Jerry Graham: Painting the Future for Young Children

February 25, 2021

“I have never done anything in my life besides work in early childhood programs,” Jerry says. “I strongly believe it was my destiny to do what I do—and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t dropped out of college.” Since then, he’s gone on to become an early childhood educator and advocate who provides children and programs with the professional development, mentoring and training they need to help children also fulfill their destiny in life. In the course of his career, Jerry has come to regard the future as a canvas that he’s left his brush strokes on. “As an ECE professional, I’ve had the chance to stand before the canvas of the future and be one of the painters.”

But 31 years ago, he was a 19-year-old who didn’t know what to do with his life. “I had come home to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands after spending a year at Tallahassee Community College. At the time,” he recalls, “I didn’t think college was for me, and when I told this to my dad, he said, ‘No problem. You can either go back to college or you can get a job.’ So, I worked as a summer camp counsellor for a child center in St. Thomas. The job was just a paycheck for me, but at the end of the summer, the center director, Ms. Lauren Bonelli, came to me and told me she had an opening for an assistant teacher in her three-year-old classroom. She had seen how much I enjoyed my work and how well I engaged with the children.”

Soon, Jerry’s interest in ECE became much more than a means to earn a paycheck. It turned into a passion. “I committed myself to learning more about child development as I became a lead teacher and then the center’s director when Ms. Bonelli retired. Afterward, I operated two child care centers on my own before moving to Fort Lauderdale in 2006. I found a job as an assistant manager at La Petite Academy, where I received a rude awakening that I needed credentials to advance in my career. When I asked my regional manager where to begin, she said, ‘Start with your CDA.’ And then I began to realize that having an education doesn’t just matter for moving up the career ladder. It’s also important for serving young children and families.”

The CDA gave Jerry a taste for knowledge and made him want more. He went on to get his associate degree, bachelor’s degree and master’s degree, as he recalls. “The CDA made me understand what was expected of me as an ECE professional. Without it, I don’t think I would be as far along as I am in my career.” In the past decade, Jerry has served as director of child care services at the YMCA of Broward County in Hollywood, Florida, and a training and curriculum specialist for both the U.S. Coast Guard, in Washington DC, and the Department of the Navy, his current job. “I support the child and youth programs on two bases in the Virginia Beach area by promoting best practices in the classroom, helping teachers grow in their profession, providing meaningful training and conducting teacher observations.”

Jerry also provides the community with his expertise through his three-year-old company, Choices Early Learning Consulting. His most recent project is as a technical assistant with Smart Beginnings of the Virginia Peninsula. “In this role,” he says, “I provide high-touch support to both child care centers and family child care homes. I give teachers the guidance they need to meet children’s personal needs, develop quality improvement plans, provide training tailored to the individual programs and conduct classroom observations.”

His efforts are part of the broader mission that led him to found Choices Early Learning Consulting. His goals are to help families select high-quality care and provide child care programs with relevant training and chances for professional development. He also advocates for the advancement of the early childhood profession by ensuring that it’s staffed with qualified, credentialed teachers. “I want to be in a space where I have a hand in the future of the ECE profession,” Jerry explains, “and that’s the reason I also decided to serve as a Professional Development Specialist about six years ago. I want to pass the torch on to the next generation of educators when the day comes for me to retire.”

As a PD Specialist, Jerry enjoys the chance to help early childhood teachers take the first step into their profession. The CDA Verification Visit®, he explains, has also given him the opportunity to meet dedicated teachers like Melissa, the last educator he observed. “When I met her, I could see she was a ball of nerves,” he recalls, “so I reassured her that I was here to celebrate her and the wonderful things she was doing in the classroom. Then I told to go outside, take some deep breaths, drink some water and hit the reset button. When she came back, she turned to the class and said, ‘I got this.'”

It turned out that she was “an amazing teacher,” Jerry says, and working with her reminded him “how unnerving the verification visit can be for some people.” It also made him think about the “importance of the interaction between PD Specialists and the CDA candidates they serve. “When we do verification visits, we’re there to help good teachers become better, assure them they can be successful in the credentialing process and make them realize just how much our children need them.”

The verification visits also give Jerry the chance to “get on my soapbox and put across my central point,” as he explains. “I tell them my story and show how a paycheck turned into a passion that shaped my life and made me see the value of credentials for folks who work with young children. You need to have the right people in the classroom because we’re not babysitters by any measure. We are early childhood professionals who work to ensure our society’s whole survival by shaping the future of young children.” In the course of his career as an early childhood teacher, Jerry explains, he’s “created entrepreneurs and professors, high-ranking members of the armed forces, along with air traffic controllers. And some of the children’s he’s taught have never forgotten him, despite the passage of time.

“A couple of years ago,” he recalls, “when I was working as a trainer for the Coast Guard Child Development Center, a family registered their three-year-old child in the program. The dad was a highly decorated member of the Coast Guard, and one day I ran into him when he came to pick up his child. It turned out that he had been one of my very first students when I taught in St. Thomas, and he still remembered my face. As we stood together, he told everyone, ‘This is Mr. Graham, who was my teacher when I was three years old.’ Then he hugged me and said, ‘It’s because of you that I am where I am today.'” It was “so humbling,” as Jerry reveals, to realize the brush strokes he’d made on his former student’s life had never faded away.


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