don’t quite know where this adventure is leading me, I have a renewed confidence in myself. I know that this is not just a ‘hobby’ and that I will need to figure out how to make an livable income. However, I know I am moving in the right direction, have gratitude for all those who support me, and I am committed to keep showing up to figure it out!

 “Vulnerability is not winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.” ~ Brene Brown 

Willow Tree Wisdom

 

My fondest early childhood memory was time I spent in our willow tree. It was a grand weeping willow with branches that nearly touched the ground and had perfect climbing branches. I remember needing a milk crate to pull myself up onto the first limb, but once I was up there I could escape to my own little world.

The rustle of the leaves, the light greenish yellow leaves, the aromas of nature all around, the texture of the bark…I can vividly remember that tree and often escaped there, even now when I feel worried I bring it back into my memory. Perched atop an old weeping willow is my ‘happy place’.

As a child, I often played school while perched in the tree and my imagination soared. I could hear my older brothers playing in other parts of the yard or across the street with friends. I could hear my mother working in our greenhouse or in the yard, but more than anything I wanted the solitude that my willow tree offered. In my tree I could forget the dilapidated house that we lived in, forget how awkward I felt when I was around other children, and best of all, in my willow tree perch I didn’t need to talk to anyone.

As fate would have it the name of town that we lived in was Willow Grove, and I remember thinking that sitting high up in a willow tree in a town of the same name must have qualified it as some sort of magical place. 

Now as an educator I am often at professional trainings and the speaker asks us to reflect on our fondest memory and to consider why that particular memory sticks. I remember when we first moved to that house that it was in shambles. The basement was filled with trash from the previous owner, there was no running water, the floors were creaky, the walls unfinished, and no heating. I can remember my mom’s optimism and vision of what the house would become but I knew that she hated it as much as I did. Though we made slow improvements to the house it never felt like to me a home, so whenever possible I remember wanting to spend time outdoors. The willow tree was an escape.

The first year living in that house I was in first grade, and I remember riding the school bus and trying not to cry but by the time I got to school I would lock myself in the girls bathroom and sob and rock until someone forced me to come out. School was dreadful and hard. I remember being pulled out of class for intensive speech therapy and was certain that I was the stupidest child in the class. I also remember slowly making progress and slowly feeling a bit better. I remember my mom meeting with my primary grade teachers and talking with them about why I was so fearful.

We lived in that house for four years and though many of my memories of those years are blurry and painful I remember my willow tree as a place of solitude and escape. When it was time to move I remember thinking how glad I was to leave the hell-hole of a house behind, but my heart ached to say good-bye to my willow tree.

As a child I felt that when I was in my “teaching tree” I was wise, powerful, and joyous. I didn’t need words to communicate and I could just be who I was. It was then that I discovered Mother Nature could be my most trusted teacher and I began to listen to the wind to help my world make sense. As we left that house for the last time the willow branches waved goodbye, but I knew that another one of nature’s glorious ‘sit spots’ awaited me. And luckily every new home that I have moved to has had some “glorious-just-perfect-for-me” place to sit and listen.

My home is now well insulated, built with sturdy walls, and most days relatively tidy…but I still continue to prioritize heading outside to a favorite ‘sit spot’ to listen to nature’s guidance.