Over the last decade, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has brought us into a new era of working with young children. They have encouraged us to implement developmentally appropriate practices, to establish child-centered programs, and to value the importance of what we do. As this new era unfolds, we must prepare ourselves for new roles and responsibilities.
In order to envision new roles, I feel it is essential that we free ourselves from old stereotypes that might limit what we do with and for children. The concepts of teacher and caregiver present a picture of one who is in control; of one who dispenses knowledge; and of one who serves as the central figure in a program. In truth, the central figure of any program should be the child. Therefore, we must continually re-examine and re-define what we do and how we see ourselves.
The roles identified here are not given in order of importance, nor is the list all-inclusive. If I’ve learned nothing else over the past quarter century, I’ve learned that each individual must decide which roles to embrace and which roles to reject.
We are all inherently social beings. We seek contact with others and along with this contact comes the exchange of thoughts and ideas. The communicator role is probably the least developed in our profession. Because of time constraints, we often "just do the job"; we seldom have the opportunity for professional conversations. The result—isolation. We must make an effort to talk to one another on a regular basis. In addition to talking, we need to listen. Listening should comprise half of the communication process, but it always seems to be less. By minimizing the use of listening, we send hidden messages to the children indicating that our thoughts are more important than theirs.
As facilitators of learning, we need to give up some of the control that accompanies the traditional role of "teacher." Instead of being dispensers of knowledge, we should serve as guides to the children in our care. Therefore, the facilitator is deeply interested in the classroom environment—how it is set up and how it affects individual children. The role of facilitator is time consuming and requires additional planning and research hours to seek out the most current information about children and learning and to reflect on how educational theory relates to our particular programs.
As coaches, we function as encouragers who make suggestions, provide options, and observe classroom activity. The students come to us when more or new information is required, and we become responsible for developing a sense of community and cooperation, while bringing out the best in each player.
This role may be the most significant one we undertake. My mother used to say, "Do what I say, not what I do." It never seemed important for me to understand why I should do something; I always just did it (most of the time). Today’s children seldom accept something as fact. Because of the multitude of experiences they are exposed to at an early age, they seem to be more sophisticated, more alert, and certainly better able to question adult practices. Therefore, it is vital that we do as we want them to do. For us to model the kind of behaviors we expect from children, we will have to ask ourselves some hard questions, including: "What do I believe?" "How much of what I believe can and should be passed on?" and even, "Do I have prejudices that come through in hidden ways?"
Keeper of the Watch
We watch over our classrooms and children to ensure that all is well and to manage the amount of time spent on certain classroom activities. Over the years, I found myself to be an unusually rigid time keeper. Let me challenge you to look carefully at how you use time. Who controls it? What does strict adherence to a schedule say to children? Are we giving them the message, even at this early age, that the quality of work or depth of thought is not as important as finishing the work in a prescribed amount of time? Are we saying that the process of learning must be broken up into time blocks? Do we actually discourage some children from choosing certain centers because they know that they won’t have time to experiment?
As I observe classrooms, I notice that we seldom see the whole picture; we have too many other roles. Although things may look good at a glance, something may be wrong on the inside. Ask yourself, "How often do I stop to reflect on why a child has chosen an activity or how he or she came to an end product?" I found, in my final years of teaching, that videotaping classroom activity gave me enormous insight into how children responded to materials and what events preceded certain behavior.
Many children come from backgrounds where family stories are not passed on or valued. Even in homes where children are given rich learning experiences, quality time and the opportunity to know and learn from extended family members are limited. I often wonder if we are losing the value of memories. If storytelling is a skill that is being lost, perhaps our classrooms are the perfect arena to reintroduce that talent.
Early childhood professionals are in a perfect position to help further our knowledge base about educating young children. We have massive amounts of information about the way children learn, but lack knowledge on how particular populations react in a specific environment. These things cannot be determined anywhere except in existing classrooms. Using data from authentic situations will help build new bodies of knowledge.
If we are to lead the educational march into the 21st century, we will need to re-evaluate what we know and how we use our knowledge. We can’t do it alone, but if millions of early childhood professionals raise their voices, we will certainly be heard.
Jill Miels, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Elementary Education, Teachers College at Ball State University. In addition to teaching undergraduate classes, she is actively involved in professional organizations and continues to work closely with schools. She worked with young children in a variety of settings from 1971 until 1993.