spread the word

How storytelling is giving voice to a small part of the early childhood workforce — men

Graham Carson, a teacher at Denver Cooperative Preschool, finger paints with a student.

In their own words, the men described the journeys that led them to work in the early childhood field — as teachers, counselors, coaches and administrators.

One, a software salesman, helped his wife with a nannying job then decided to go back to school for an early childhood degree. Another discovered his passion for young children after visiting a friend’s Montessori school in Beijing. A third dreamed of being an actor, but switched gears after a volunteer stint at a campus child care center during college.

The stories are part of a new digital storytelling project focused on a tiny and often overlooked segment of the nation’s early childhood workforce: men. The idea is to provide inspiration in a field known for its low pay and high turnover — and create a support system of sorts to combat the isolation that can come from being the only man on the job.

“Depending on your personality, it can be kind of daunting, said Soren Gall, the former preschool teacher who spearheaded the project.

Men make up just 3 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers, and 5 percent of child care workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gall, an infant, toddler and family specialist at Denver’s Early Childhood Council, felt lucky to have worked with two male teachers when he taught preschool years ago at a University of Denver child care center. Still, he knew that most men in early childhood jobs lack male co-workers or even a network of male colleagues in the broader community.

He wanted to change that. For awhile, he organized coffee shop gatherings for Denver area men who worked in the field. He also launched a Facebook group called Men in Early Childhood Colorado.

Then, with two friends and $2,000 raised through an online fundraising campaign, he embarked on the storytelling project, which features interviews with nearly 50 men who work in early childhood around the country.

While there are other advocates who champion the cause of men in early childhood — such as Bryan Nelson who heads a MInneapolis-based information clearinghouse called MenTeach — Gall’s idea was to support men in the field through story-sharing.

For Graham Carson, a Denver preschool teacher who was interviewed for the project, it worked.

“It was super inspiring and cool to hear,” he said. “It’s good to get stories out there…maybe to encourage other men to give it a try.”

In the 10- to 30-minute audio clips, Gall’s subjects, including 18 from Colorado, describe the sometimes winding paths that brought them to early childhood education and the experiences that kept them there.

Several said they liked being able to shape kids during the critical early years when so much brain development is going on. Others said they appreciate the infectious energy and joy that come naturally to young children.

Denver preschool teacher Graham Carson plays with children at the water table.

Tatenda Blessing, the interviewee who visited Beijing, said he discovered his passion for early childhood education when a little boy at the Montessori school approached him and said, “Hey, you’re my chocolate and I’m your cheese.”

Blessing, who is originally from Africa, was confused, but then the boy explained: “You are brown. I am yellow.”

“It was that moment that I just felt how these kids are beautiful,” Blessing said. “They’re so natural and pure in their approach to life … I said to myself I just want to be here.”

In addition to highlighting the fulfillment gleaned from early childhood work, many of Gall’s subjects touched on the benefits of men in the classroom — their different styles of play and communication, their ability to be positive male role models and the real-world gender diversity they bring.

“We’re a world full of men and women,” said Carson, who is “Mr. Graham” to the 4- and 5-year-olds he works with at Denver Cooperative Preschool. “I think it’s important to have a true reflection of our society helping teach kids.”

Travon Askew, a college student who’s worked in preschool classrooms, said, “All of us aren’t going to relate to a middle class caucasian woman … Just to have that male dynamic to relate to. To say I understand the functioning of boys and how they are because … I’ve been there before.”

Gall said such conversations about men in early childhood are particularly relevant now given the debate in Colorado and the nation about preschool suspensions and expulsions, which disproportionately affect boys of color.

He said bringing more men into the field could help reduce the use of such discipline tactics.

Perhaps a flip side to the benefits of having men in early childhood classrooms is the stigma that sometimes accompanies such a career choice. While some men say it’s gotten better, there’s still a sense that it’s not a masculine job.

A child in Graham Carson’s preschool class drew a picture of him.

Carson, who’s worked in early childhood for 13 years, said he’s gotten reactions ranging from “Oh, that’s cute” to “That’s really great that you’re a man and you want to work in early childhood education.”

One of Gall’s interview subjects, Camron Morton, of Colorado, spoke about being careful to create acceptable physical boundaries between himself and his young students.

“I think it’s a little … more risky for men, I guess, to open themselves up to children,” he said. “If they want to sit on my lap, I find a way that they’re always sitting on something other than me, but I’m still able to be close to them.”

Not surprising in Gall’s interviews was the sentiment that low wages represent a major barrier to attracting more men to the field. (Poor pay is a key problem for women in the field, as well.)

On average, early childhood workers nationwide earn $10.60 an hour, according to a 2016 report put out by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Those with at least a bachelor’s degree earn $14.70, about half of what other kinds of workers with bachelor’s degrees earn.

“There’s a challenge for anyone going into the field to meaningful support themselves,” said Geof Byerly, an early childhood coach in Colorado.

Carson agreed. He believes he’s fairly paid, but said his wages pale in comparison to his wife’s salary as a technical writer.

For now, he said, financial sacrifice is part of life in the early childhood world.

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Enter to win

Denver organization to launch national prize for early childhood innovation

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

A Denver-based investment group will soon launch a national contest meant to help scale up great ideas in the early childhood field — specifically efforts focused on children birth to 3 years old.

Gary Community Investments announced its Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Wednesday morning at a conference in San Francisco. It’s sort of like the television show “Shark Tank,” but without the TV cameras, celebrity judges and nail-biting live pitch.

The contest will divvy up $1 million in prize money to at least three winners, one at the beginning stages of concept development, one at a mid-level stage and one at an advanced stage. Gary officials say there could be more than one winner in each category.

The contest will officially launch Oct. 25, with submissions due Feb. 15 and winners announced in May. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Officials at Gary Community Investments, founded by oilman Sam Gary, say the contest will help the organization focus on finding solutions that address trouble spots in the early childhood arena.

The birth-to-3 zone is one such spot. While it’s an especially critical time for children because of the amount of brain development that occurs during that time, it’s often overshadowed by efforts targeting 4- or 5-year-olds.

Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director, said leaders there decided on a monetary challenge after talking with a number of other organizations that offer prizes for innovative ideas or projects.

One foundation they consulted described lackluster responses to routine grant programs, but lots of enthusiasm for contests with financial stakes, she said.

“There’s some galvanizing opportunity to a prize,” she said.

But Gary’s new prize isn’t solely about giving away money to create or expand promising programs. It will also include an online networking platform meant to connect applicants with mentors, partners or investors.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make it not just about the winners,” Clothier said.

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