We know that there is a direct connection between professional development of teachers and the quality of our early childhood programs. What constitutes professional development? At the Erikson Institute, there are three components: knowledge, practice, and reflection.
Knowledge includes both child development and curriculum content. First, know who the child is, with an appreciation of individual differences in the context of family, community, and culture. Include all aspects of child development-physical, cognitive, social, emotional, linguistic, aesthetic, and the role of environmental factors.
Research and theories contribute to our knowledge, but they can't completely fit an individual child's experience. And there's always new research that can change our minds about things. We strive to put these things in perspective. The promotion of healthy development in all domains is the central goal, accommodating cultural diversity, showing respect for families and giving parents affirmation of their parenting competence. Erikson's position is that knowledge of child development is necessary, even critical, but not sufficient.
In curriculum content, we teach what we think is developmentally appropriate. We also need knowledge of academic goals in all of the subject areas, especially early literacy, social studies, math, science, and the fine arts. A child's appetite for learning emerges when teachers understand how to engage children in thinking and problem solving around issues that matter to them. The crux is to offer challenging learning opportunities while avoiding the tendency to push upper-grade curriculum into the early childhood classroom.
The second component of an Erikson education is practice, acquired through course work and supervised teaching. In working with infants, this means social interaction, incorporating the routines of home. Reading a book to an infant is nurturing and essential to language development.
During the toddler years, emotional and behavioral regulation are still the order of the day, but the teacher now moves toward more socialization and peer-group activities. Working with toddlers requires providing safety and limits and discipline, and knowing that a temper tantrum is a magnificent opportunity for self-mastery. Toddlers learn best through active participation in a variety of activities.
Preschool teachers need a repertoire of many teaching approaches and methods for promoting children's learning in different content areas. They need to design learning experiences for motivating and challenging children from diverse cultural backgrounds with different learning styles.
Reflection, the third component, helps keep the knowledge and practice relevant. With a knowledge base and an extended internship in classroom practice under the supervision of experienced teachers, the real work begins in the field. But research shows that teachers have implicit beliefs about their students and their families based on the way they were taught, about the subject matter, and about how to be with children. These beliefs can be revealed only through self-reflection.
Early childhood teachers need to also reflect on the interplay between theory and research and actual classroom practice. For example: Why is it that when I read this theory, it makes so much sense, but when I try it out, it doesn't work? In cultural contexts, why does Johnny's mother think that obedience to me is more important than expressing himself through finger painting?
Great teachers understand that teaching is essentially a social activity. They understand the importance of working with parents respectfully and are collaborators in the endeavor to successfully educate their children. They have an awareness of how one's own and others' history, experiences, and values may create different expectations that, in turn, may cause misunderstanding and miscommunication.
We think that supportive, trusting relationships with colleagues help teachers to develop the skills of reflection and self-knowledge so that they can explore their own practice, admit mistakes, alter their approach, and work on their identity as teachers.