I started teaching as a preschool teacher assistant. I had taken a couple human development course while completing my undergraduate degree in psychology, but had no real experience teaching in a preschool classroom. While working as a teacher assistant at Erie Neighborhood House’s early childhood program, a Head Start and Preschool for All program, I applied at an Alternative Certification program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This model of alternative certification gave me early childhood knowledge through coursework while allowing me to apply this knowledge directly to the classroom immediately. I was also working with an outstanding preschool teacher who provided me with an excellent model of appropriate teaching practices and genuine care for young children. When I finished the UIC program with teacher licensure, the lead teacher in my classroom left our center, I became the lead teacher in the classroom. I felt prepared to be successful in my teaching, but also had an understanding my teaching journey was just beginning. While I felt able in my abilities to teach, I knew that there was a great deal that I would need to learn as I had experiences as a teacher.
In my current role as an education coordinator supporting curriculum of an early childhood center at Erie House, and as a doctoral student at UIC teaching coursework in early childhood, I realize how rich my apprenticeship into preschool teaching was integral to my transition to becoming a teacher. I also understand that other teachers have not had experiences similar to mine.
While I was eased into becoming a lead teacher, early childhood teachers may find themselves in a teaching position directly out of a teacher preparation program with a great deal of responsibility that they had not anticipated. These responsibilities or unanticipated expectations could include the following:
- Teaching team and team dynamics
- Having supervision responsibilities for teaching assistants
- Becoming a part of the school/center culture
- Self-identifying areas for professional development
- Developing systems of reflective practice
Teaching in an early childhood environment is a team effort. Preschool classrooms having teaching teams of 2-3 teaching staff, with a teacher leading, providing direction to teacher assistants, and in some cases being direct supervisors to their teacher assistants. This dynamic of teamwork requires effort for all teaching staff. There is a balance for a new teacher starting in a classroom where other teaching staff have worked for a long period of time. How does a teacher become the leader of this classroom when she relies on assistants to relay pertinent information about how the classroom runs, curriculum and assessment systems in place, and paperwork that needs to be completed daily? Within this team dynamic, a teacher may have supervision responsibilities for her teacher assistants that may affect how this team works cohesively. This is a situation that some teachers may find themselves in, and one they may need to consider and prepare themselves for.
Each school or early childhood center is unique. While pre-service teachers have experiences in student teaching, these school environments might not match the school where they begin teaching at. For example, a pre-service teacher may have a student teaching experience where teachers at the school might have had formal structures for sharing information and teaching practices, such as mentor relationships for peer learning groups. It is important to note that not all schools or centers will have these types of formal structures in place. To what extent do teachers take initiative to share ideas with other teachers, or ask for help? What type of feedback for instruction exists? Does the school primarily serve a specific population? These factors will affect the overall school culture that a teacher will find herself in. Additionally, there in a variety of early childhood settings, including Head Start centers, public schools, private daycare centers, parochial schools, &c. that teachers may be teaching at. These different types of settings will have unique experiences in administrative structures and teacher supports.
Finally, a key aspect of becoming a teacher is understanding that teaching is a lifelong process of development, growth, and reflection on teaching practices and the overall experience of being a teacher. To what extent are first year teachers aware of this? Understanding this humbling approach may play an important factor in how successful or stressful a teacher’s first year of teaching may be. While we hope that pre-service teachers leave programs with pedagogical and content knowledge in early childhood, the application of this knowledge takes time and requires knowing when to apply what knowledge. Entering a preschool classroom and expecting to implement project-based learning approaches during a teacher’s first week will likely not go well. Focusing on teacher-child relationships and getting to know the children in her classroom is likely a better approach rather than implementing more complex pedagogical practices. To what extent can a teacher reflect on her instruction and treat a bad day in the classroom as an opportunity for reflection and growth? How does she reflect in a way that serves to identify areas of instruction that she may want to improve? To what extent do teachers know when to seek out the help of others or look for professional resources and professional development opportunities?
The start of the school year can be a very stressful time for a new teacher in early childhood education. Learning aspects of a school’s culture, forming a cohesive teaching team, and reflecting on instructional experiences may not be what a first-time teacher anticipates when taking a new teaching position. Preparing early childhood educators to be successful includes not only teaching early childhood pedagogical and content knowledge, but also the realities of what being a teacher actually is. Understanding the factors outside of the actual teaching of young children, could prepare pre-service teachers on the beginning of their teaching journey.
David Banzer is a doctoral student in educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a focus on early math learning and instruction. He is currently the Education Coordinator of the early childhood program at Erie Neighborhood House in Chicago. He was previously a preschool teacher.