By Gary Chin
I had my mind made up.
If I was going to teach, I wanted to teach young children. Much evidence supports that high quality preschool programs are a sound investment academically, economically, and socially. With four million children entering kindergarten each year in the United States, the field of early childhood education (ECE) is rapidly expanding, stretching to accommodate the increased demand for quality childcare. As an Asian American male entering a field whose workforce consists of over 95% women, I felt compelled to provide a secure base from which my students would be able to expand. After graduating from Ithaca College in 2014, I applied for a license to teach preschool through third grade in Indianapolis. With the Asian population in Indianapolis being roughly two percent, I also hoped to make an additional impact in this regard, sharing my cultural strengths and backgrounds with our earliest learners.
Although I felt sound in my decision, my first day as a Head Start teacher in Indianapolis provided me with a shock. Seeing 20 African American three and four-year-old boys’ and girls’ faces staring back at me, I started questioning my ability to be an effective leader in the classroom. I quickly grew fixated, and not in a productive way, on the fact that I didn’t look like any of my coworkers, students, or the families I served. As I worked throughout the year, I engulfed myself with the concept of culturally responsive teaching, teaching methods formed on the basis of genuine connections with a student’s individual values, in an attempt to try to address these differences.
Flash forward one year; as I continue to grow in my capacity as a leader and a teacher serving children and families from backgrounds and perspectives different than my own, I now realize that the differences I have from my students are all the more empowering. My quest to find my authentic leadership as a culturally responsive teacher first started by learning and listening to the Head Start community I serve.
Understanding the significance of providing high-quality preschool environments for our children, it is paramount that teachers take responsibility for their own growth and development, and one I have been thinking about this month during Head Start Awareness Month. I wanted to share ways in which educators can be culturally responsive to families and co-workers without necessarily sharing a common cultural background or ethnic heritage:
- Engage in difficult conversations.
- Learning to acknowledge my own cultural differences among co-workers and the families I serve in my Head Start program was a difficult first step. “I don’t look like you, and I realize that. I’m Chinese American, you’re not; it’s cool,” I say to parents when I conduct home visits. Usually, this is met with both a smile and a sigh of relief. I then follow-up with something along the lines of, “I have an understanding of how to teach your child, but you’re their first and best teacher. As their parent, you’re the expert, not me.” In my own professional identity, I make a conscious effort to be directly antiracist, acknowledging my own privileges, biases, and starting with the family and community in mind. Celebrate differences, and put families first. This can help families feel empowered.
Be an anchor for students’ knowledge.
- As a Head Start teacher, I consider myself more as a facilitator of learning rather than as a deliverer of knowledge. Listen to your students. There is compelling evidence to support play-based learning and gaining a handle on your students’ interests. Do not set play aside for rigid skill-and-drill in the pursuit of meeting literacy or math objectives. Play is purposeful and meets objectives as well as being developmentally appropriate for young children. For example, if you want a student to practice counting, hand a student a piece of paper in the dramatic play center and ask for three dollars in change. Furthermore, being an anchor for students’ knowledge means respecting their input, placing their thoughts and words into classroom books of your own, on bulletin boards, and around the room. If the knowledge is their own, then students will truly be interested in learning.
- Provide multicultural literature.
- Unfortunately, only 331 of approximately 5,000 children’s (picture) books published in 2009 were about ethnic groups of color, or were written by people of color. Additionally, most early childhood teachers in a Head Start program in Shelby County, Tennessee could only identify books that featured Anglo American characters. This leaves it up to teachers to make an effort to provide culturally relevant, multicultural/multi-ethnic literature to students. For example, look to the Coretta Scott King literacy award for notable African American children’s literature.
- We are part of a movement.
- A teacher coach of mine who I greatly respect once told me, “Nobody comes into a preschool center saying, ‘I dislike children.’ Everybody has good intentions and wants the best for the children.” The greatest part of being involved in the early childhood field through Head Start is that teachers and staff want to see students succeed. In the end, I am only one advocate in a field of many brilliant and talented educators. Holding true to my values, while learning to navigate my own personal and professional identity among the diverse cultures and mindsets of others will continue to challenge me as I grow as an educator. Respect the veterans of the profession, and internalize that knowledge to make direct changes in your classroom. Modeling the success you want to see in your own classroom is often one of the most humble forms of leadership.
In response to an increased demand for quality pre-kindergarten programs, I am taking personal responsibility for cultural relevancy and the success of the children in my classroom. From one continually learning, preschool advocate teacher to another, I invite you to join me as I work to provide high quality care and education for my Head Start students and families.
(Gary Chin is with Teach for America)