A Time for Belonging, Learning and Love: The 2021 Early Educators Leadership Conference

October 27, 2021

A lithe figure dressed in a flowing, black gown walked through the crowd and onto the stage. All eyes focused on Natalee Lowe as her voice floated through the air of a vast, splendid ballroom at the Lansdowne Resort and Spa. “There in many things in nature,” she sang. “But they pass. Love is the only thing that doesn’t pass.” And love was a theme of the Early Educators Leadership Conference this year.

From the minute attendees arrived they felt cared for and loved. And that made the EELC unique. At most conferences you attend, the speakers just get out their PowerPoint slides, attendees sit back in their chairs and everything they learn is gone by the time they get home. But the EELC was about more than passing on facts and information. Sure, there was much to learn in intriguing sessions with seasoned experts in the field. More important, though, were the chances to make connections, practice self-care and feel a deep sense of community built on joy, hope and love.

How do we give love and get love from the children and families we serve? One of the ways is by showing them the real you. And our speakers led the way by baring their hearts. Council CEO Dr. Calvin E. Moore, Jr. exuded conviction as he shared his secrets for finding happiness and joy. Miriam Calderon, the opening keynote speaker and Deputy Assistant Secretary Early Learning, U.S. Department of Education, recalled her trying childhood and talked about the grandma who helped her stay connected to her roots. Dr. Marquita Davis, Deputy Director of Early Learning with the Gates Foundation, told audience members that she was a “risk taker, optimist, soccer mom and the best girlfriend you could ever have.”

Davis urged attendees to take good care of themselves, so they could be the be the best for the children they serve. And the conference offered many ideas for lifting your body, spirit and soul. In a power and wellness yoga break, attendees stretched, bent over backwards and reached for the sky—all good practice for crawling around with young kids, being flexible at work and ramping up children’s performance. They also learned the value of mindfulness and meditation, went on a nature walk, and explored the world of essential oils with master trainer and life coach JuNene K.

Life tests us all in some ways, JuNene said, so we’re like broken crayons. “But you can still color with broken crayons, so long as you have folks who give you the support you need.” And attendees cheered each other on as they used crayons, pipe cleaners, pom poms and foam hearts to practice team building, unleash their inner child, and express their vision for the ECE profession.

The Council shared its own vision of the future in a session on reimagining the Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential process. This ongoing effort is built on conducting focus groups, collecting survey data and hearing directly from CDA students, explained Council VP of Quality Assurance and Research Beth Heeb. The point is to empathize with users so we can make the CDA process more streamlined and smoother.

Empathy is also at the heart of our profession, so, it’s important to be curious, said Leslie Coleman, Childcare Education Institute Education Director, in her talk on mindfulness in ECE. “As leaders, we need to ask lots of questions, listen without judging, and be fully present for children, along with the members of our staff. And “most effective teams know something personal about each other,” explained Staci Hitzke, Director of eDA and Workforce Partnerships for Bright Horizons, who talked about building a culture of inclusion. “That makes staff members feel connected.” And the Council got it right at the conference because everyone felt they belonged.

There was a strong sense of community when attendees joined for the closing general session with Stephen Zwolak, LUME Institute CEO and Executive Director of University City Children’s Center. In a rousing climax to the conference, he talked about the paramount role of relationships in shaping the future of ECE. “We know that children want to be seen, heard and understood,” he said. “Our teachers also want to be seen, heard, understood.” And that was the key thing he wanted attendees to take away and keep in mind when they went back to work. “As leaders, we need to think about how we can give unconditional love to both children and staff because hope is the result of feeling cared for”—like everyone felt after three stirring days of belonging, learning and love at the EELC.

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