Positive relationships

The 6 things early educators would tell their younger selves

Here are the biggest lessons you’ll learn from teaching children.
September 1, 2021
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • This piece is meant for anyone just starting out in early education, to give them advice from those who have been working with children for decades.
  • We connected with dozens of experienced educators over social media and through phone interviews, to ask what they felt were some of the biggest lessons of their careers.
  • We’ve taken all the advice we got, and boiled it down to these six key takeaways for those younger educators who have just joined the sector.

If you could give some advice to yourself from ten years ago, what would you say?

All of us could probably use a chat like that. Unfortunately, the relentless march of time offers no such mercies. Unless, of course, you’ve got the internet on your side.

We started thinking about what lessons early educators have found most helpful during their careers, or what they wish they’d known when they were just starting out. So, we said, why not just ask?

Through social media and phone interviews, we reached out to early educators across the US and UK, to ask what wisdom they’d share with those who are  just entering the sector. We’ve taken their best advice, and packed it into these big takeaways to share with the next generation of early educators.

Here’s what all their experience had to say.

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1. Keep learning and building your skill set through your whole career.

Through all the voices we heard from, one theme rang especially clear: Commit to continued professional training through your whole career.

This isn’t always easy. It means searching for educational scholarships, classes and other training opportunities, and following through on those. In some cases, it also requires applying for grants and other resources to support your ongoing training. 

Above all, educators we talked to emphasized building up your knowledge of child development every chance you get. This makes it easier to form deeper bonds with each child, to help them manage their behavior, and to give them the strongest possible start in life. It’s great for children, and often removes some frustrations from your work.

On top of that, getting additional qualifications and degrees can give you better leverage for higher pay and more preferable positions.

“I wish I knew more about early childhood mental health, and social-emotional development when I started out 20 years ago. If I could go back. I’d tell myself to more closely observe all the events and signs that led up to children’s challenging behaviors,” Rachel Michelson told us. 

If you’d like to hear Early Years consultant Alison Featherbe’s best advice on how educators can improve the state of continued professional development (CPD) within early education, you can check out our interview with her right here.

2. Learn from your colleagues every chance you get.

Training programs and certifications are excellent sources of knowledge, but there’s another great source that’s even more accessible: your colleagues.

“You don’t always know everything just because you have the degree, especially when others have experience. Experience and longevity are key in this field! Find those educators, listen to them, and learn from them,” Elizabeth Ann told us.

Especially if you’re just starting out in early education, now’s a good time to connect with the colleagues who have been there for decades. Come to them with questions, observe their interactions with children, and ask for feedback on your own approach. There’s nothing wrong with asking for a little help or guidance when you need it. Most always, people are happy to offer advice.

A few months ago, we explored how educators’ own learning journeys use professional training, as well as advice from those experienced colleagues. You can read about how that works right here.

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3. Being present with children will always be most important.

This one likely isn’t news to you, but it’s so big that it bears repeating.

Beyond any paperwork, progress reports or parent meetings, the single most important thing you can do is make time for each child, and give them your attention. This doesn’t always mean engaging them in direct interaction, though. Simply being present and observing is a huge developmental support for children. It’s one of the best ways to build individual relationships with children, and for you to boost your understanding of how children learn and grow.

“If I could go back, I would tell myself to slow down, be patient, listen to children and allow them more time,” Tamara Floriani said. “Respect from the children in our care is earned, and it’s the most rewarding part of your job to have earned a child’s trust.”

Of course, as Stephanie Kelley told us, this also means giving children the trust and space to lead their own learning.

“This job is not about entertaining, it's about engaging. Children have the skills and the drive to learn, you have to work with them,” she writes.

One big way you can put this into practice is through the Pikler approach. If you’d like to read more about how that works, and why it’s so good for raising confident, capable children, just click right here.

4. Be aware that your learning space is a teacher, too.

From the first day you step in an early education setting, you should be mindful that the room itself is an important teacher to have on your team.

Your learning environment should invite children to pursue their own interests and curiosities. You might provide this by making sure you’ve got toys and activities to cater to all the common types of children’s play schemas. This can be a balancing act, though. Too much color, or too much clutter, can be overstimulating for some children. 

Often times, if the room seems comfortable and engaging to adults, odds are that children will see it the same way.

“I always find that educators who struggle in their classrooms often don’t put enough emphasis and effort into their environment. One thing, and not always with newbies, is to remember to keep the clutter down! You need to find a happy medium of materials — too little gives the children nothing to do, too many materials can be overwhelming,” writes Danielle Tidd-Lehtinen.

If you’d like to learn more about learning through your environment, you might read about how your choice of lighting shapes children’s learning, how you can make a garden play space anywhere, or how you can get into more outdoor learning.

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5. Work together with parents, and remember that they’re trying their best.

The educators we talked to often said that from the start, they wish they’d done a little more to build strong relationships with the parents in their network. That desire often bubbled up in these four ways:

  • Sharing more child development knowledge with parents
  • Spending more time talking, either during daily drop-offs or in conferences
  • Sending more activities, learning materials and resources home with children
  • Recognizing parents’ own expertise, and remembering they want the best for children

When you’ve got a good, communicative relationship with parents, everybody wins. Sharper insights from home mean more target activities and lesson plans in the classroom — and, it can help give parents a closer look at all the skilled work you do as an educator.

Sometimes, building this relationship isn’t a straight path forward. But even in moments when that outreach process might feel frustrating or tedious, try not to think of it as you versus the parents. You’re on the same team, and working together to give their children the best possible early years experience.

We’ve got a whole article to help you learn the secrets to stronger parent partnerships. Or, you can read about early educator Wendy Kettleborough’s initiative called ‘Parents are Experts,’ which helps celebrate and boost that sense of cooperation.

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6. Celebrate the brilliant moments — especially when you’re dealing with the tougher ones.

For every nap time meltdown or lunchtime mess to deal with, there’s also a sparkling moment: Witnessing the smile of a child who’s just mastered some new skill, or hearing the babbled bits of wisdom that only a toddler’s mind can produce. 

Jane Martin McGill told us, “Don't sweat the small stuff, embrace the chaos and keep a journal of all the amazing moments you are lucky enough to experience with each child.”

Now, this doesn’t mean you need to ignore the challenges that come with the territory. Some days can be more demanding, sticky or smelly than others. But when you see those bursts of joy and discovery, it’s worth savoring them. After all, there aren’t many people in the world that get to witness these moments like you do.

The big ideas

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

Learn more about Famly

Find out below from Neil Leitch about the impact of Famly at the Early Years Alliance, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.