You've heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. That meal became especially significant when we had the opportunity to share it with someone we had admired for many years. While attending the 2015 National Institute for Early Childhood Professional Development, the legendary Thelma Harms quietly asked if she could join us for breakfast.
We were eating breakfast at a small table overlooking the Mississippi River at the New Orleans Hilton when Ms. Harms approached looking for a place to sit. We had an opportunity to introduce ourselves to her the day before in the hotel lobby, taking just a few minutes to thank her for all her work in the early childhood profession. So, when Thelma Harms walked towards our breakfast table, we happily made space for her to join us.
As teacher educators, we are aware of the disconnect that often occurs between our students (preservice teachers) and our mentors. The students are, understandably, wrapped up with coursework, standards, and assessments; they focus less on the history of early education. If we didn’t remind our students of the pioneers who came before us, and their early struggles and works, the field might falsely appear as if it didn’t have roots. Thelma Harms is one of the leaders who gave the early childhood field its roots.
By sharing amusing anecdotes at that impromptu meeting , Thelma took us on a journey from UC Berkeley to UNC Chapel Hill. We traveled through her early days of advocacy for children and families, quality environments, and equal opportunities, to the breakfast table in New Orleans where she shared her wisdom and expertise with us. Her stories spoke to a time when women needed to prove themselves in higher education; when a woman with wild California hair moved across the country to North Carolina, where she was greeted by helpful southern ladies who immediately recommended a hair stylist to help her craft a more appropriate look. Thankfully for the field, instead of focusing on her hairstyle Thelma focused on her work in early childhood as she coauthored the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scales (ECERS) (Harms, Clifford, & Cryer 2005) and numerous other publications. She humbly explained that though her name may be listed as first author on the ECERS, she really just had an idea and wrote “this little article.” The rest is history.
As we sat captivated by Thelma, we were reminded that those of us in the early childhood field stand on the shoulders of giants, and we must not forget those who came before us. From her recollections of being at Berkeley during the protests in the early 1970s to her move to UNC, Thelma took us through the history of early childhood education, the struggles for equity and inclusion, and the continued need to push the field forward.
Thelma graciously shared her time and spirit with us that early morning. As she prepared for her 90th birthday in July, her excitement for the new ECERS-3 showed how this profession continues to be very important to her. She was delighted to hear the positive feedback we shared about the ECERS-3 and how it would continue to improve quality in the ECE profession.
On the plane ride home we recommitted ourselves to making sure that not only the names, but the ideals and philosophies of these early pioneers in the field are embedded throughout our coursework. As we cultivate early childhood preservice teachers, we now make sure to honor the roots of those who came before us by intentionally creating assignments where students critically engage and reflect upon our history, its impact on our profession, and define themselves as future leaders.
We sat in awe that morning in New Orleans, and we still continue to say to each other and to anyone else who will listen, “We had breakfast with Thelma Harms, and we have the pictures to prove it.”
Spontaneous networking opportunities like these happen all the time at NAEYC's Institute.
Join us this year, June 5-8 in Baltimore, MD for your chance to connect with early childhood thought leaders and hundreds of your peers--maybe even over breakfast!
Harms, T., R.M. Clifford, & D. Cryer. (2005). Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale: Revised Edition. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Cindy Ryan, PhD, is early childhood program coordinator and an assistant professor at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon. She has over 20 years of experience as an early childhood and early childhood special educator in inclusive settings and has taught at the university level for the past five years.
Linda Craven, MEd, is an early childhood instructor at Western Oregon University. Linda has been involved in the early childhood field for over 35 years, teaching at both the community college and university levels.