From Our President. On the Journey to Leadership and Empowerment
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In my work as director of the Early Education for All Campaign at Strategies for Children, I have had opportunities to speak with different groups of early childhood educators—some just starting out and some with many years of experience. As president of the NAEYC Governing Board, I have had even more opportunities to talk with leaders from across the country. Two of the questions that almost always come up are, “How did you go from being a preschool teacher to a director to a lobbyist?” and “How did you get involved in policy and advocacy?”
I often respond first with, “I believe in learning by doing. So far I have been able to use the same skills I needed to captivate 5-year-olds at circle time to engage with legislators at the state house.” I want early educators to believe that they are leaders and can do anything. Then I usually mention the mentors in my life who helped create opportunities for me and supported my growth and development.
As I share my story, I am also thinking about LEAP—the Leadership Empowerment Action Project—which helped to provide an incredible foundation in advocacy and policy to me and to early educators across Massachusetts and the country.
Becoming an early education advocate and leader
In the 1990s, some forward-thinking, revolutionary leaders in early education created a leadership class designed for early educators and directors. Bob French, Patty Hnatiuk, Nancy deProsse, and Pat Xavier worked together to address a critical need—development of a cadre of early childhood education advocates and leaders. Nicknamed MassLEAP, the Massachusetts Leadership Empowerment Action Project was a collaborative effort inspired by a Schott Foundation inquiry into the needs of early education and care providers. A three-credit course, retreats, advocacy efforts, action projects, and lots of community building emerged over several years—all driven by demand from the field.
I want early educators to believe that they are leaders and can do anything.
I enrolled in the MassLEAP class in Boston. Looking back, I can honestly say that taking that class changed my life. The connections I made, the content I learned, and the opportunities I had to research a topic, participate in policy discussions, develop solutions, and learn from experts in the field helped me find my voice as an advocate. After taking the LEAP class, I was inspired to figure out how I could continue my education.
In 2001, I enrolled in Suffolk University’s master’s of public administration program in Boston. One of my goals was to teach in higher education: I wanted to teach the LEAP class! I graduated in May 2006 and started teaching MassLEAP at Wheelock College that fall.
LEAP classes were designed to have co-instructors. It was the perfect way to begin my journey as an instructor. I learned so much that first semester in Boston—from my co-instructor, Debra Johnson Malden; from the students in the class; and from the LEAP creators I was fortunate enough to have as mentors, Patty Hnatiuk and Pat Xavier. I went on to teach LEAP over the years with Rosemary Hernandez in Holyoke and Boston and with Hilda Ramirez in Worcester.
Look to your professional association for opportunities to become an agent for change.
Teaching LEAP classes opened the door for me to serve as adjunct faculty at both public and private institutions in Massachusetts—at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, at Cambridge College, and at Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. It has been a privilege to teach students in undergraduate and master’s level courses on advocacy, policy, leadership, and communication. I have witnessed incredible personal and professional transformations in these early educators as they come to recognize the power they have as advocates and experts in the field.
Students making a difference
One of the key pieces of LEAP that I teach in every class is the community action project. Students choose a topic and develop a plan to make a change—to create something new, update something that already exists, or raise awareness about an issue that is important to them. I am always inspired by the projects and the challenges students take on during the 15-week class. The goal is not to complete the project, but rather to learn along the way by taking action and by learning content in class and in the readings.
As they brainstorm ideas, students frequently want to hear about other projects. I tell them about the Early Educators Awards Gala. Created by a LEAPer, this event celebrates and honors early educators with peer-nominated awards and recognizes program quality while early educators enjoy a night out with friends and colleagues. And I tell them about the student who worked on developing an all-abilities playground in her community as the result of a personal experience: her son was not able to participate at a water park.
I always invite a state legislator to attend my advocacy, policy, and leadership class. One of the students’ first assignments is to figure out who represents them at the State House and to make a connection with that person. One year, a student set up a coffee get-together with the state senator in her district. At my invitation, he came to our class the night before, and I encouraged her to make the connection—to talk with him about the meeting she had scheduled with him for the next day. After the meeting, she emailed to tell me how helpful the senator was regarding her action project—and that he had offered her a summer internship in his office!
Another student took action when a state grant designed to support early educators was at risk of being consolidated with a larger funding stream. She met with program directors in her community, got more than 100 signatures on a letter, and reached out to her state senator for help. The outcome? The funding stream did not change. The student felt like she had made a difference. She had done the research, gotten accurate information, reached out to her allies, and taken action. She felt empowered.
Choose your path
LEAP was created over 20 years ago, but the need for this type of learning and hands-on experience is just as important today. As a member of NAEYC, you can look to your professional association for opportunities to become an agent for change. Work with your affiliate to connect with local and state decision makers. Participate in NAEYC’s Public Policy Forum to talk with your elected officials in Washington. Take an active role in Power to the Profession to shape the early education field. Share your story—think about what topic you could tackle to make our field better. Remember, you are smart, you are powerful, and you are a leader and an advocate for the education and success of young children. They are counting on you.
Amy O'Leary serves as President of the NAEYC Governing Board.