Transcript of the episode “Early childhood education: It is play, but it is not ‘babysitting'”

Jon M: [00:00:15] Hi. I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: [00:00:16] And  I ‘m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Michele Washington, a lecturer in the department of early childhood childhood education at Lehman College, City  University of New York. Ms. Washington has deep experience in the field of early childhood, including Head Start training programs. She’s taught at Lehman for more than 30 years. Welcome Michele. 

Michele W: [00:00:41] Thank you. Exactly 30 years.

Jon M: [00:00:46] Congratulations. 

Michele W: [00:00:47] Thank you very much. This will be the 31st year, actually.

Jon M: [00:00:51] And congratulations to Lehman.

Michele W: [00:00:52] Yes. Well, I don’t know about that. I’ll see what they say.

Amy H-L: [00:00:57] You’ve said that early childhood teachers are the most undervalued educators. Why do you say that?

Michele W: [00:01:04] Well one, I mean, if we want to look into the financial aspect of it, they’re the lowest paid. That’s the first thing. And it’s the attitude people often have about little children and the idea that little children don’t require any planning and the impression that you’re a glorified babysitter when you work in early childhood. Many teachers have expressed that to me and I’ve lived it. So. 

Amy H-L: [00:01:34] Why do you think that people think of early childhood educators as being sort of the least skilled?

Michele W: [00:01:42] Well, I think it’s the requirements that people don’t know about and are not often shared, so the concept of planning for an early childhood classroom. When I express that to people who are outside the field, they go, “Well, what is there a plan for?  You  just sit around and play all day.” And it’s true. You do, but there’s planning that’s required. Once you do an assessment of what it is that children are interested in and what they like and responding to children’s needs, and knowing that certain children are at different levels and making sure those things are developmentally appropriate. It’s not as easy as it appears, but that’s the impression that many people have.

Jon M: [00:02:26] What is the major crisis right now in the field of early childhood? 

Michele W: [00:02:32] I think the major crisis is what many people are dealing with.  There’s one, it’s remote learning. And the other part of it, in New York City, is the UPK and then the 3K for all, which causes a decrease in enrollment for our community-based organizations and some of our Head Start programs.

And so people who own centers, people who run centers, are looking to maybe lower the age range just because that’s the only way they can stay open because they have such low enrollment . 

Jon M: [00:03:10] For people outside of New York, 

could you elaborate on what UPK and 3K are?

Michele W: [00:03:14] Okay. New York City’s idea is to provide preK for all families. And so it’s under the public education domain, which is the Department of Education. And with that, private centers, CBOs — community-based organizations, and Head Starts lose children because first of all, it’s free. UPK — universal pre-K and 3K for All is free. And parents, of course, respond to that, especially parents with low income. And again, it decreases the number of children in those community-based programs.

Jon M: [00:03:57] You mentioned before about low salaries being an issue. And in places like New York, where you are having the traditional public schools going down lower in age, is there also an issue with skilled teachers in early childhood choosing to move to the Department of Ed because of easier schedules and better pay?

Michele W: [00:04:16] That’s definitely a big issue. We lose many teachers to the Department of Education, better known in New York City as DOE, just because of that, because of the low salaries in CBOs, the low  salaries in Head Start. And although they’re looking to create some type of equity in pay, we still haven’t reached that mark. So since both sites are requiring master’s degrees, it is not likely that someone who has a master’s is going to stay and work in a center where they have to put in eight hours and work throughout the summer and only have maybe four weeks of vacation.

Amy H-L: [00:05:01] You talk about relationships as being key to early childhood education. What do you mean by that, relationships among whom?

Michele W: [00:05:10] Relationships, first of all, among families. You really have to respect who your families are in early childhood and develop those relationships. And engagement is key, allowing or providing a space where families feel like they have a sense of ownership. Because in fact, one of the things we say in early childhood is that families or parents are the child’s first teachers and that has to be respected. So when you’re talking to families, you’re not talking about what you want to do as an educator, but looking at the whole circle of the village, so to speak, and what we want to do and using that kind of language that includes families in the process.

Jon M: [00:05:59] In addition to families, you’ve said that it’s essential for teachers to know their students’ communities, whether you’re talking about young children or for that matter graduate students. Why is knowing the community so important?

Michele W: [00:06:14] Well, when you’re working with children, you need to understand where they’re coming from. And I think when you look at the population of teachers we sometimes get in New York City and in certain programs, teachers are forced to work in lower income, underserved neighborhoods, but don’t come from those neighborhoods and don’t often understand the challenges that come in those communities. And so when we go back to relationship-building, it’s definitely a big part of how you build relationships and understand children is building relationships with the community and who’s in the community, the families.

Jon M: [00:06:59] And what are some of the ways that the teachers can do this?

Michele W: [00:07:02] Well, one is to just open your doors. I think one of the things we have in New York City, especially, and I can only speak for New York City, although I am a Westchester, New York resident. I grew up in the City. I worked in the City more often, and the schools aren’t always open to families unless they’re having a meeting. So that sense of ownership kind of goes out the window because you often can’t even get into the school. So one of the things you have to think about is how do I feel welcome as a family, as the parent? What is it that you can do? Schedule meetings when you know that the larger majority of your population is not working if you have a working community. If you don’t have a working community, look at when people are available, making sure that you’re opening the doors and giving families what they need, not what you think they need.

Amy H-L: [00:08:08] You’ve said that many teachers in early childhood, including schools of education, view their students through a deficit lens. First, could you define that term for our listeners?

Michele W: [00:08:20] Well, it’s just looking at them as less than, and coming from a space of less than, and so it’s thinking that because you’re in an underserved community that you might not know as much as a child in a different community. And granted that may be true, but if you’re not stimulated to learn, if you’re not stimulated to be open to learning, or if you’re given the sense that the belief is there that you can’t do the work, then. It’s almost as though it’s the self fulfilling prophecy. You start to believe that you can’t.

Amy H-L: [00:09:02] How can we institutionalize efforts to overcome this deficit lens?

Michele W: [00:09:10] I think we need to provide knowledge for all who are going into the field of education. It is essential that we start to look at who we’re bringing into the space and where they’re coming from. And sharing knowledge and sharing what it looks like in all communities. I’m not going to sit here and say that that’s only the underserved communities that need to be recognized. Yes, in fact, they’re the ones who are most ignored and underserved, but I think you need to learn how to work in a certain population. For example, if I’m going into a rural community coming from an urban setting, then I need to learn what the community is like and what the children learn early in their lives and how their lives look.

Amy H-L: [00:10:02] Isn’t that what we mean by cultural humility?

Michele W: [00:10:06] Absolutely. But it requires open conversation and open dialogue and knowing that we don’t know and not making assumptions that we do.

Jon M: [00:10:20] Speaking of teachers learning new things, such as if you were to move to a farm community, you know, you were talking about the public school programs in places like New York, going down in age two to three years old even. And that, that means that Head Start programs and other early childhood programs are increasingly focusing on infants and toddlers because that’s where the need still is and where they can get funding for. What changes does this require for programs and for teachers? What’s involved in shifting from say a Head Start program that’s aimed at three and four year olds to one that’s aimed at infants and toddlers?

Michele W: [00:11:05] The biggest issue is training. It is very difficult, I won’t say it’s impossible, but it’s very difficult for someone who’s been trained from K through five, kindergarten through fifth grade, to know what it requires to teach and I say teach, infants and toddlers. There’s a different kind of plan involved. There’s a different kind of curriculum that is required, where you’re looking at brain development and looking at what their abilities are and the planning. It’s rigorous, contrary to what people might believe. Because again, we go back to that glorified babysitter notion, that all you need to do is play with them, but you need to stimulate their little brains. And some people don’t know that they cannot expect a toddler to do what a four-year-old does. And the training will inform the planning for such a teaching. 

Jon M: [00:12:04] You know, it’s, I’m just thinking the more you’re talking about this whole idea of people devaluing early childhood education, and I mean, when you’re talking about the fact that this is where so much brain development is taking place, that it would seem self-evident how important it is. And yet it’s not only in centers that people devalue it, it seems to be throughout the culture. And I mean, I go back to the fact that, way back, that Jesuits, for example, used to say, I think, give me a child until they’re seven and I’ve been able to teach them. And that, on the other hand, that age of seven was often thought of as kind of the age that you start to take children seriously, and that this was also kind of a transition from it being predominantly a woman’s role to more of a man’s role, in the case of boys at any rate. It just seems, I mean, this isn’t even really just a question, but it just seems that it is so deeply embedded in the sexism in the society and in the devaluing of women’s work, that if care of children in early childhood is done by women, then it’s sort of automatically assumed either that it can’t be very complicated or difficult or that even if it is, that you don’t have to pay very much for it. How much does this, you know, on a daily basis, how much does this infuse what you sort of are thinking about and having to work in the context of in early childhood?

Michele W: [00:13:50] I think the one thing that I’m so thankful for in terms of having a platform in front of all these women that, as you speak about, is helping them to understand their worth and their purpose and understanding that they should be politically advocating for themselves. Which in fact, again, when we go back and start talking about gender, It’s not something that’s happening, as much as I would like to see it happen. And because I teach a course, Family School and Community, one of the things that often requires that teachers or future teachers write letters to their local Council people, to their local Congress people, about just that. Increasing salaries, valuing their work, helping those people who step into political arenas to understand what is required for them to do the work and how much it actually costs for them to continue to get degrees and taking exams for certification. And when you look at again, as you were saying, the population of early childhood educators, I get perhaps a male once a semester, maybe one a semester. It’s very rare that there’s a male sitting in our class. So that population remains female, mostly female. And interestingly enough, I don’t know this is such an aside, but I just had this thought when teaching at one time, I briefly taught this course, History of Education, and I was really not very good at it. But I remember reading about how teachers were required to stay single. And at one point in time, they were in fact treated like nuns in the Catholic Church, and you weren’t allowed to marry. All you did was teach. But again, going back to what you said,  Jon, they were all female. So that just came to me. That was just an aside, but I was quite amazed and I love to share that with students all the time. And they just look at me like I’m insane. What? You couldn’t marry somebody? No, you couldn’t be married. And teaching was your focus.

Amy H-L: [00:16:16] What does culturally responsive education look like in an early childhood classroom?

Michele W: [00:16:23] Wow. One is, first, you have to self-reflect. I think it’s so important to know that what you don’t know, that’s the first part, but the other part is identifying who’s in your classroom and making sure children are aware of the world around them and that there are other people in the world. There’s a wonderful video. Yeah, I think it’s on a DVD now, and it’s “The World in Claire’s Classroom.” And Claire was a white woman who taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Vermont. And as she says in the film, it’s the whitest state in the nation. That’s what she says. And she felt obligated, may she rest in peace, but she was an amazing educator. She felt obligated to make sure that children understood that their world, as homogeneous as it was, was not the way the real world looked. And she managed to bring other cultures in. And would research where to find people and built her whole curriculum around different countries at different times. Being culturally responsive means that you understand that you’re not it, your children are not it, and there’s a bigger world out there.

And making sure that children are aware and bringing that awareness and bringing different people, different cultures, into the classroom and with the World Wide Web, that’s not very hard to do anymore. Children need to see themselves around the classroom. You need to learn the language or at least learn to say “hello” and “goodbye” in the language that the children speak, teach the children, other languages, teach them songs in other languages, find the music, and God knows we can Google just about anything right about now to make ourselves more aware as educators. It’s a wonderful time in education. I feel very hopeful about that whole culturally responsive piece, because I think there were so many times where we just accepted what we had before us and eliminated…

Jon M: [00:18:30] Are graduate schools sufficiently supporting culturally responsive education, or is there more that you can be doing?

Michele W: [00:18:37] I think we’re getting there. I would like to see more integration of cultural responsiveness throughout our curriculum in early ed. I can’t speak for any other college than the one I work in, but I would just like to see us go a step further and perhaps infuse cultural awareness and cultural responsivity in all of our classes and all of our curriculum and all of our syllabus. I would like to see that.

Jon M: [00:19:09] What would that look like, cause you’ve talked about in terms of some of the things in the classroom, but in terms of curriculum or syllabus, syllabi, what would that look like?

Michele W: [00:19:18] I think it would be included. It’s all about including, again, other cultures, other people. So you’re teaching a course, let’s say in language and literacy, then include something other than English, include what other people are doing, what other people have said, especially in our school where we are, I won’t quote the percentage, but we are definitely serving an Hispanic population, Latinx  population. And if we’re going to do that, and we have people who come in, who are where English is their second language, or should I say, English is their other language, then we need to include literature from that other language. But that requires that you do some research. It requires that you go outside the box.

Amy H-L: [00:20:13] While we’re on language, is the language of ethics, specifically ethical decision-making, useful in teaching early childhood educators?

Michele W: [00:20:26] Absolutely. We have to be aware that what we say, what we do, becomes who we are. And so when I’m teaching teachers, one of the things I like to talk about is, and I hate to say this, but very often in early childhood settings, there’s this spirit of gossip and backbiting. And it’s unfortunate because it’s mostly female. I don’t even know if I should even say this out loud, but I’ve seen it for myself. And when you start talking about a code, having a code of ethics, what are you saying? What are you doing? How do you feel about what it is? You open your mouth to say, I’m thinking about just making sure that we are clear in what we say and do to parents, what we say and do to children, what we say about our work and maintaining that and sustaining that. 

Jon M: [00:21:33] What are some examples of ethical issues that early childhood teachers or center directors have to deal with, following up on what you were just talking about?

Teachers talking about each other and teachers talking about the children and families among other children and families, teachers not responding to supervision and creating hostile environments because they’re angry about something or don’t want to do something. And it just creates a climate of dissension very often. And I won’t say that’s all early childhood centers, but  I’ve worked in centers. I supervise student teachers. I’ve been a director and that’s often the problem is that not knowing what you should say or should not say or simple things. And I won’t say it’s simple, but exposing somebody’s child on social media and saying something about a child on social media. Don’t you understand that this is so out of what is ethical for our field?

Amy H-L: [00:22:47] As a humanist, what are ways in which early childhood educators can bring out the best in the children they’re caring for and their families as well?

Michele W: [00:23:02] Many people who work in this field know that their job is to be, we become the second home for children, and it is so essential that we provide that hug, that love that some of our children are sometimes not given, or just being available, being available for a conversation with a parent, making sure that no one feels uncomfortable about coming to you about an issue. Going back to that whole code of ethics, that they know that this is going to be the safe place. And having that safe space to talk about the issues that are before them as parents of a child who comes in and just says, I don’t want to talk today. And knowing that it’s okay, that they don’t talk and having a place to go to be okay. And having a soft pillow to hold on to, having that book to go read when you just don’t feel like the world is right. I think that’s the beauty of early childhood that we don’t get an upper grades. It’s a comfort zone. That sounds so hokey, but it’s the best. It actually sounds wonderful, but that’s why I think I’m so passionate about it because I know in this life that I have provided comfort for people. And they knew that if confidentiality was clear, it wasn’t going anywhere else. It was going to stop at the door of my three-year-old, four-year-old classroom and they were able to just be themselves. And as a result, I have former parents who went back to school or former parents who figured out that they didn’t have to yell at their child because Michele said, “You should try this,” and they’ll come in and they’ll say, “You know what, Ms. Washington, I tried that and it worked.” And again, it seems so simple to me, but it’s not as simple to everybody else. So it’s that feeling that I’m in my safe space when I’m in an early childhood program. I think it’s so important. So taking that example of somebody who comes back and says, “You know, I don’t need to yell at my child,” and the idea of the school or the center as a safe place and wanting to expand safe places.

Jon M: [00:25:25] How should early childhood teachers respond if the teacher and a parent or guardian have strong disagreements about what’s the appropriate way of treating a child and how do you navigate that so that it has a positive impact? 

Michele W: [00:25:40] And that goes back to first of all, being culturally aware and understanding that everything that we do isn’t the right way for everybody. So first you find your line and make sure that you stay in your line, so to speak, stay in your space, but giving people information is sometimes the best you can do. You don’t want to admonish them for their behavior unless, of course, it’s something that’s really detrimental to the child, but you know, a parent yelling sometimes is what they know.

We know as educators, we do what we’ve learned over the years. Those of us who study it know to do something different and do it differently. But when we’re talking about the differences between what we know as educators and what parents sometimes think is best for their child, you have to find the words. You have to find a way to give them the information, but not have them feel as though they’re less than because of what they do or how they do what they do. It’s a fine line. It really is. But that’s also going back to relationships and trust. So once you’ve established those relationships, and it takes, I think for most early childhood teachers and a new child coming in, it takes about a month before parents grow, I won’t say for all parents, but of course it might take longer. So once that parent believes that you’re okay with them and they believe that you know something that perhaps they don’t know, it’s much easier to provide information for those parents when they believe that you’re okay with them and that you have their best interests in mind.

Amy H-L: [00:27:43] Thank you so much, Michele Washington.

Michele W: [00:27:46] Thank you.

Jon M: [00:27:48] Thank you, listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. It helps other people to find the show. Check out our website, ethicalschools.Org for more episodes and articles, and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. And we work with consultants to offer customized social, emotional learning program with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City area. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week. 

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