The Field’s Leadership Potential is Being Ignored

Blog Post
Feb. 5, 2019

To facilitate interaction among ideas presented in Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators, Series Editor Stacie G. Goffin offers opening comments. For readers new to the Series, her introduction explains the series' intent.

Anne Douglass was asked to sift through the series' blogs to date, with a focus on the five most recent ones, and offer her thoughts on how to disentangle ECE’s thorny knot. She hones in on what she considers the underappreciated and underdeveloped leadership potential of ECE's frontline educators, program administrators, and family child care owners. Supporting their leadership development at all career levels, she argues, is essential to advancing ECE as a field of practice and would also bring it in line with other fields by recognizing its practitioners as a primary source for guidance, leadership, and innovation.

Can you imagine trying to improve quality in healthcare settings without the input of doctors and nurses? Or strengthening cybersecurity without the participation of internet technologists? Yet this is what we, as a field, typically do when discussing how to advance early care and education (ECE). We move forward without input or guidance from those most experienced in ECE: educators, center directors, and family child care owners who care for and educate children from birth to age five. What if, instead, we looked to early educators at all career levels for leadership and innovation to advance the field?

It’s no mystery why early educators are overlooked so often. Women comprise 93.4 percent of the ECE workforce, nearly half of whom are women of color. According to a report released last May by the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin, 44 percent earn less than $10.09 per hour. Generally speaking, it does not matter whether women at this end of the socio-economic spectrum lean in, out, or sideways, they too often are not taken seriously.

I direct ECE degree programs at an urban public university. I also run a research institute that trains early educators and ECE business owners in entrepreneurial leadership. This work is exciting and challenging. But it is no less meaningful or engaging than my prior 20-year career caring for and educating very young children as the owner of a home-based child care, an early childhood educator, center director, and quality improvement coach. Nevertheless, my opinions on ECE are sought out much more frequently today than they ever were in my former roles.

I’m not the first author to highlight how early educators’ competence and leadership is being disregarded. Other series authors have described the dynamic by which caregivers of our future—early educators responsible for children from birth to age five—are casually and routinely underestimated. Anna Mercer-McLean, who directs a child care center, writes about hearing a family member describe her work as “babysitting.” Home-based childcare owner Tracy Ehlert, who hung her diploma certifying a Masters of Science in Early Childhood Studies next to her students’ coatrack to ensure parents would see it, writes, “I routinely overhear myself being called ‘the sitter’ or ‘the daycare lady.’” When respect is given, as Stacie Goffin notes in her introduction to this blog series, it is often extended to the profession rather than the practitioner.

Valora Washington convincingly writes that solutions to the challenges now facing our field must be guided by “respect for the workforce and intentional focus on equity issues.” Nilsa Ramirez correctly observes that you can’t have a conversation about ECE reform without “the authentic voices of those who most are impacted—early childhood educators and the families they serve.” And Washington further notes the irony that ECE’s “approach to promoting a strengths-based paradigm about children and families often is not extended to educators.”

In his aptly titled piece, “Let’s Be Honest: It’s About Sexism, Classism, and Racism,” Maurice Sykes laments our near universal failure to see the ECE workforce for what it is: creative, experienced, and resilient. Sykes attributes his success running a program for early educators seeking associate degrees to seeing “enrollees as capable, competent, resourceful learners, some of whom, by dint of the birth lottery, had lived in poor neighborhoods, attended inferior schools and, consequently, needed a good practitioner-based ECE higher education program.”

Like many other series’ authors, I work daily with early educators and child care business owners who reflect the rich diversity of the children and communities they serve and are eager to advance their knowledge, become more effective educators and administrators, and implement new practices to better support children and families. The Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation (Leadership Institute) at UMass Boston, where I do this work, trains frontline workers in entrepreneurial leadership. ECE educators and business owners who are at the beginning, middle, and advanced levels of their career learn the skills to develop solutions to challenges ranging from poverty-level wages to workforce turnover, to the best ways to bring pedagogical research and innovation into the classroom. These are issues about which they have deep insight and are best positioned to offer ideas that should be tested. Importantly, family child care owners and providers, who are among the most marginalized of early educators, are full participants in this work. Indeed, a federally-commissioned research project I conducted with three family child care provider Leadership Institute graduates found that family child care providers want to use their expertise and voices to strengthen the field.

As evidence of my thesis, instead of leaving the field as so many early educators do, our graduates stay and mobilize leadership to drive change in the profession. They’re opening new preschools, influencing education policy, testing innovations to improve children’s classroom learning, and achieving efficiencies in business operations that enable them to invest in quality enhancements. Graduates’ ripple effects have been immense. They have influenced the teaching methods and mindsets of their colleagues and strengthened the care and learning of an estimated 5,000 young children in Massachusetts.

On the road to early education reform, one size does not fit all. But recognizing and cultivating practitioners’ leadership capacity to build programs, design innovations, and advocate for change—and in general advance ECE as a field of practice— is essential to successful reform.