How NLC Prepared Me for the Classroom

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As I start a new career as a preschool teacher here in Washington, D.C., I leave the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families with a unique set of skills I’ll be able to utilize in my classroom and beyond.

African American boy with friends and building blocks
NLC’s early childhood work has shown me the importance of early childhood systems building. (Getty Images)

Although my background is in early childhood education, the National League of Cities (NLC) has given me direct insight into the structure and function of municipal government. I have discovered that mayors yield great influence over the direction of city priorities, and that city staff play an integral role in carrying out the work itself. I have built relationships with key city staff who have implemented early childhood awareness campaigns, ran mayors’ book clubs, and found creative ways to utilize city resources, such as leasing out city space to use as an early learning hub.

As the early childhood team wraps up its nearly three-year project on educational alignment for young children (you can see the 10 elements of alignment here), there are few key lessons I will bring with me in my metaphoric school bag.

Parents are not, and never have been, “hard to reach.” It is easy to say that family engagement isn’t working in a community because parents aren’t at the table. Cities’ efforts combined with national family engagement strategies – such as the Community Organizing and Family Issues and the Parent Leadership Training Institute models being used in Rochester, New York – prove that families can (and want to) be involved in their children’s education and learn skills to be advocates in their communities. There will be times in my classroom where I will feel frustrated with a lack of engagement from parents or a lack of opportunities for engagement for my students’ families. The educational alignment for young children framework has taught me that, while no model or approach is perfect, the best thing I can do is meet parents where they are.

Transitions are difficult! The transition from pre-K to Kindergarten is difficult not just for students but also parents, teachers, and administrators. Children may be going from four years of informal, patched-together care from family, friends and neighbors to full-time Kindergarten at a public elementary school. Summer pre-K transition programs, such as Pittsburgh’s Kindergarten Clubs, provide an opportunity for both parents and children to get a glimpse of what kindergarten will look like.

Administrators also need a way to share data across systems so that Kindergarten teachers are not starting from scratch on day one and can use data to inform their work. For example, the Early Learning Coalition of Duval, in partnership with the City of Jacksonville and Jacksonville Children’s Commission, is establishing a data-sharing agreement to share common birth-to-5 data. As a teacher, I need to ensure I support families as they prepare for this transition. In addition, I need to be knowledgeable on all of the different systems to which my students are transitioning in a city with so many choices. In one classroom, I could have students signed up to attend kindergarten at their neighborhood DCPS school, at one of the many charter schools in the city, or at a magnet school, for example. Understanding how to adapt for each of these scenarios so that each child and family is ready is crucial for each student’s success.

Support for early childhood educators comes in many forms. Last year’s Institute of Medicine report promoted requiring bachelor’s degrees for all early childhood lead teachers. But there is more to early childhood educators’ success than just a degree. Teachers need personal and direct support in the classroom. Hartford has collaborated with FirstSchool to train coaches in supporting teachers’ use of data in their classrooms to build on successes and address gaps. This model provides opportunities for collaborative professional development among school district-based educators and community-based educators.

However, exceptional professional development opportunities do not make up for the fact that the median annual wage for preschool teachers is just $28,570 versus $51,640 for kindergarten teachers – the U.S. Department of Education released a fact sheet on this pay gap just last month. San Francisco’s Department of Early Care and Education is attempting to close this gap through its C-WAGES program, which provides funding to early childhood educators working in center and family-based care programs. I understand the importance of the professional development opportunities my school is able to offer me as well as seek out others on my own. And, while I can’t increase the wages of all early childhood educators in the country, I am fortunate to be teaching in a program that recognizes the value in paying its educators a living wage as well as providing multiple chances for professional development and growth, setting an example for other programs.

There are a million things I will not be prepared for on my first day in the classroom, but my time at NLC has taught me the importance of educational alignment and local level work. I am looking forward to this next step in my career and am grateful for the lessons learned from the National League of Cities.

Lauren RobertsonAbout the Author: Lauren Robertson has worked for the past year on the early childhood team at National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education & Families. She is leaving her position at the end of July to pursue a teaching career with AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.