Preparing and supporting early childhood educators

By Megan Rubiner Zinn

A Massachusetts college stepped up during the pandemic to educate frontline workers.

The coronavirus pandemic threw into stark relief how much we depend on certain professions to keep our society functioning, especially in a crisis. In many cases, the most unsung of these essential frontline workers were teachers in early education, who continued to care for and teach our youngest citizens in challenging and risky environments.

In the Greenfield, Massachusetts, area and beyond, many of those frontline workers are current and former students of Greenfield Community College (GCC), which offers an accessible, innovative and effective early childhood education (ECE) program.

The GCC education program offers a liberal arts education track associate degree, designed for students who plan to transfer to a four-year college and pursue teaching positions in public schools; the early childhood education certificate program, for those who want to advance in the profession or start toward a degree; and the early childhood education associate degree, for those pursuing careers in birth through age eight education and care.

GCC’s early childhood education program puts a very high emphasis on the relationships between faculty and students, innovative pedagogy and experiential learning.

One of the highlights of GCC’s ECE program is their dedicated Early Childhood Education Lab. The lab is a classroom for teachers that includes the materials, furniture and equipment they might see in an early childhood classroom, as well as equipment and materials not typically seen in ECE, such as a wind tunnel and robotics for young children. It allows education students to work together to co-create lessons and build experiences for children using hands-on materials and technology rather than just conceptualizing from a theoretical perspective.

The ECE program is also in the process of taking the Education Lab to the next level, creating a documentation and transdisciplinary studio that will give education students many ways to think through teaching problems and solutions with faculty and students from many disciplines throughout the college.

Adapting to adverse conditions

Dean of Social Sciences and Professional Studies Chet Jordan has been deeply impressed by the faculty’s ability to educate the newest cohort during the pandemic. “Watching our faculty go through that inaugural process of introducing their students to the kinds of pedagogy that we find important, but having to do it remotely, was really fascinating and the leadership of the faculty has been inspiring as well,” he observes. “The retention from one semester to the other is a testament to both our students’ commitment, and to our faculty’s ability to reach beyond the digital divide, and ensure that community is built, which is essential to creating really robust early childhood centers.”

That sense of community the faculty was able to inspire with synchronous online courses was crucial to the students who deeply missed a feeling of community they take for granted in educational settings. “I have consistently heard across different classes and different students that having that connection was really important and was so needed when they were becoming disconnected in the field,” says Peggy Martalock, who leads the ECE program.

Students throughout the ECE program have shown great perseverance and dedication to their field throughout the pandemic. They had to navigate the shift to remote learning, and like many GCC students, had to juggle their course work along with caring for and navigating the schooling of their children at home. Many work at childcare centers and went back to work early in the pandemic. On top of their regular demanding work, they had to manage the new safety regulations and protocols from the state, as well as the stress of their much greater risk of Covid exposure.

The college also had to be creative to ensure students were getting the practicum hours they needed. Last spring, some were able to finish their practica remotely, while this year, most were able to complete their practica at educational centers where they were already employed.

In Jordan’s view, this is the ideal time to establish better support for this essential sector of the economy, before a return to business as usual. “The pandemic has shown us, much like it has in other areas, where the gaps and our inequities really are. Early childhood education is considerably underfunded and under resourced and these teachers and staff members don’t typically make a living wage. There’s a mismatch between that demand and that need and what our society prioritizes in terms of resources. Now is when we need our state legislators and our federal government to respond in kind and to act.”

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Megan Rubiner Zinn

is a freelance writer in Northampton, Massachusetts.