Erin Smeltzer: Doing the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number of Children
September 29, 2022
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Erin has always thought she could make the world better than she found it. It’s a belief that she picked up from her mom, a firefighter and paramedic who recently passed away. “My mother was one of those people who loved everyone around her,” Erin says. And she has taken her mother’s example to her work as executive director and CEO of the Children’s Forum in Tallahassee, FL. “When I go to meetings, people always ask me why I care so much about my work, and I always tell them that I feel every child belongs to me. I’m convinced that children should have every chance to succeed, regardless of where they’re born or what roadblocks they face. And I picked up my sense of conviction from my mom, though I’m in a completely different field.”
And It’s not the field that Erin planned to enter when she was preparing for a career at college. “At first, I wanted to go to chiropractic school, so I could make a ton of money and stand on my own two feet,” she recalls. Then she changed course after chatting with her roommate, who was studying early childhood development as a major. “It sounded awesome, and I decided to major in it for fun since I had already been admitted to chiropractic school. And after my first class, I called my mom and told her I had fallen in love with ECE. This is where my heart was and this was where I belonged, as I said over the phone. That was 20 years ago, and I’ve never looked back.”
Instead, she quickly shot ahead in the ECE field, thanks to the director of Beginning Steps Ministry Preschool where she started her career as an infant teacher. “I was young and straight out of college,” Erin says. “But that director saw something in me and pulled me up to be a leader much faster than people would have expected. And watching her empower children also empowered me to believe I could be anything I wanted. I came to believe I really could change the world for young children though I wasn’t a 30-year veteran in the early childhood field,” Erin recalls. And she did change the world for one small boy after rising through the ranks to become director of the preschool.
“Lane was a four-year-old whose dad was serving in the army in Afghanistan and whose mom was sent to prison,” Erin recalls. “He responded to all that change in his life by becoming very aggressive and withdrawn. We tried everything we could to help him, but after a while we realized the problem was that he simply missed his mom. So, we got a doll with a built-in voice recorder and had the mom call us from prison. We recorded her voice as she said, ‘I love you, Lane. Everything’s going to be okay. Mommy loves you so much.’ And every day at nap time, he would listen to his mother’s voice while I held him rocked him and let him play with my hair. That’s how he went to sleep and within about three to four weeks, he started to calm down and we had our old Lane back by the time he left our program.”
Lane is in middle school now, so much has changed for him. Much has also changed for Erin as she took steps to serve her field so it could better serve young children. Erin advocated for her cause as president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and as the public policy rep for the Florida Association for the Education of Young Children. Then she found a more prominent pulpit from which to preach her message by joining the Florida Department of Education.
During her five years with the department, she managed all the statewide quality efforts funded by the School Readiness program and headed numerous multimillion-dollar projects aimed at building an integrated early childhood system that put Florida’s youngest children first. Her priorities included initiatives in professional development, infant/toddler quality, preschool quality, inclusion, and continuous quality improvement. “So, I became the person who helped write the laws for ECE, provided technical assistance and helped build systems statewide,” Erin explains.
She brought her expertise to the local level as executive director of the Association of Early Learning Coalitions. “I worked on implementation of ECE systems in the context of different communities statewide,” she says. “I examined what the state laws meant for Miami, Pensacola or the Keys, to name a few. I represented local interests by serving as a subject matter expert before state lawmakers to ensure the laws they passed made sense in terms of what our field actually needed. My main goal was for teachers to show that they knew how to interact with young children, so I also gave a lot of presentations and did a lot of training,” Erin explains.
“For example, one of the teachers I worked with was having trouble helping infants calm down,” Erin recalls, “So I showed her how to help children relax by having them take deep breaths, an exercise we call downloading calm. It’s a way of saying you’re safe, you’re okay. And it was beautiful to see how well she learned to help the babies stop crying and calm down, a technique she took from the classroom into her own life with a daughter who suffered from anxiety attacks. I was amazed to learn how she was able to wrap her arms around her daughter and breathe her daughter into a better state of mind,” Erin explains.
“I’ve had the privilege of seeing beautiful things like this and meeting wonderful people who are committed to helping others. In the course of my career, I’ve seen how everyone from the teachers to the directors genuinely want to do right by young children,” Erin says. “Watching them has made me intent to increase investment in the field and break down the roadblocks that stop us from putting young children first.”
So, Erin is strongly committed to working on behalf of our early childhood teachers and making their voices heard. And her own experience has convinced her that teachers do have the power to make an impact. “One of the things I realized when I went to work for the state was that my voice as a teacher was more forceful than it was after I went into administration. So, every time I go speak with teachers, I try to help them understand the advocacy process and how it works. I can advocate for our field all day long, but I can’t compete with a thousand teachers standing up and speaking out for what they need.”
And Erin has been stirring more teachers to speak out in recent months since she now has a job that gives her a broader national platform. “In July, I became president and CEO of the Children’s Forum, a national group of different early learning projects that do a lot of workforce initiatives for teachers. I’m now in a place where I can offer expertise to any state that is making some kind of quality improvement effort. We’re especially concerned with recruitment, retention and credentialing, all the things we need to make our early childhood workforce even better.”
Erin wants to make sure teachers are prepared before they enter the classroom, so she’s a big supporter of the Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™ and even helped write a law that required one teacher in every Florida classroom to have a CDA®. “There’s a level of confidence and quality assurance that comes when a teacher walks in the door with the credential and that’s something our children deserve. So, in my new role, I will be operating the T.E.A.C.H. scholarship, which pays for them to get the credential,” Erin says. But she doesn’t want teachers to stop with the CDA, so she’s looking at professional development pathways that don’t involve the time, trouble and tremendous expense of earning a college degree.
She also wants to open more doors for teachers to broaden their career horizons, she explains. “Our field is huge, and when we’re recruiting for the profession, we need to do a better job of showing people that they have options besides being an early childhood teacher or director. Sure, these are positions that make a big impact, but some people, and I’m one of them, might not want to spend the rest of their lives in the classroom. So, we need to get the message across that there are many other options, like trainers, curriculum specialists and coaches.”
They might even think about becoming an administrator and advocate like Erin. And as she looks back on her wide range of experience in ECE, she sees a pattern. “I’ve had several different jobs and been extremely happy in all of them,” she says. And what she enjoys most about the early childhood field is the chance to make the next generation better. “I love that we reach children when they’re still a blank slate and we can help them believe in their promise and potential. That’s what’s driven me to take on different roles in the profession,” she explains “My North Star has always been going to where I can do the greatest good for the greatest number of young children.”
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