What does Professional Development Look Like for a Reggio Inspired Educator of Young Children?
Whenever people ask me what I do, there is always a little part of me that is embarrassed to say, “I am a preschool teacher.” I am also hyper-aware of their reaction to my answer. Please don’t misunderstand; I wouldn’t want to do anything else with my life. I feel so lucky to have found a career that is so intellectually and emotionally fulfilling and I realize that there are those who never find this kind of professional satisfaction. I am also aware that there are many in my field that don’t even consider themselves “professionals” and are motivated to be a preschool teacher by their impression that “anyone can work with young children” and it takes no real skills to be a preschool teacher. In other words, they do it because they believe they lack another way to make money. Another possible reason that someone might become a preschool teacher is because they “just want to be around cute, sweet little children”. Certainly, when I made the decision to major in Family and Child Development at Auburn University, it stemmed from a deep love of being with children. When I first moved to Auburn I found a job at a “daycare” and loved every minute of it. After a month of working there I realized that I wanted to work with young children and their families as a PROFESSION. I chose to major in Family and Child Development rather than Education for this reason. Somehow I knew that being with young children involved so much more than teaching them their “ABC’s” and “123’s”. I believed in and embraced a more holistic view of education. This is why discovering the Reggio approach was such a turning point for me in my career. I had found a group of people who believed in the importance and power of early childhood. Among these people, the profession of early childhood education is highly respected and valued. The work we do together reflects that.
Over the years, I’ve learned that the Reggio-inspired way of thinking about young children is a beautiful, intricate, and complex web that is always shifting and regenerating itself. But of course, this realization didn’t just happen magically. Only through constant reflection and analyzing of the work with children are the educators of Reggio able to sustain the kind of quality education they offer the young children of their city. I have also learned that understanding this approach means turning everything we think we know about education upside down. Instead of thinking of our role with young children as “teaching”, we try to think of our role as researchers supporting and deepening the learning that we now know through research is happening naturally every minute in the minds of young children. It is a complete paradigm shift for many of us in this country.
In February, I participated in a professional development opportunity with, Amelia Gambetti (a 25-year teaching veteran in a preschool in Reggio Emilia), Margie Cooper (president of Inspired Practices in Early Education, the nonprofit organization that founded and supports Project Infinity), and other educators from Project Infinity’s member schools. [Note: for more information about Project Infinity, please refer to the “philosophy” tab on our website’s home page.]
For the 2011-2012 school year, Project Infinity schools have committed to research children’s experiences through the lens of this question: “In which ways to children enter into relationship with places?” The past two Project Infinity professional development initiatives involved educators bringing “presentations” that were connected to this shared research question. A goal was to share with one another our experiences as educators in our unique school contexts.
In October, during the first of these professional development encounters, Kristi and I shared a presentation that underlined the uniqueness of the physical space of The Nest and how we have observed children’s interactions here. During these kinds of exchanges, we analyze closely the work we do with children so that we can offer richer experiences related to their interests. This creates for us a stronger awareness of children’s play and what it means for their learning processes. As many of you know, the conversations at the meetings in October inspired us to take down and move the baby gates that were previously considered “permanent fixtures” in our environment. This seemingly simple act has had a big impact on the overall atmosphere of our school. For us as educators, this is testament to the ways in which the process of creating “presentations” of our work contributes to our own development and learning.
In February, we were asked to share a continuation of our work connected to the research question “In which ways do children build relationship with places?” Initially, Kristi and I decided that we would share two stories: our observations from when we took the gates down and our recent experiences at Farmer Red’s Urban Farm in Ormewood Park. I began working on a PowerPoint that tried to give visibility to what happened in our school when we took the gates down while Kristi took the lead on creating a video about the trips we have taken to the farm. We then came together to look at the beginnings of what we had to share with our colleagues and to improve on what we had so far. Putting together these kinds of presentations involves looking through the many images we have taken throughout the school year. This process is tedious but it has helped us tremendously in analyzing the work we do with the children. Many questions have arisen connected to our day-to-day work with children:
- Do the images we chose to share reflect the values and beliefs that we say we hold?
- Does the “background” environment look respectful, well-organized and clean?
- Are the children getting a wide variety of experiences from which to support their learning?
- Is each child being represented equally? If not, why?
- Are we taking the right images that tell the stories of relationships?
A third of the way through organizing our presentations we realized that we had not captured the true benefits and change in atmosphere that resulted from our adjustments to the environment. It also became clear to us that we have more work to do around making our school a more “open” place where children have the opportunity to move freely throughout the day at The Nest. As a result of these realizations, we decided to wait to share with our colleagues the story of taking down the gates inside the school until we had more time to document, think about, and analyze what this experience has meant for us as a school.
A Reggio-inspired educator is one who embraces the idea of education as a lifelong learning experience. At the moment, a main goal of our professional development is to learn how to give visibility to our work with children and families in a way that increases the understanding of the capabilities children naturally have inside them. We strive to tell the children’s stories and to describe their learning experiences in ways that are clear and powerful. We want to create an attitude in which we are never satisfied with ourselves as educators because we believe we can and should always get better. And this demonstrates the most challenging and the most beautiful aspect of our professional development: through this process of professional development, we are always creating for ourselves more questions than answers.