From Our President: Where Will Your Passion for Early Education Take You?
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Although early childhood education is my true passion, I’m also a big sports fan. One website I love is the Players’ Tribune, which gives readers a chance to hear the players’ stories in their own words. I really enjoy the series “Letter to My Younger Self,” in which athletes reflect on what they have achieved and share what they might say to themselves in the earlier days when those achievements seemed far out of reach. The letters are personal and thoughtful, heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking.
As I near the end of my time as NAEYC Governing Board president—a job I could not have imagined doing when I was starting out as a preschool teacher—I can’t help thinking about my own younger self and what she might need to hear.
So you just got back from the NAEYC Annual Conference in Washington, DC—your first business trip! It was so great that your executive director had business cards made for you that said “Amy O’Leary, Preschool Teacher” so you could hand them out to all the amazing people you met. I know how overwhelming it was to be with so many people with so much passion for early education from all across the country. It’s still a challenge to put into words the power and strength you felt standing alongside them.
It is hard to imagine this now, but soon you will become the preschool program director, and you’ll spend almost 10 years at Ellis Memorial. You will learn so much from the children and families and have so many opportunities to learn about advocacy and the impact of policy in your classrooms. You will meet passionate, dedicated professionals throughout Boston who share your personal mission and believe in the power of early education.
But that’s just the beginning of your journey. Remember Margaret Blood, who met with you at the State House when you graduated from Skidmore College? That informational interview was more important than you think—almost 10 years later, Margaret will hire you to be the early childhood field director for the Early Education for All Campaign at Strategies for Children. You’ll feel overwhelmed and underprepared at first, but you’ll remain committed and find others who want to guide your efforts.
The future holds so many possibilities, even if you can’t imagine them right now.
Margaret will take you everywhere she goes. You’ll take notes, follow up with new contacts, and learn so much about effective advocacy, policy, and working in communities, including how to draft and pass legislation, understand the state budget, work with the media, raise funds, and speak to and with large groups. All of this is part of the bigger thing you’re learning: how to stand up for what you believe in and fight for change.
One day, you will be a registered lobbyist and it will be your job to advocate for young children and families—your job! You’ll also go back to school for a master’s in public administration, taking two classes at a time until you finish. And Margaret is one of many incredible mentors in your life who will support you, challenge you, teach you, create opportunities for you, make room at the table for you, believe in you, and help you find your voice.
I know you won’t believe this now, but your work will take you across the country for meetings and conferences with educators, advocates, policymakers, and funders. You’ll make lifelong friends, learn from top experts in the country, and be part of a movement to get high-quality early education on the top of the political agenda at the local, state, and national levels.
As you continue your work, you’ll have the opportunity to see early education programs in Italy, Ireland, Guatemala, and South Africa. You will not believe how similar the challenges are in all the places you visit—but this will only give you more energy for the fight.
There are so many people passionate about helping each and every child.
In Reggio, Italy, (yes, that Reggio!), you will see and feel what it looks like when a whole community believes that young children are competent and capable, and you’ll finally understand what it means to have the environment as the third teacher. You will meet preschool directors in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Dublin, Ireland, who, like you, are working together to bridge the “care” and “education” divide—showing that early education is both caring for and teaching children. In Guatemala, you will be moved to see amazing mothers and teachers develop skills to improve the lives of children and families. You will see the impact when mothers and teachers are empowered to be leaders. It will remind you of the many rising local leaders in early education you’ve met at home through your work as an instructor teaching classes at public and private colleges.
In October 2019, you’ll travel to South Africa. While you’re there, you will meet incredible leaders from the Do More Foundation and travel across the country to visit early education programs, talking to program directors and educators who are struggling with very low compensation and lack of funding. Although the circumstances are very different, this is a story you know well.
You will go to a professional development day in Worcester, South Africa, and when you walk in, you’ll feel like you are home. Although you’re nearly 8,000 miles from Boston, the setting will feel so familiar because you’ll be surrounded by early educators who have come together for inspiration and learning. The facilitator will start off the meeting by saying, “I am so glad you are here today. You all do the most important work in the world, and I thank you.”
Sitting in that community room, you’ll find yourself reflecting on all the differences and all the similarities you’ve seen around the world. You will think about the countless hours you have spent in meetings, workshops, classes, conference sessions, and conference calls advocating for early educators, and you will wonder if things will ever change. But you will also remember your own journey. You’ll remember how you felt at that first NAEYC Annual Conference as a new preschool teacher who never imagined she’d get to travel across the United States, let alone South Africa, as an advocate for early education. You’ll see the faces and hear the stories of the many early educators who have stood up, spoken out, taken action, and inspired you and others over the years. You will recommit to this work and leave South Africa ready to redouble your efforts.
You all do the most important work in the world, and I thank you.
A few weeks later, when you turn 50, thousands of early educators will sing “Happy Birthday” to you during the opening session of the NAEYC Annual Conference, your last conference as president of NAEYC’s Governing Board, and your heart will be full.
The main thing I want to tell you—and all the early educators just like you—is that the future holds so many possibilities, even if you can’t imagine them right now. There are so many people passionate about helping each and every child get the high-quality education they deserve. There are so many opportunities to stand up and fight for change, around the world and right where you are.
Get ready for a wild ride.
Amy O'Leary serves as President of the NAEYC Governing Board.