Nick Terrones | Having Conversations that Count

June 21, 2023

Nick believes in having fearless conversations with toddlers, as he tells us in A Can of Worms. His book touches on many of the vital issues facing early childhood teachers: the value of forming strong ties with parents, the importance of having adults acknowledge the gifts children offer to us, and how a topic that is engaging for children doesn’t become confusing until it passes through the filters that adults have erected. He also explores the importance of transmitting a love of diverse cultures to young children, the challenges facing male teachers and how to bring social justice education to early learning settings. 

These important issues guide his work as the program director of Daybreak Star Preschool in Seattle, WA. “The school is part of United Indians of All Tribes Foundation,” he explains, “and my mission there is to take an approach to teaching from the perspective of Indigenous people. So, we provide culturally rich experiences in partnership with Native tribes while also taking a broad approach to provide social justice education. This was also Nick’s goal during his prior job as an early childhood teacher at Hilltop Children’s Center in Seattle, where he spent 14 years helping children see through an anti-bias lens. And this means confronting a broad range of big issues with young children, regardless of their background or race.  

“Anti-bias education,” he says, “is an approach that leads children to question why things are the way they are. For example, a young child might ask, ‘Hey, Nick how come you’re the only boy teacher?’ Providing an answer is part of anti-bias education. So is responding to a child who wonders why people are living in tents near their house. And it’s up to an educator to be brave enough to have those difficult conversations about injustice, so children learn the importance of advocating for a fairer system. In turn, marginalized communities will have a chance to empower themselves.” 

These communities include the Indigenous people from whom Nick traces some of his roots. Nick is Mexican and Native American, a descendant of the Chumash people whose former lands span a large part of southern California. “I mainly grew up in the Chicano culture,” he says, “but I’ve always had a spiritual connection to the other part of my background, especially in recent years with the resurgence of interest in Native culture. So, I’ve done my own research to learn about Native people. And in 2020, when there was an opening at Daybreak, I took advantage of the chance to get closer to my Native roots. At the time, COVID was going strong. Everything was different and new, so I thought it was time to take on a new challenge in my field.” 

At the same time, his work to advance Native language and culture at Daybreak is consistent with his long-term commitment to social justice through early learning. “A central part of Daybreak’s mission is to promote healing from the collective trauma brought on by colonization,” he explains. “The arrival of Europeans to our shores led to the deliberate destruction of Native culture, history and language,” all of which feature in classroom practice at Daybreak. And that, too, leads to intriguing conversations among the diverse groups of children that Daybreak serves, Black and White, Indigenous and Asian. 

“The children sometimes ask me what happened to Native people in our country,” Nick says. “And I tell them that colonization, like COVID, is a world issue that has shaped the way we live now.” And in our complex world, Indigenous concepts can bring us a sense of integration, whatever our background or beliefs. “For example,” Nick explains, “when we’re harvesting plants, we take only what we need, then we sprinkle the rest around the base of the plant and say thank you. And when we’re talking about our plant and animal relatives, we don’t refer to them as it. We say who they are because we are all interconnected. That too, is anti-bias education.” 

And the discussions about it go beyond animals and plants to explore the pressing issues of the day. “What goes on in the classroom is like opening a can of worms, so we don’t shy away from difficult topics like the George Floyd murder or what’s happening in the Ukraine. Children bring questions about these complex events to the classroom because they’re astute observers of the world. So, we talk about the news in an age-appropriate way, and we invite families to join us as contributors to these important talks.” 

The combined input of parents and teachers to anti-bias education can help children become advocates for social change, as Nick explains. Granted, “everything won’t become better overnight,” he concedes, “but there’s greater hope for change if we teach social justice the same way we teach letters and numbers. The sooner we start the more chance that children will learn to support those who are different by advocating for their rights.” 

And Nick is doing some advocacy of his own by supporting men in the early learning field. Nick is an active member of the Men in ECE leadership team at the World Forum Foundation on Early Care, and his encounters with the group have shown him that the bias against male teachers crosses continents and cultures. “In the Middle Eastern country of Qatar, for instance, it’s straight up illegal for men to be teachers of young children,” he says. “Meanwhile, in Scotland, the percentage of men in early childhood settings is a little higher than our meager 3.2 percent. At the same time, Scotland still has a lot of work to do on that count, and I have a colleague there who spends all his time recruiting and retaining men in the Scottish early learning system.” 

Similarly, Nick is also working at Daybreak to bring more men into his classrooms. “Hiring them is a little tricky,” he admits, “since the pool of potential men is shallow. So, I keep a close eye on applicants and carefully look for men who have experience working with young children. Then I’m willing to invest in giving them added training so they can advance as professionals in our profession.” 

And Nick also worked with the University of Washington to develop a program called My Brother’s Teacher. “The program goes into middle and high schools to interest young men of color in the early learning field,” as he explains. “It offers them paid internships at local preschools in the hope that they’ll decide to pursue early learning as a career. Daybreak hosted one of the first cohorts of My Brother’s Teacher, and the program is going strong,” Nick says. “Many men like working with children since they’re just like big kids themselves. Still, getting men into the early childhood profession is like fishing. You must combat social constructs that keep them out of the hiring pool, and you must use the right bait,” all of which can be a challenge.  

Nick is also taking on another challenge since he’s now earning a master’s degree in Indigenous education while serving as a director and teacher at Daybreak. He now spends a lot of time in the classroom because Daybreak, like most preschools, has a teacher shortage, and “I’m pretty crunched,” Nick admits. Still, he’s committed to taking a step that will advance his personal and professional growth.  

“I’m gaining an academic perspective on cultural issues I’ve always been drawn to. My studies are helping my thoughts on teaching Native children come together in a beautiful way,” Nick is happy to say. He has also drawn inspiration from Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz, founder and principal consultant of the First Light Education Project to help Native children connect to their language, heritage and culture. “She’s one of my mentors,” Nick says, “and she’s led me to tightly embrace Indigenous values and beliefs.” 

Nick is especially moved by Native beliefs about the importance of children, he explains. “Native people, for example, believe that children are closer to the creator than adults and that they come into the world with experiences that allow them to contribute, even at a very young age. They carry a strong connection to the spiritual world, and we should direct their inner fire by helping them make positive change.” 

And working with children inspires Nick because it helps bring out his inner child. “As adults we’re sometimes unhappy and connecting with children reminds us of the joyous place from which we all came. Children keep that sense of joy until we start to burden them with adult biases and baggage,” Nick warns. So, he urges us to realize the conversations we have with young children count. “We should teach them to be strong and stand up against social injustice,” he says. “The way we talk to children becomes their inner voice.”  


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