Feature Teacher: Hope Cain
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Hope Cain has been an associate teacher at the NASA Goddard Child Development Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for 8 years.
What is something a child has taught you?
The most important thing a child has taught me is to never quit. I have encountered children who strive to complete a task that is challenging, and they continue to work hard, use the resources at their disposal, and persevere until they have accomplished their goal. For example, I had a student who did an alphabet puzzle every day until she was able to put every piece in place without assistance. At times, she got frustrated to the point of tears, but never quit. Instead, she would recite the alphabet or look to the wall where the alphabet was displayed while completing the puzzle. Occasionally, she would incorrectly place pieces into the puzzle board, take them all out, and start over until she got them all to fit.
This child taught me to never quit and that the power of encouraging words truly can be a source of strength just when you’re ready to give up. Take a deep breath and look up—there are clues all around to help you, so don’t forget to use your resources. When a task gets tough, keep going, stay focused, and never be afraid to start over again.
What is most important in your classroom?
Children are the most important aspect of my classroom. I am an advocate for children first. I believe the classroom should reflect a warm and inviting energy where children feel safe and know that they belong in this community. It should be exciting, organized, and predictable. The classroom should be print-rich and safe, and should tell a story that is inclusive to the lives of the children’s culture—all while keeping them engaged and excited without over stimulating them. There should be a variety of materials and experiences always accessible to captivate and promote the children’s interest and inquiry skills. It should feel like a partnership with families and the community. Having a routine and schedule is an essential part of the classroom so that children know what to expect and what comes next. Maintaining a sense of safety and security through smooth transitions, classroom rules, and student jobs also supports how to care for the classroom and for one another. The classroom should always have exploratory, hand-on experiences that can make it exciting, fresh, and fun.
How do you build on children’s individual and family strengths, cultural backgrounds, and experiences?
To build individuality into my classroom, I first get to know the children and families, and then I bring the children’s cultures into the classroom through the environment (what’s displayed around the room) and through learning experiences that connect children’s cultural identities with ongoing projects and play. Invite families to provide labels in their home languages and volunteer to share their cultures. Allow the children to share stories and activities with each other about their cultures and backgrounds.
How do you show children you value them?
I show children I value them by always trying to be an active listener. I engage children in extended dialogue where I ask open-ended questions to encourage them to expand their thinking and maximize their learning. Taking the time to listen to them describe a picture they created can turn into a story about an uncle's funeral. Listening shows the children that you care about them, and it shows children that you value their thoughts and feelings.
How do you communicate with children’s families?
From the very beginning, my goal is to establish strong relationships and gain the trust with families. It is important they feel comfortable with their child’s teacher. I strive to demonstrate professionalism and honesty, keep the child as the number one priority, and to act with the goal to work in partnership for their best outcome. Sometimes I may have to provide uncomfortable feedback, but having a strong relationship as a foundation can make a big difference. Other times, I use the “sandwich” method: first, I focus on the positive things and what the child is doing well; then, I move on to areas where the child needs improvement; and finally, I always attempt to end on a positive note. I want my families to feel confident and to trust the decision they made to have their child in my care every day.
What do you do when things don’t go as planned?
When things don’t go as planned, I try to navigate my day based on the response of the children, and I try to flow with what happens next. Flexibility is a necessary skill as a teacher. I always say, “Prepare for the unpredictable.” Change is inevitable with children, and when you know your children well enough, you know when it’s time to read a story or to get up and dance to shake out those wiggles. Rather than get upset or overly focused on schedule mix-ups, I have found that it’s better to just keep going and adapt based on how the children respond.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
My proudest accomplishment has been watching my oldest son go off to college on a full academic scholarship. He is in his second year and completing it with great success. Also, being able to watch my youngest son grow musically with learning how to play every instrument he touches. Raising my sons to love God and to trust that He has an awesome plan for their futures has been more than fulfilling. I am grateful and thankful.
What is your favorite children’s book?
My favorite children’s book is Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes. I love this book because I relate to it so well. Chrysanthemum didn’t like her name and was teased in school by her friends because of her name. Her parents would tell her that her name was perfect and beautiful. I relate to this story because I hated my name as a kid. I would get teased terribly by my peers because of it. As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate my name and its meaning. I love how my name inspires and uplifts people who have given up hope in their lives.
What are you reading now?
The Happiness Guide for Early Childhood Educators: Secrets to Living Your Best Life In and Out of the Classroom, by Brian Duprey and Kris Murray. This book gives insights into leadership, health, and wellness, and how to develop goals, follow your dreams, and keep your commitment to a strong work ethic. I am enjoying reading this book because I can identify with and learn something from almost every chapter so far. Especially recently, it has encouraged me to keep on pushing forward and to always remember why I choose this field.
How do you take care of yourself?
I believe rest is important. Listening to your body is the key to self-care. Even though I’m always on the go, I find time to rest and unwind; I’ll enjoy a good book, journal, spend time with my children, and write poetry. I also take care of myself by taking vacations and breaks to refresh myself so I won’t find myself burned out at work.
When did you know you had to teach?
Since I was a young child myself, I knew I wanted to give back to my community in a way that was impactful to the lives of others. And I knew that being a teacher would provide me with the outlet to contribute to the growth and development of young children. I always saw myself as a teacher that would help children learn through music, arts, and hands-on exploration. I enjoy seeing the smiles on families’ and children’s faces when they have reached a milestone, and that’s when I know I’ve done my job. Feeling the joy of families for their children’s growth is a remarkable experience.
How are you teaching and engaging children during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Engaging the children virtually during this pandemic has been an experience. My teaching team works together to create a learn-and-play lesson plan to help families engage their children with their learning while at home and when possible within their situation. We created private Facebook group pages to engage the students daily, to interact with family members, and to post photos of projects and daily activities. We also hold a weekly Zoom video call to have face-to-face interaction. Distance learning has become the norm, but it can be difficult for some. While I have still enjoyed this time, I do miss my friends and my school’s family community, and I am looking forward to when we can safely return to the classroom.
What is your teaching style in three words?
Protect, educate, nurture.
I am a NAEYC member because. . .
NAEYC has been a beneficial part of the early childhood education community for many, many years. I enjoy the conferences, and the teaching strategies that I have learned during these events encourage every educator to be intentional and to create more challenging activities for our children. NAEYC’s philosophy and standards have been a resourceful blueprint for early childhood educators to follow.
How has being part of NAEYC positively impacted your teaching?
NAEYC has especially helped me with effective ways to work with children with disabilities to engage them in playful learning at their own pace. More broadly, being a part of NAEYC has inspired me to offer more active, more hands-on experiences so that children can literally grasp concepts right at their fingertips. I believe learning should always be playful.
Photographs: courtesy of Hope Cain.
Copyright © 2021 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See permissions and reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.