Kelsey Laird: Guiding Michigan Teachers on the Ground

June 26, 2024

Kelsey has her feet firmly planted on the ground as she works to support the early childhood profession. “I’ve come up through the ranks of the field,” she says, “like nearly all our staff at the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children. I began working as an after-school aide when I was 15 and kept working part time in child care while earning my bachelor’s in early childhood education and teaching. Then I went on to become a teacher and a program director before moving to Michigan AEYC as the lead counselor of T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Michigan and then director of the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Michigan Scholarship Program. About four years ago, I became the director of professional programs, a role in which I draw on all my experience in the classroom. It frames everything I do to guide educators and help with the roadblocks they face each day on the ground.”

Kelsey hasn’t forgotten just what it’s like to be a center director though she left the classroom over 13 years ago. “I remember days when two staff members would call in sick,” she says, “and I’d have to make lunch while dealing with a sick child. So, I focus on making my department a one-stop shop to help educators with their immediate needs and address the issues they face today,” including the need for fair compensation, state funding for preschools and the shortage of qualified staff.

The pressing need for child care led the state to offer a license variance that allowed early childhood settings to employ untrained staff. And this exception to the normal rules resulted in “constant burnout and turnover,” Kelsey says. “So, we started our four-month Early Foundations Program, with funds from the Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, to train new educators from day one. The program offers new staff the chance to gain the immediate skills to succeed in the classroom before earning a CDA® or degree. They learn the basics like how to talk with parents, manage challenging behaviors and use best practices in the classroom. The educators work in cohorts with a coach, and we provide them with 15-minute training snippets that they can watch on their phones during naptime or lunch. When they complete the program, we also give them the chance to earn their CDA at low or no cost.”

Still, many of these new teachers worry about going back to school, so Michigan AEYC has partnered with 14 community colleges in the state to make it simpler for teachers to receive their CDA training, Kelsey explains. “We try to remove all the admissions barriers, prerequisites and placement tests that might discourage nontraditional students from going to college. The educators attend classes in cohorts where they do a lot of peer-to-peer learning, which also puts them more at ease, especially if they’re older students. They feel like they belong in college, and some go on to earn higher degrees.”

So, the CDA opens doors, as Kelsey saw when she worked in the T.E.A.C.H. scholarship program. “I had CDA students in their 50s and 60s who were just working part time in programs and wanted to earn CDAs so they could become lead teachers. Then some of them went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, which opened even more doors. And Michigan AEYC was there to guide them because we have a career navigator on staff to show students the different opportunities that exist in the early childhood field, everything from working in the classroom to managing a philanthropic program.”

One of the students Kelsey worked with at the time even went on to run her own nonprofit. “Najwa Dahdah was in her forties and just starting a family child care home when she came to us to earn her CDA,” Kelsey recalls. “Then she went on to earn her master’s degree and run a large center before opening Empowered Consulting, which provides a lot of CDA training to Michigan’s Arabic population from her company site near Detroit. She’s empowered thousands of people by helping them earn their CDAs, and we worked with her along her entire career path to help her get where she is. Now Najwa is giving back to Michigan AEYC by joining with other community groups to spread the word about the CDA and bring more people into the early childhood profession.”

One of the ways Michigan AEYC is also building a pipeline for the field is by providing T.E.A.C.H. scholarships to cover CDA fees for high schoolers who are earning their credentials. “We had been doing this for a while,” Kelsey says, “when we realized that we also needed to give more support to the career and technical education instructors who teach the CDA courses. Many of the instructors are high school teachers who were told to teach CDA courses, though they had no background in early childhood education. So, we’ve spent the last two years working with Michigan Educational Careers Association to provide boot camps for high school CDA instructors. We teach the CDA content and competencies in a way that allows instructors to teach it to their students, and we’ve even had some limited funding to help the instructors earn their own CDAs.”

Completing all the steps required to earn the credential is simpler because Michigan AEYC has developed a PD Specialist Hub, Kelsey explains. “We had a significant shortage of PD Specialists throughout the state, especially in northern Michigan, where people would have to drive two hours to do verification visits. As a result, CDA candidates couldn’t complete their CDA. So, we’ve incentivized our PD Specialists to do visits by giving them $100 to $150 on top of what the Council pays them, and that’s been especially appealing to some of our retired folks. In addition, we have a webpage where PD Specialists can trade visits, and that has been a lot of help for larger high school programs. Now we’re hearing less about the PD Specialist shortage, though the problem isn’t completely solved.”

And another issue that Michigan AEYC is still addressing is CDA articulation, Kelsey says. “We don’t have universal articulation for the credential and we’re working toward that with our partners in higher ed. Colleges recognize the credential in different ways, with some offering credits, some equating it to classes but no credits, and some not accepting the CDA at all—an especially big issue for our high school CDAs. It was also a big topic at our annual conference this year since we feel that all our CDA students earn the same credential and should get the same recognition from higher ed across the board.”

Michigan educators also deserve more recognition from lawmakers, Kelsey says, “so we have a strong advocacy committee, and they work to arrange events where providers can speak directly with their lawmakers. Each fall, we host a luncheon in Lansing where our providers can sit around a table with lawmakers to have open, informative discussions about issues like compensation, cost-effective and high-quality learning, the mental health of children and staff, and equity in the early childhood profession. It gives the providers a chance that most of them wouldn’t normally have to present their thoughts and concerns to people who make decisions that affect their work.”

Michigan educators also have an opportunity to speak out when Michigan AEYC hosts public policy forums in the winter and spring. “We partner with other early childhood stakeholders like Think Babies Michigan, a collaborative of 2,400 members—leaders, experts, families, organizations and providers—to amplify our voice as we address issues that concern us all and share information on what’s happening for early childhood in the state.”

The format for each policy session is the same, Kelsey relates. “We start with a morning session on what’s going on in the budget process, what’s coming down the line and what we need to talk to our lawmakers about. We provide talking points for attendees, so they have a unified voice when they talk to lawmakers at the appointments that we arrange for them in the afternoon. These talks matter because we believe that one of the best ways to spark change is to put providers directly in front of their lawmakers, so providers feel this is a place where they belong. And the providers find that lawmakers do want to hear what they have say.”

Lawmakers are listening more now than when Kelsey was working in the classroom. And that may be because “COVID showed the vital importance of child care,” Kelsey says. “Granted, no firm answer to the child care crisis came out of the pandemic, but it did provide the early childhood profession with more recognition, Kelsey points out. Now she wants Michigan educators to take their place at the table and share their real-life insights on what early childhood teachers need to succeed in classrooms statewide. “These educators are our boots on the ground,” Kelsey says, who can bring about needed change. And Michigan AEYC is there to help. “Granted there’s not one solution or law that’s going to resolve all of Michigan’s issues with child care,” Kelsey says, “but I think all the steps we’re taking at Michigan AEYC will move our field ahead.”


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