What is your vision for the Council for Professional Recognition? And what are the ways you think it can continue to affect the early childhood care and education field?
I draw strength from my own background since I am an early educator by training and choice. I really believe a teacher should be prepared to work with small children, and I think the Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential is well positioned to do that. I see the Council’s vision as spreading the word that the CDA is the best first step for anyone wanting to enter our field because it builds baseline competence and supports a teacher’s professional growth.
That’s what it did for me, and what I will shepherd as CEO. I’m a CDA holder myself and it connects me to the early childhood workforce in a special way. I’ve gone through the credentialing process and it catapulted me into the early childhood profession in a way I don’t think a bachelor’s degree alone would have done. It captured my interest and sparked my curiosity after I’d spent four years in the armed services and was looking for an entry into the field.
At first, I thought I’d go right into school to get my bachelor’s degree, but my aunt said, ‘Why don’t you work at Head Start? It will give you the experience to make sure teaching young children is something you really want to do.’ I took her advice, and right away Head Start put me into a CDA program at the local community college. That’s how I got into the field. And my goal is for the Council to keep promoting the CDA and to keep connecting with teachers throughout the credentialing process and their careers.
What is your key message to the CDA community and the broader early childhood education field?
I think I am a poster child for the CDA and show what is possible for those who earn the credential. It launches you into the field in a way that lets you climb the career ladder and make the world your oyster. For me, it was a step-by-step process that started after I was awarded my credential. I went on to earn my bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, went directly into a master’s degree program and eventually earned my Ph.D.
I continued to grow as a professional as well. After teaching for five years, I became a Head Start director and eventually a Head Start executive director. Then I became the child care administrator for Alabama and subsequently deputy director for the Office of Child Care in the federal Administration for Children and Families. Who would have imagined that back in 1992 when I got my CDA? No one. But the CDA propelled me to contribute in a significant way. So, my message to policymakers and folks who make decisions about career ladders is that the CDA gives educators the competence and support they need to achieve success.
I see you have an extensive educational background, including getting a Ph.D. How does having a CDA fit in with what you learned in your other educational endeavors?
I’m thankful that I have a BA. I’m also glad that I got the CDA first because it made me competent as a caregiver and I was able to prove to an outside observer that I knew what I was doing in a classroom. If I had finished my bachelor’s degree first and then gone to work with a group of 4-year-olds, I would have been like a fish out of water. There was nothing I learned at the University of Alabama that prepared me to help children develop as they go about their activities each day.
Nothing in my college program drilled down far enough into the practical applications of early childhood theory. So, getting my bachelor’s degree after my CDA was the right sequence. And I imagine that people who go right into their bachelor’s without getting a CDA miss some of the practical toolkit kinds of things I picked up while getting the credential. Whatever the university experience is—and it is valuable—it just didn’t do enough to make me 100 percent ready on day one when I went into that classroom. The CDA did that for me.
You have worked in a number of large government agencies that serve children and now you’re moving into the nonprofit sector. What do you see as the challenges and opportunities of your new role?
I have worked in several state and federal agencies, but I never really thought those jobs offered the kind of opportunity that resides in an organization like the Council. In government, no matter how well-meaning a bureaucrat may be, there are roadblocks, so new programs often take a long time to roll out. The federal system, in particular, is so huge and there are so many considerations involved when you’re making policy decisions that it takes a long time to check all the boxes.
In a nonprofit like the Council, you can be nimbler and more flexible. You can choose which projects make sense and take advantage of innovations more quickly. Meanwhile, in a state or federal system, some things may be driven by the policies of a particular administration. You can get moving on an idea and that idea gets shelved. Then you may have to come up with a new idea depending on the administration in place.
You don’t have that kind of shock wave going through the mission or vision of an organization like the Council. So, I feel like some of the handcuffs have been taken off and the ideas we explore together can be realized without hindrances. I’ve always been a dreamer because I’m the kind of citizen who thinks government can do things for people that they can’t do for themselves. Now that I’m at the Council, I want to make things happen for child care workers all over the country. I look forward to embracing this freedom to see how much we can dream and how much we can make those dreams come true.
What do you see as the impact of the coronavirus on our profession?
I want to set a clear policy agenda for supporting the early childhood workforce during this crisis. I also want to tell our educators’ stories because I think this is a chance to show people what family child care providers are going through at this unique time, what local child care providers are going through, what Head Start and Early Head Start teachers are going through. These folks are experiencing different things at different times, but they have something in common as we struggle through Covid-19. I’m not sure they are able to be a voice for themselves, so I intend to be that voice.
Fortunately, for the first time, they’re viewed as essential. Granted, when I was working in state government, most of my colleagues knew child care was essential, but funding was always an issue. But Covid-19 gives us a unique opportunity to bring something new to the age-old conversation about properly financing early care and education. It also brings new challenges for educators, who now have to protect themselves more diligently while working with young children.
For example, there’s this dance that takes place between caregivers and infants. And think how different it would be if the caregiver has on a mask or face shield and protective gear. That blows all our brain science out the window because the baby can no longer pick up on facial clues, no longer see the caregiver smile or make pleasant facial expressions. And I think that problem has got to be dealt with as well.
So, do we wear masks? What will those masks mean for small children? And is it likely that children might even be scared seeing their caregivers dressed like that? There are so many implications to the current crisis for our profession and what the changes could mean for small children. I’ve been thinking about them as we support child care workers who are coming back to their jobs. No doubt, it will be a different way going forward and a different ball game for everyone involved in the field.
You have experience as both a participant and professional in Head Start. How has this shaped your thoughts on the value of early childhood education for vulnerable children and their family members?
I grew up poor, but I didn’t realize it until I was in a college sociology class where we were talking about socioeconomics. When I was young, my family never framed things for me that way. But you can imagine what life was like for a black child living in the projects of Fairfield, Alabama, during the civil rights movement of the sixties. It’s amazing that I survived and Head Start is a major reason why. My family was unique in the way we were fully connected to Head Start. My father worked as a janitor for Head Start for six months until he found a job as a steel worker. My mother was a teacher’s aide when I was a child, so we went to the Head Start center together.
All this is background to show how Head Start was a major part of the puzzle for me. I’ll always be grateful to the program because it gave my parents employment at a time they really needed it and allowed my family to be economically stable. It also gave me the foundational support and socialization I needed to succeed at school. And I think I brought all those experiences to the work I did in state and federal agencies. Based on my own life story, I believe every child deserves a Head Start program. No matter what your economic position is, attending Head Start will serve you well.
You say in your book, The Thinking Book Curriculum, that an educator’s worldview shapes how they view children. Could you expand on that?
An educator’s worldview, or philosophy of teaching, matters because it shapes their practice in an early childhood setting. But what I know about children is that they will take your worldview and blow it out of the water. You can’t box a human being into a theory. You have to let them be themselves and grow, and you have to grow along with them. It’s very hard to change someone’s worldview. Once you know what it is, you then have to find yourself within a theory you are learning about in school.
I remember learning about constructivism in college. It took me a while, but I did find myself when I discovered Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist and constructivist whose theories most resemble what I believe about children. Vygotsky thought children are born with enormous curiosity and can think and make meaning before they can speak. He argued that cognition is directly connected to language, and that children begin to construct their knowledge base when their language skills improve. So, we want to target language as an anchor for later development in life.
How has your personal experience as a male educator affected your thinking on how we can recruit and retain men in the field?
It’s very rare for men to remain teachers in the early childhood field. It’s a female-dominated profession that either pushes men out because of low wages or shoves them into administration. That was my experience since I only taught for five years before they made me a center director. I loved teaching and felt it was my calling. But it’s very hard for a man, especially a black man like me, to persist in the field. There’s this whole narrative about it being a woman’s job and there’s a myth about widespread abuse that drives many men out of the field.
But some men do stay, and I wrote a book about them. After studying these men, I found they had certain things in common besides their love for children. Before entering the early childhood field, they all worked with children, whether as a Sunday school teacher or coach of a football team. They also had powerful women in their personal lives—either a wife, mother or mentor—so they were comfortable working with strong women in a female-dominated profession.
But it’s not a go-to profession for most men and they make up just 3 percent of the field. Even if men have the right skill set and acumen, they find other ways to be around small children. So, I think we have to introduce the field to them early on and target high school career technical programs to let young men know it’s okay to teach. After high school, it’s very difficult to recruit men into the field and increase that 3 percent number, which is a phenomenon worldwide.
We have a hard sell to get young men into the teaching profession. But I’m willing to put some skin in the game, talk to people and encourage young men to enter the field. Whenever I have an audience of young men, I always describe my career path as an option. Granted, I’m one of those typical stories you hear about being on the inside of teaching and loving the children, then moving on to administration. But what I feel in my heart is that I’m a teacher. I know I’m the CEO of the Council—but in my core I am an early childhood teacher.
Every accomplished person has someone they look on as a guiding light. Do you have any special role models or heroes who have inspired your educational and professional achievements?
Yes, I do. In the course of my life, I have always been around heroes who nurtured me along the way. An early one was Dr. Richard Arrington, Jr., a deacon of my church and the first black mayor of Birmingham, where I grew up. I knew him and felt a deep connection to him because he made me think I could be like him. Besides him, there were people in the early childhood field who helped me know I was in the right place: Helen Taylor, a former bureau chief in the Office of Head Start, and Ed Green, a great early childhood educator. My heroes also include two former CEOs of the Council, Carol Brunson Day and Valora Washington, whom I’ve always looked up to and admired.
In addition, there’s J. D. Andrews, even though I never had the chance to meet him. I really hate that I didn’t get to be in his presence because he was an important leader at the Council and responsible for a lot of its success. So, I’m still looking to learn more about J.D. because he was one of the people who have influenced my practice and belief system about the early childhood field.
Do you have a favorite author, movie or book that has made an impact on your life?
My favorite book is The Giver. It’s one of those utopian science fiction stories, and I love science fiction. But it’s so much more than that because of its message that life is not complete without both good and bad experiences. Beyond that, I like Howard Gardner and his book Leading Minds about the anatomy of leadership. I really connect to his narrative about how great leaders tell or embody stories that speak to people and shape their thoughts.
Besides those two, I try to keep up with anything about constructivist theory, especially if it’s by Lev Vygotsky. His contributions are hard to find because he didn’t write a lot and he was Russian. But translations of his work are coming out slowly. I love to study his sociocultural constructivist theory and read more of his thoughts on how social interaction plays a critical role in children’s learning.
Do you have a favorite quote or personal mantra?
My favorite quote is by John Quincy Adams, who wrote: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” That’s my mantra for a leader, whether it’s in government or here at the Council. I hope my future actions will inspire those who work for me to dream more, do more and be the best they can be. I want my staff to define how they fit in at the Council and how they contribute. But more than that I want them to work with the spirit of excellence, not perfection but excellence.
How has being a professional educator affected your role as a parent and what kinds of activities do you like to do with your own kids?
I have two children, a nine-year-old and a 19-year-old. They’re 10 years apart and it’s interesting to have little people at both ends of the spectrum. It’s also interesting how they’ve affected my thinking about teaching. I wrote The Thinking Book Curriculum around the time I was getting my master’s degree, and when I had my first child I wished I could go back and rewrite it. Having a child deepened my experience as a caregiver and gave me a different view of some things I had written in my own book.
Children have a way of changing some of your practices. Having my own made me nimbler as an educator because I was more aware that I was shaping other human beings. I feel like I’m more of an expert than I did while I was going through school, getting all those fancy degrees and writing a book. So, being a parent influenced my practice as an educator instead of the other way around.
Having children also made me see that being a parent is complicated. There’s no manual you can read to prepare you to shepherd another human being into adulthood and the world. After I had my first child, I thought I knew what to do, but I almost had to start over with my second. They were so far apart from each other. The second baby had a different disposition than the first. And by the time I had her, I was different, and the world was different, too.
But I do a lot of the same things with them and we all have a lot of fun. We sing and dance together, and both my children are very artistic. I’m a singer and I’m now working on a CD of feel-good message music. So, we’ve always had music in our lives, and my older daughter is also an accomplished singer who performs at our church. The young one, on the other hand, is an artist with a talent for drawing.
I didn’t give her that particular gift, but I do know I helped both my children become avid readers. When they were both in the womb, I used to read the newspaper to them. So, I think they have a love of reading because I built them that way. And I hope they’ll also open up the world for their kids by giving them a love of the arts, literature and reading.
I see that you’re a big football and tennis fan. What life lessons do you think we can draw from sports?
I’m a Steelers fan because my granddad was born in Pittsburgh. I remember him indoctrinating me as a fan, too, so I can’t tell you any reason why I love football except that I was brainwashed early on. But tennis is different. I’m an avid tennis player, I know a lot about the history of the sport, and I think people can learn about life both by watching and playing tennis.
I often use analogies about what it means to be out there on the tennis court, just you against an opponent, without a coach. And once the match starts you have to put everything you learned into practice. Based on your preparation, you either win or lose. But sometimes it’s just not your day even if you’re really well prepared and rank higher than your opponent. So, you can’t be too fazed when you fail in a set. You just have to charge ahead if you want to score that final win—a key life lesson I’ve picked up from tennis. I’ll bring it to the Council as I work to inspire my staff, support the workforce—and strive to reach my dreams for the early childhood field.