“Ready to Start Your Career in Early Childhood Education?”

 

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“Ready to Start Your Career in Early Childhood Education?”

Led by April Zajko, M.Ed.

Tuesday, June 11th  5:00-6:00 p.m.

Location: Community College of Vermont in Saint Johnsbury – 3rd floor

Description: Are you getting started in the field of child care and want to learn more? Join us for this one hour interactive conversation about the Vermont Early Childhood Career Ladder. This tool can help  you plan and track your professional growth by organizing coursework, credentials, degrees, and licensure. Learn how each level of the Career Ladder combines education and experience, and how you can continue to grow and learn in this exciting field. Bring your questions and we can help you on your path to a rewarding career! This is open to the public and anyone can attend! FREE! No pre-registration required.

Objective: Participants will learn how to navigate the Vermont Early Childhood Career Ladder.

“Spacecraft Design 101″

“Spacecraft Design 101”

at the Davies Memorial Library in Waterford, Vermont 

July 19, 2019 ~ 9:30 -11:30 a.m.

 

Every young astronaut dreams of designing & creating their own cardboard space travel machine. April Zajko will lead this hand-on workshop where every child will be encourage to let their creativity shine. Afterwards participants will be ready to blast off home with their own rocket or spaceship.

Kindly pre-register by calling the library (802- 748-4609) so we will have enough materials on hand!

Though April has not traveled to space herself, she has inspired children for almost two decades to reach for the stars! As a licensed Early Childhood Educator, she believes that children (of all ages) learn through play and that the universe of knowledge and joy awaits children in the books they read!

 

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.

P.O.W.E.R. ~ Path of Wellness, Empowerment & Relationships

One of the best parts of leading professional development training is the deep conversation and connections that I get to make with other early care providers and educators.

On Monday of this week I led a training called “Leading with Empathy” and we dove deep into topics of emotional vocabulary, fostering inclusion and belonging in our programs, building strong relationships with the families in our programs, defining empathy & considering how to build those skills with children, and developing self care action plans.

This was the first time leading this training, but I knew that this was helping me to synthesize and apply much of the research and work that I have been exploring this year. Helping others to make deeper connections, act with compassion, gain more confidence in their work, and build up our reserves so we can be care givers without depleting ourselves, and to turn our vulnerabilities into strengths.

Whoa…this is important work for all of us no matter our field!

Driving home I was reflecting on the presentation and the conversations. The word “POWER” kept coming to mind, and my wish to be able to pass on confidence and power to all the women that I work with. Many child care providers and moms that I know need a POWER boost, and often I find myself giving PEP talks to other women who feel stripped of their power.

Community of Practice model ~ working together with others in order to improve ourselves and to foster growth within our team or community is the way to change our views. When we connect with a small group of others in this way, all working toward the same goal, we create a synergy! Being part of a community who are all committed to the same goal makes us feel like we belong, and we feel supported to grow and change.

Women’s Gatherings ~ for most of my life I have been part of a small tribe of other women who are working on the same life goals. As a teen being invited into drumming circles, as a young adult leading Wise Women’s retreats, leading yoga classes and adult wellness programs when I ran a Holistic Health Center. Later once I began working in early childhood education, leading parenting groups, play groups, Mommy Coffee Hour, and professional development. All of these tribes and circles have supported me and helped me become who I am.

So developing my own framework for growing into our P.O.W.E.R. is one of the big projects in store for June 2019!

P.O.W.E.R. = Path of Wellness, Environment, & Relationships ~ weaving together much of the research, reading, and inner work that I have been doing in order to offer an in-person women’s coaching group. I am also going to offer it as an online e-course as well so I can send my positive message to a wider audience. Eventually, I will have a framework or blueprint ready to share with other women who want to lead their own groups!

If you would like to be part of my FREE online BETA-test group or live local and want to be part of my summer group, email me at aprilzajko@gmail.com 

 

 

Thank you to the “Starting Points Child Care Network” in Randolph, Vermont for inspiring me this week! I hope you each took away some tools that you will use in your work! Our training this week really me inspired me! I am so eager to dive into developing this larger training program!

With gratitude,

April

Know Thyself~ Take a Seat at the Table

“Know Thyself” was the theme of a two day training that I attended last week as part of a larger six month “Early Childhood Leadership Institute” with the Snelling Center for Government. I arrived already knowing quite a bit about myself and completely open to learning more. Though I have been working in the field of education for almost two decades, I know that being a lifelong learner is how I will continue to grow and develop into a confident leader in my field.

On a personal level, I know that much of who I am today is from difficult lessons learned in my childhood, and wanting to protect children from adverse childhood experiences is why I entered the field of education.

An important part of knowing myself is owning that I often feel like I don’t belong. I often feel like I can easily fit in, am often asked to participate, but still lack that deeper sense of belonging. It’s a feeling that I have had for as long as I can remember, and is one of the reasons that I really value community building and friendship skills in my own classrooms.

During one of the break-out sessions at the training last week I shared this confession:

“I look like all the other white women and even live in a quiet little New England neighborhood. I mostly dress in cardigans and love ‘old lady’ floral dresses. For the most part, I can easily blend in and be a chameleon in most social situations, but often I feel like this ‘seat at the table’ should be given to someone else. The opportunity to stay in quaint inns and resorts has only been available to me because I sign up to be part of statewide child care trainings. I feel twinges of guilt when servers bring the crystal pitcher to fill my glass, because I feel trained to be the server and not guest at the table.”

Post confession, the two women I was talking to both nodded their head in agreement. I felt some relief knowing that I was not alone in my feeling like someone else should be sitting at the table.

I am more comfortable being outdoors or at a campfire. Drinking out of a metal cup suits me more than a crystal goblet…but there is where the professional ‘stretch’ lies. Getting outside of the comfort zone and into the stretch zone.

Quite honestly, it feels foreign to be the care receiver instead of the care giver. As early childhood educators, we serve others and anticipate their needs. We are delighted at others growth and we happily eat the bread crumbs left after cutting our kids sandwiches into cute shapes. It’s not that we are servants or serfs because we knowingly went to college to do this work. Despite the lower pay and the longer hours, we felt called to be in this field of working with the youngest children. We understand child development and know that toilet training is as important as any other skill or ability that children will acquire. We show up and do the important work because we know that we are building the foundation….but when co-workers or administrators treat us as servants or serfs then bristly conversations occur.

As early childhood educators we have taken on some difficult roles and some that we weren’t quite prepared for:

Difficult phone calls to report concerns to the Child Development Division leave me breathless and shaken. When I began teaching we didn’t have the role of mandated reporter, yet that is part of the job now. Of course we want to ensure the safety of the children, but it’s overwhelming when we see the affects on children from families that are living with adversity.

When I reflect on the honor of holding a mother’s hand as she navigates the system to get her children’s needs met, it is with a responsibility to use my voice to show how the silos are broken to those in charge.

Weathering the storms at school with children with explosive behaviors helped me to realize the deep impact to children when their families are battling addiction or other adversities. Behavior is communication and that we need to help understand what the child is telling us, which is hard to do when we don’t feel like there is a system of support for either the child or staff member.

Though I have read hundreds of books and have tried to synthesize theory to practice, it was not until I was in the classroom and in the thick of it that I realized the enormity of the role that we have assigned to early childhood educators.

At this point in my career, I realize that it takes courage for me to step outside of my comfort zone and push for the changes that I see need to be made in order for children in our community to flourish. I realize that I do have a strong voice for children with years of experience in both public and private programs. Despite my hesitancy and reluctance to become an advocate for children, I can no longer to turn a blind eye to systems, policies, or people that are failing our children.

So I will continue on working to know myself, and more importantly, I will keep showing up and keep having heartfelt conversations. I know the strength of celebrating our differences, being respectful, and kind is the way that we create the classrooms and neighborhoods that we want to live in. Yet, there is an urgency in our work to advocate for what we know our children need.

I acknowledge that this seat at the table is meant for me. And good news, there is space for you too! Pass the chocolate…we’ve got some hard work to do!

Unplugged Play

You might ask if we REALLY need a book to remind us how to play?

Sadly, I think that the answer is YES! We need print resources to remind parents, grandparents, and community members the importance of unplugged play.

My top pick is this encyclopedia of a book…”Unplugged Play” by Bobbi Conner

“Unplugged Play: No Batteries. No Plugs. Pure fun.” is a book that every home, child care center, or after school program should own. This book spans the ages of 12 months to 10 years, and the sections are broken up into toddler, preschool, and grade school which helps both new parents and providers in figuring out age appropriate games and activities.This easy to read book lays out hundreds and hundreds of ideas to help inspire PLAY with imagination, creativity, movement, and the best medicine of all, belly laughs.

“Unplugged Play” is essentially like an encyclopedia of information for families and care providers that will last for years! The books suggestions on how to stock the toy cupboard can help at families decided on what types of toys and materials to invest in for their child! 

Let’s put PLAY back into the driver’s seat of our children’s lives. Instead of buying them a new digital device, educational app, or some other toy with bells and whistles….consider giving children the best gift…unplugged PLAY!

 

Additional books for inspiring traditional play:

99 1/2 Creepy Crawly Jokes, Riddles, and Nonsense by Holly Kowitt

Anna Banana 101 Jump Rope Rhymes – Joanna Cole

Book of Cards for Kids by Gail MacColl

Crazy Eights and Other Card Games – Joanna Cole & Stephanie Calmenson

Eentsy, Weentsy Spider: Fingerplays and Action Rhymes – Joanna Cole & Stephanie Calmenson

Fun on the Run: Travel Games and Songs – Joanna Cole & Stephanie Calmenson

Hand Clap! “Miss Mary Mack” and 42 Other Hand-Clapping Games for Kids by Sara Bernstein

Let’s Play: Traditional Games of Childhood by Dusan Petricic & Camilla Gryski

Marc Brown’s Favorite Hand Rhymes

Pat-A-Cake and Other Play Rhymes – Joanna Cole & Stephanie Calmenson

Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Other Party Games – Joanna Cole & Stephanie Calmenson

String Games by Richard Darsie

Unplugged Play: No Batteries. No Plugs. Pure Fun. by Bobbi Conner

 

Standardized Testing – Opt Out or Show Up?

Standardized Testing – Opt Out or Show Up?  April Zajko, M.Ed.

www.aprilsteachingtree.com

One of my favorite education bloggers is Teacher Tom. I have been quietly reading his blog for years and most days I agree so wholeheartedly with his writing that I talk out loud while I read. If you were in the room you would hear, “Seriously! Yes! For real….finally someone has the guts to name it for what it is.”

Today’s post on Teacher Tom’s blog about standardized testing though doesn’t ring true for me. Tom’s stance is that opting out of standardized testing as “the patriotic thing to do”, and that by not allowing your child to take the state test you are “wrestling control of public education from the hands of billionaire who will standardize our children in the quest of profit and efficiency.”

What?

Seriously?

As a public school teacher who is willing to do most anything to see our students succeed, I feel like his rhetoric is a slap in the face. I have great pride in the years that I worked in various public schools and know that my fellow teachers would do anything to help a child to succeed.

Wait a minute…by contrast then:

Is Teacher Tom saying that by allowing my children to take their standardized tests means that I am an unpatriotic American?

Is sending my kid to school on a testing day like throwing my offspring into the hands of evil billionaires who will “standardized” them during their testing sessions?

Is it up to me to opt out of testing to make a stand for democracy and prove my love of John Dewey?

Is Tom telling me that I should make OPT-OUT signs, carry a pitch fork, and demand the billionaires get out of my kids school?

Is Tom spreading fear to parents who are on the fence about whether or not to participate in state testing, and is he instituting some rhetoric that only the far, far left would find logical? In a polarized time I am feeling the need to push back and show the world how wonderful it can be to be a moderate, who questions educational practices, and supports the teachers of their local school.

Background info on me:

I have a very different point of view on this topic, so I thought I would respond by creating my own blog post and offer a counterbalance to parents who are on the fence about testing.

As a former public school teacher and product of public school up-bringing I feel like I have a different perspective. I began teaching in the era of No Child Left Behind, but had a mentor who offered a voice of reason understanding that all children will reach 100% proficiency because we write it as a goal. Instead, we meet children where they are and differentiate their instruction so everyone gets what they need.

Policy makers, as well as ‘progressive educators’, live in their own world, and may not be in touch with the same reality I have experienced. I am respectful enough to read and listen to differing views, but as some point, we need to remember that all voices have value. While Teacher Tom might think that his words are inspiring parents to take action to opt out, he might be completely blind to how hurtful his words are to public school educators around the United States.

In my view of the world, I have been given tests throughout my life and being able to pass the tests meant that I was continuing on my educational journey. When I think back to my childhood, the first test I can remember being given was in first grade and I knew I flunked…miserably. As a result, I ended up in daily speech therapy and I felt weird that I had to leave right in the middle of everything to go work on saying ‘spaghetti’ and a whole string of really hard /s/ words.

I can also remember being ability grouped for small group reading and wondering if I would ever be in a group other than the bottom one. I can remember my spelling list being shorter than most of the other kids, and that for most tests I was pulled to the side of the room for extra help. Honestly, it felt crappy, I would tell my mom all about it, and she pushed me to try harder the next day. I also remember other kids earning stickers and praise for talking in class, but those words did not come easy for me so I would sit quietly or stare out the window.

Language and literacy did not come easily for me for many, many years. My mom recounts how I didn’t speak until I was almost four, and how the pediatrician called it ‘stubborn, hard-headed selective mutism’.

Once I entered school I had to work hard in order to be able to speak, and I had to participate in extra testing so my teachers knew how to help. My mom was an incredible advocate for me, knowing that the squeaky wheel got the grease. Still to this day there are times when I want to retreat and not speak…so I write it down.

Testing (both in elementary school and getting into graduate school) showed that my written communication skills are a strength and verbal skills still need to be developed. The purpose of testing is not to prove you are a smarty-pants, not to rank students, and not to be used in a punitive way.

I know that state testing in 2019 and the testing that I had as a kid in the 1980’s are dramatically different. However, as a Reading Specialist and Licensed Early Childhood Educator I have had the opportunity to see the assessments that are given and how they have evolved. Teachers work diligently to support ALL learners in administering any assessment, and most would like to see a decrease in the number or length of state assessments. Instead of ‘opting out’ parents can be advocates by talking with their child’s teachers about the test, asking for ways they can support their child at home, and talking with the school administrators about the issues they have with the testing culture of the school. Just ‘opting out’ without this dialogue is not advocacy!

If I tried to talk in person to Teacher Tom about this I would be tongue tied or fumbling my words or more likely, hanging out in the bathroom avoiding him. Through testing, showing up and failing forward, I have learned so much about myself as a learner…which has also made me a better teacher.

In my elementary days, our annual tests were used as screening tools and were used in moderation. Today many educators and parents alike both believe there is too much time and emphasis put onto state testing, and I agree. The quantity of testing and the number of days spent on testing should be an ongoing conversation. How we differentiate our instruction and meet the needs of ALL learners should be the dialogue in every school. Pushing back so that our preschoolers and primary grade children are learning through play, and clarifying the curriculum that our children receive should NOT be reduced down to just math and literacy. Advocating that our children need time to have physical movement throughout the day, unstructured recess time, time outside in nature, and hands-on learning are powerful conversations that we should all be engaged in. Educators, administrators, community members, parents, and most importantly students who feel there should be a shift away from a test driven focus of school should feel empowered to speak up!  Connecting with others and expressing our concerns and pushing for a more balanced approach to the education in their schools is powerful….and long overdue.

Not showing up for a test and thinking you are saving the democracy is foolish at best. ~ April Zajko, M.Ed.

Sending the flag up and saying ‘abandon ship and opt out’ doesn’t fix what’s broken in our nation’s public education system. Teacher Tom openly admits to living inside his own bubble, which is an amazing parent cooperative model of child care in Seattle that honors children as individuals and using PLAY as the way to teach all the young children who are enrolled. Many early childhood educators, myself included, would be delighted to work in such a supportive environment. But reality check…..the majority of us do not teach in such a setting, nor can we afford to send our children to a program like it.

So here we are in the boat, keeping it afloat, and trying to steer our educational practices back to solid land. Reading the research, working diligently to offer play based learning in our early education environments, teaching a diverse classroom of learners and meeting their needs every day,  and feeling berated and defeated when ‘progressive’ educators cast stones making public school teachers feel like bedfellows of evil billionaires.

Teacher Tom’s post today is ludicrous and insulting. It’s exhausting, and one of the reasons many public school teachers like myself can no longer ‘be in the arena’. Stones are cast from the cheap seats, but few of those hurling insults at us will show up to advocate for real change.

The talking points I have with my own kids about state testing:

  • Throughout life you will have tests. Some tests are done on a computer. Some are done with pen and paper. And some require to you to speak when you would rather remain silent.
  • I want you to show up. Try your best and give it all you’ve got.
  • There might be times when you doubt what you know. Don’t worry I doubt stuff all the time and I have a couple of degrees.
  • Stretch. Relax your shoulders.
  • Cheer on your friends ~ remind them how smart they are because maybe no one gave them the pep talk I am giving you.
  • Take your time. Finishing first only shows that you went too fast, so go back and check your answers. If you are the last to finish and have to move to another room, so be it.
  • Name an activity you want to do when you get home today.
  • Yes, we will buy gum and let you share it with your friends on testing day.

 

Closing Thoughts:

Now that you are a parent YOU get to decide what is best for your family. There is no one right answer for all children. As for standardized testing, you get to choose to Opt Out or Show Up.

Parents do have that option to OPT OUT, and in some instances this might be the right choice. Such as testing causes too much anxiety, your child has a concussion, or there are difficult things happening in their child’s life that makes testing too much of burden. Parents and children have the right to refuse testing, and in most states the parent needs to write that request down each year and discuss it with their school. If you are Opting Out, think about your reasons and talk with the administrator at your child’s school about your concerns. When administrators understand parents concerns they reflect on practices and consider other view points.

Within my educational journey, as I was sitting on lawn waiting to graduate from the University of Virginia with my Masters in Education, I thought about how many steps it took to get to that seat on the lawn. I thought about the many teachers who pushed and encouraged me to try just a little bit harder. I am so glad that my public school recognized that I needed to be tested, and that my mom agreed to allow me to receive special education services. It’s because of testing that I didn’t fall through the cracks, and through my mother’s fiery determination that there was no stigma whether I fell in bottom quartile, right in the middle of the pack, or tested into a gifted program. In fact, in my education journey I have experienced what it feels like to be in all those phases. Through my educational journey testing was a reality, and because I kept showing up I gained confidence and developed my own unique voice and view on education.

May we move towards a constructive, respectful dialogue that looks our national public education system in terms of the needs, problems, and possibilities….and stop casting stones at the very people how show up in the arena, day after day, year after year.

“For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its’ principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.”
― John Dewey