Stretching for the Stars in ECE: The Early Educators Leadership Conference 2022

October 27, 2022

“How low can you go?” a bandleader called out as a group of early childhood teachers laughed and bent under a limbo pole. A stilt dancer decked out in a pink tutu and tights smiled as she made her way through a crowd. And folks sipped from glasses that twinkled with battery-run lights. The occasion was the Caribbean Dinner and Fiesta at the Early Educators Leadership Conference in Orlando, and attendees danced on a balmy night under the stars. They also had the chance to see some of the stars of our field in three days that focused on leading career pathways to equity in early learning.

ECE professionals from far and wide had come to the Sunshine State to address a pressing theme: how we can support the teachers who support young learners, so they become the productive citizens of tomorrow. And it’s an issue that concerns us all, as our opening speaker, Sherry Cleary, explained when she recalled an incident that took place some years ago. At the time, she was serving as executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute and headed its efforts to build an effective ECE workforce for the state.

“I was at a meeting in Buffalo,” she said, “when a women stood up and said something that changed my life. ‘Two children will pay for your Social Security when you retire,’ the woman pointed out. ‘If you knew their names, you would make sure they got the best food, health care and education.’ But we don’t know their names,” Cleary added, “so we need to ensure we have a system and an ECE workforce that ensure excellence for all children.”

It’s crucial to lift teachers up since they help build a key part of the nation’s future foundation: our children. And that’s what the conference was about. Attendees joined in health and wellness sessions on yoga, deep breathing and meditation. They discovered new ways to relieve stress and relaxed by getting a seated mini massage They picked up tips for being happy and learned to harness the power of laughter to free their minds.

Attendees also received the affirmation we all could sometimes use when they heard from Coy Bowles, a children’s author, advocate for early education and member of the Grammy Award-winning Zac Brown Band. But his success as a musician isn’t the legacy he wants to leave behind, as he told the crowd. “At one point in my life,” he said, “I wanted people to say I was a great musician. Now I want people to say I did everything I could for teachers. I just happened to be a great musician.” And attendees got a taste of his skills on the guitar when he played a song he’d never performed before: Everything’s Gonna’ Be Alright.

As our teachers push for equity in ECE, they can count on leaders like Erin Smeltzer, CEO of the Children’s Forum in Tallahassee and recipient of this year’s CDA Advocacy Award. Erin urged the attendees to stand up for what we need to move our profession ahead and make it better for all children. “We shouldn’t take no for an answer,” she said, a lesson she’d learned from her mom, who’d recently passed away. “One of the last conversations I had with her was about this conference,” Erin said. And the memory made her tear up as she got her central message across. “My mom made me feel I could do whatever I wanted to,” Erin recalled. “And I want you all to believe what my mom always told me: ‘You can change the world for children.’”

And our teachers can do it with advice and inspiration from great leaders, like two of those we heard from at the EELC. Dr. Kimberly Johnson, children’s book author and educator, gave attendees a road map for moving ahead no matter what hazards and forks you face in the road. “It’s the drive in your heart that will allow you to reach the dream of equity in early learning,” she explained. “Do whatever it takes so you can keep getting closer to success.” Sure, it might be an uphill climb, Dr. Calvin Moore, Council CEO, had learned during his own journey from a humble home to a high-profile position in Washington, DC. There were roadblocks, but he overcame them through his own relentless sense of drive.

And the members of our CDA community can surmount challenges, too, Moore assured the crowd—whether it means bending very low under the limbo pole, stretching high to reach the stars in their careers or striving to ensure excellence in early learning for all children. The sense of commitment and caring they showed at the EELC made it clear everything is gonna’ be alright in our field.


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