Bobi Thompson: Looking for a Spark in Students

January 26, 2023

Bobi’s daughter, Elise, inspired her to go into the early childhood education field. “I was teaching middle school in Canton, OH, 25 years ago when she was born with Down syndrome,” Bobi recalls. “So, I opted to home school Elise and give her the support that she needed.” It was a choice that led Bobi to use her teaching skills to also guide other families in home schooling their children. For nearly 13 years, she organized monthly activities and events for 15 families whose children ranged from infants to tenth graders. She counseled and encouraged parents, designed lesson plans custom-tailored to each young learner’s needs and assessed their progress.

This wasn’t home schooling online, as we’ve come to think of it in the age of COVID, Bobi points out. “We didn’t have as much technology then as we do now. Instead of computers, we had curriculum books. We went to concerts and nature centers. We would have gym time and write essays. We had the older children make speeches and engage in debates. We cooked together and went out to do community service.”

The point of this wide range of activities was to “make the children curious, independent learners,” Bobi explains. And the advances they achieved led Bobi to learn something, too, especially as she worked with the youngest age group. “Children, as I came to see could do a lot more than you expect if you give them quality education from a young age”—something she’d worked hard to do with Elise.

Her daughter’s progress convinced Bobi this was true and made her feel she could enter the workforce again. Her opportunity came in 2011, when there was an opening for an early childhood instructor at Buckeye Career Center in New Philadelphia, OH. “I felt it was a good fit because of the range of different age groups with which I had worked—everyone from the middle school students I’d taught, to the parents I’d guided and their young children,” Bobi says. And she decided to expand her range even further by guiding high schoolers at Buckeye toward becoming early childhood teachers.

At first, it was a challenge, despite her previous experience teaching in a public school. “I hadn’t been in a classroom for 13 years and a lot had changed,” she recalls. “When I was teaching before, all the work was on paper. Now, everything was about Google Docs and emails, so I had trouble even submitting my students’ grades,” Bobi says. But she caught on with help from Julie Brinkman, the Buckeye supervisor who’d held her position before as an early childhood instructor. “Julie did what a good leader should do. She guided and coached me until I was independent and could do my own thing,” Bobi says.

And a few years ago, she was ready to take on a new challenge when Ohio made a push for high schoolers to earn their Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™. “I had taught some of the CDA® courses before,” Bobi recalls, “but I had never guided students through the entire credentialing process. There are a lot of parts that have to be lined up for the students to get their CDA by graduation. So, I was still learning to navigate the waters when I encountered Jenny, one of my first CDA students.”

Jenny still sticks out in Bobi’s mind, as she explains “because I learned how to help students get their CDA by working with her.” It helped that Jenny was very intuitive and seemed to grasp the dynamics of the CDA process: completing the CDA portfolio, arranging for someone to observe her in class and passing the test. “Whatever I asked for she did because I think she understood the benefit of the CDA and how it would make her more marketable in the early childhood field.”

That’s because the CDA covers such a wide range of topics in the early childhood profession, Bobi explains. “The coursework delves far beyond just going in the classroom and teaching children. You learn how to enhance the social and emotional skills of young learners. You learn how to talk to parents and why that matters. You learn how to deal with the community and find parents the resources they need. Most important of all you learn how to put all these pieces together by engaging in self-reflection. And that leads you to think hard about how you’re going to conduct yourself as a professional in the early childhood field.”

Getting all this self-knowledge and know-how requires a lot of time and work, but it’s worth it, as Bobi is convinced. And Buckeye students seem to agree. Last October, a number of them participated in Ohio’s first statewide Health and Human Services Signing Day by making a commitment to complete the CDA before graduation. “I was excited that these students made a commitment to completing the Child Development Associate training at Buckeye. This was a great first step towards a career in early childhood education,” Bobi says.

Still, signing a paper is not enough, as she admits, to succeed in the early childhood field. And neither is the ability to do the CDA coursework. “I have some students who are really organized and good at academics,” Bobi explains. “But then, they’re stiff in the classroom and clam up when it’s time to interact with the children. Meanwhile, I have students who are just natural-born teachers and have an innate knowledge of what to do in the classroom and how to ask children the right questions. They might not be the best spellers or the best at math, but their hearts go out to the children, and they really enjoy being with them. These are the CDA students I like working with the most because they’re so invested in what we’re doing in our school’s program. You need to have some inner drive besides a reasonable ability to do the coursework. So, I look for that special spark in my students.”

The students get a chance to show it when they do their CDA hours in Buckeye’s onsite lab school. And Bobi’s goal for the students at that point is for them to become more independent. “I tell my students I’m there to help but I want them to feel they can run the preschool by themselves and make decisions as the circumstances change. This is because you can never completely plan for the children’s day at school. You might have a fire drill, or a child has an accident and that changes everything you had thought you’d do. Or you might have a great lesson plan on a beautiful day, so you have the children spend the time outside instead. I want my CDA students to be able to make those decisions themselves and get to the point where they feel they don’t always need me.”

So, she gives the students lots of opportunities to try out new things. “I have students who email me about activities they’ve heard about and would like to try in the classroom,” Bobi explains. “If a student has a special interest in music or art, for example, I try to encourage them and provide them with the resources they need to share their passion. So, I often adapt the preschool schedule to include the activities they suggest. I want the students to feel they have talents they can enjoy with the young learners. And, even more important, I want students to realize that it’s a huge privilege to help the children and their family members.”

Students who grasp the importance of this can bring out children’s best, as Bobi has succeeded in doing with Elise. “She’s an adult now,” Bobi says, “and we swim and bike together. She works 12 hours a week and she’s very active in our church. She has a dog she takes care of. She goes to the library, and I’m thrilled at her reading level. She also speaks well, and sometimes when she answers the phone, I’m not even sure that it’s her. So, it’s been a blessing to be her mom. And parenting her has taught me something that guides me in my professional life. It’s also a lesson I impart to my CDA students. Children who have someone in their corner from an early age can do a lot more than you’d ever think.”


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