Zuly Vazquez | Keeping a Promise to Children

October 24, 2023

Zuly believes that education can take you far in life. She’s now the national manager of Early Head Start professional learning programs and a doctoral student, despite coming from very humble roots. “I grew up in a low-income community in Venezuela, where many children didn’t go to school and spent their days on the street,” Zuly recalls. She might have been like them if she hadn’t been one of the few to get an education—and she realized how lucky she was. “As a child, I promised myself that I was going to do something for the children of the world,” she recalls, “and I have kept that promise over the years, mainly by working for Head Start and Early Head Start programs. I believe in the organization’s mission to fight poverty through education because I’m walking testimony that it works.”

And Zuly has advanced this mission in a wide range of roles for more than a decade. She worked for several years in the classroom, providing high-quality early learning to children from different cultures, ethnicities and traditions. She has gone on to specialize in training, mentoring, coaching and curriculum implementation. She has designed and taught early childhood education courses in English and Spanish at the college level, and she has provided technical assistance to family child care providers, parents and teachers at child care centers. She speaks out for these members of the early childhood community as a board member of the Florida Association for the Education of Young Children and as a senior advisor at Latinas United for the Children of America. In addition, she’s also a former Early Head Start and Head Start mom.

And all this experience, as she explains, has equipped her to speak out for her field on the national level. “I feel that having been a teacher and having a child in the Head Start program supported my growth as a professional in ECE,” she says. “It has helped me relate to all the teachers and moms out there and increased my ability to project a message: It’s important to invest in early childhood education, and that means investing in our teachers by increasing their skills,” which is Zuly’s long-term passion.

She has been interested in professional development and training since the early days of her career. “When I was a classroom teacher,” Zuly recalls, “I presented at local and state ECE conferences because I realized how important it is to provide chances for high-quality professional growth to the adults who take care of our youngest learners. And I fell in love with professional development as I moved up the career ladder. So, I became certified in training and coaching to better supervise teachers. I inspire them to be their best so they can help young children be their best,” Zuly says, “and it’s a goal that drives me each day.”

As she works to reach this goal, Zuly draws determination from people who inspired her in the past. “I have had amazing teachers who encouraged me and believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself,” she says. “And I have seen the power of mentoring and coaching many times in the course of my career.” And this type of support is especially needed as we face a teacher shortage, Zuly knows. “When people believe in themselves it’s more likely that they will advance and remain in the early childhood field.”

Early childhood educators also need the tools to succeed, and they can get them at the Academy, Head Start’s home for professional learning, where Zuly does much of her work. “I develop and design early childhood courses, including those for the Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™,” she says, “and all the classes we provide are available to the community at no cost. Our programs are in high demand among people who’d like to enter or advance in the early childhood workforce.” And that includes families, Zuly explains, because the Academy offers a special CDA® cohort for parents. “They enjoy the chance to come together as a group to give each other support, as well as get the training they need to enter a new field.”

At the same time, most of the people who earn a CDA through the Academy already work in the early childhood field in some way, Zuly says. “Some are teachers in Head Start or Early Head Start. Others are bus drivers, cooks or volunteers who would like to become qualified as teachers. And the CDA gives them the basic information and skills they need to go on and provide high-quality early learning experiences to help young children succeed.”

The CDA students also enjoy success, like one young woman named Jessica who sticks out in Zuly’s mind. “She was working part time as an aid in the classroom,” Zuly says, “and she was a single mom who was struggling with some personal issues. Yet she managed to earn her CDA, and afterward, she was promoted to lead teacher. Now she plans to earn her college degree and envisions being a center director one day.”

All educators deserve this opportunity to be their best, including the many Latinas with whom Zuly has a special bond. So, she has taken steps to provide educators with training and webinars in Spanish. She also works with Latina leaders to see how they can support the early childhood community, especially Spanish-speaking family child care providers. “Professional development is a big part of it,” she says, “so we want to make sure they can get the high-quality information they need.”

That includes access to CDA coursework, as Zuly explains. “The CDA has the advantage of combining theory with practice, and that makes it easier for teachers to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom. A lot of early childhood education programs don’t provide this type of practical information. And we reinforce the lessons that people get in their CDA coursework by showing videos that depict children in real-life classrooms. That also helps the CDA students to implement what they have learned right away.”

Programs like the CDA allow teachers to be their best for children, yet not enough people are taking advantage of them, Zuly says. “Professional development is taking a back seat now as early childhood settings contend with high teacher turnover. Administrators are focused on maintaining teacher to child ratios and ensuring that staff carry out daily tasks.” These are urgent needs, as Zuly admits. “Still, it’s also important to put the professional development of teachers at the forefront. Early childhood leaders need to take time to reflect and plan what their next steps should be in this challenging time.”

Zuly is doing her part as an advocate for the early childhood profession. “I meet with other early childhood leaders to find new ways to support the field,” she says. “I attend as many conferences as I can, and sometimes I even have the chance to meet with lawmakers and discuss the issues our educators face. I’m eager to talk to anyone with a stake in our field—whether teachers, administrators or families—about what we can do to provide the best possible services to children. And I think if we all work together, we can move the needle ahead.”

It’s challenging, Zuly admits, but she keeps her sense of resolve by thinking of the advice she gives to teachers when they feel overwhelmed. “Many of the educators I serve face challenges,” she says. “They don’t know English well. They have health issues, and they’re struggling to make a good life for their kids. I know it isn’t easy for them, so I tell them to simply focus on one thing at a time. If you’re passionate about something, don’t give up and your passion will take you far.”

Zuly’s own sense of passion for early childhood education has brought her to a position where she can speak out for the field on a national level. “I’m grateful for the opportunity,” she says, “and it comes with a huge responsibility that I have to carry out. So, I’m determined to keep being a voice for communities, families and teachers. I want to make sure I stay connected with them, learn about their needs and serve them in any way I can.”

Zuly is determined to keep moving the needle ahead for the teachers, families and children who she serves. As she pushes on, she draws inspiration from some words that have moved her over the years: “Do not wait for someone else to stand up for the children of the world. Be the person yourself”—stirring advice that comes from Caryl Stern, a former UNICEF CEO, as Zuly explains. “I read her words many years ago when I was a teacher, and they made me see that advocacy wasn’t just reserved for lawmakers. I realized I could also do something to help our children be their best. I could be a voice for the voiceless,” Zuly says. That’s one of the ways she’s keeping that promise she made long ago during her early years in Venezuela. Zuly is still working hard to help the children of the world.


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