Everyday Heroes: AFT Early Childhood Educator finalists

Voting is open
May 9 - May 29, 2016

Jay Bainbridge
Early Childhood Educator, Congregation B'nai Israel Preschool, Albuquerque
New Mexico Early Educators United

Jay Bainbridge is not one to follow the beaten path. As a newly minted college graduate with a degree in art education, Bainbridge moved from the Midwest to New Mexico and took up work as a cook in an Albuquerque preschool. It was something that easily could have amounted to a temporary career move, but the energy that Bainbridge saw in the classrooms convinced him otherwise. "It was the way the kids' eyes lit up, just because they were going to learn something new—and for them, everything was new," he remembers. There were very few men teaching early education at the time, but that was a nonissue. "I knew that I could give these children my best," he says.

Bainbridge was able to put his expertise to good use. He designed an age-appropriate arts curriculum that went beyond what he calls unimaginative, "let's make a fish, let's make a kitty" seatwork. In its place, he was able to sneak in a little "red week, blue week" color theory, and weave in trips to museums. He showed up in class with posters from the masters, encouraging students to explore the art through questions for which "there is no wrong answer." Over the years, he says he's constantly refined the approach, balancing and rebalancing the ingredients of play and rich exposure that take his students beyond the ordinary.

And Bainbridge, who serves as New Mexico Early Educators United's vice president for political action, has proven to be just as courageous when it comes to advocating for the needs of kids and the rights of the profession. You'll find him frequently roaming the corridors of the statehouse in Santa Fe, urging legislators to do the right thing and use available resources to improve early learning across the state. "I have this scary superpower I didn't realize I had—I can talk with politicians," he says. "I look like this kindly, nice grandpa, and they don't see it coming. When it's about fighting for the rights of children, parents and teachers, I can get pretty feisty."

Sandra Cappelli
Teacher, John F. Horgan Elementary School, West Warwick, R.I.
West Warwick Teachers' Alliance

It's an "energetic place that effortlessly ticks like the inner components of a fine timepiece—students engaged in complex learning, children working on differentiated assignments and a class full of youngsters using technology to create and collaborate." That's how one teacher describes Room 103 at Horgan School, where first-grade teacher Sandra Cappelli has built excellence and engagement into daily classroom life.

A 17-year veteran, Cappelli has honed her practice over the years and earned a reputation as a "go-to" colleague for support and encouragement—a role that she takes up eagerly and in ways that ask her to don many hats. As lead teacher for her grade level, she works with district-level coaches and routinely creates and shares model lessons for colleagues. As an active union member at the local and state level, she facilitates professional development for colleagues across West Warwick and across Rhode Island. And she has also made her imprint at the national level as part of the AFT's review team for the Next Generation Science Standards.

Cappelli has found ways to give back to her community as well as her colleagues. At "Feed 1,000," a local event that brings hot meals, warm jackets and holiday presents to deserving families each December, you'll find Cappelli (aka "the book lady") seated behind a table, trying to match free volumes to the interests of readers both young and old. Cappelli describes herself as the type of person who gets antsy if she sits still for too long, the type of educator who believes that rich professional development is the avenue that allows teachers to hone and refine their practice over many years.

"The way I teach science now is nothing like before," Cappelli says, and strong professional development—both as a provider and as a recipient—is a big reason why. "The growth I've gained has been huge," says the first-grade teacher, who traces years of development from an early practice that was heavy on direct instruction to one where "developing good questions and inquiry" opportunities for her first-graders is the first order of business.

Betty Robinson-Harris
Teacher, Tule Elk Park Early Education School, San Francisco
United Educators of San Francisco

Betty Robinson-Harris has been teaching young children in Bay Area schools for more than 40 years and has almost too many professional honors to mention. Yet, when it comes to the major secrets of her success, she has no problem boiling down the lesson to four simple words: Slow down and listen.

In a school day filled with so many duties and responsibilities, it's tempting for teachers to quicken the pace beyond what it should be, to forget those important moments when time and attention must be paid. Robinson-Harris speaks in particular of one child she taught in 1974. He showed up crying at school one morning, and, after drawing him aside and listening, she discovered what the real problem was: "He told me, 'my mom made me wear this stupid belt,' so I got a piece of string, we replaced it, and he was fine" for the rest of the day. "No matter what the background or culture, the children's needs are basically the same—love and being recognized for who they are," she advises colleagues.

It's a take on teaching and a professional perspective that continues to garner acclaim. Robinson-Harris was the winner of the 2014 California Federation of Teachers' Raoul Teilhet Educate, Agitate, Organize Award. She served for eight years on San Francisco's prestigious "First 5 Commission," and she was named Teacher of the Year by the National Alliance of Black School Educators in 2004. Her local union honored her with the Martin Luther King Excellence in Education Award in 2006.

Listening is needed in the adult world, as well. Recently, she was one of about a dozen early educators in the halls of the statehouse in Sacramento, talking about pending education legislation with lawmakers, making sure they got input from the frontlines. "Those who do the work should be involved in the decisions," says Robinson-Harris, a member of the local's executive board, negotiating committee and early educators committee. "She is a strong advocate for our youngest students and the adults who serve them," one colleague observes.

Cathy Savoia
Teacher, School #7, Perth Amboy, N.J.
Perth Amboy Federation

Cathy Savoia knows what it means to go the extra mile. Every Thursday, in fact, you'll find her driving 30 of them, headed to a local food bank to pick up provisions that keep students from going hungry over the weekend. It's a trip she makes not only for School #7 but also for six other buildings in Perth Amboy, and the weekly haul usually comes to a total of about 70 bags to feed a family of four for the weekend—the price, she quips, of having one of the larger vehicles in the faculty fleet.

Not that she minds, far from it. Over the years, as both a teacher and now as a community parent involvement specialist, Savoia has set the bar high when it comes to investing time, energy and often money out of her own pocket into her students and families. Each winter, she scrounges the dollar stores and outlets, working with a war chest of donations and personal cash so that every child at school has a warm coat, hat and mittens. At holiday time, she helps make sure that puzzles, toys and stuffed animals are there to make the season special for the children.

Savoia takes it upon herself to see to these things and more—and do it with a minimum of noise and fuss. "I do not think that anyone on the Board of Education knows that she does these things," one colleague explains. What people do know, however, is that Savoia is not short on courage and grit when it comes to staying involved in the lives of students. Three years ago, Savoia's health took a grave turn. She's been battling back, and her disease is in remission, but the treatments proved to be too draining to accommodate her regular teaching schedule. Rather than leave, she adjusted and became a CPIS who teachers, parents and students in Perth Amboy know they can depend on. "We just want to make sure that the children are getting what they should have," Savoia says in her understated tone about the new role she fills.

Kathy Willey
Teacher, A.L. Holmes School, Detroit
Detroit Federation of Teachers

A.L. Holmes is just one of many schools in Michigan where worries about lead mean that students take water breaks from plastic bottles rather than fountains. In bad weather, children often show up without boots or clothes suitable for outdoor play. It's tough public school terrain, but that hasn't stopped pre-K teacher Kathy Willey from pulling out all the stops—making the most of what she describes as "an amazing opportunity" to work with the school's youngest learners. "You get them that first year, and it's exciting," says Willey, who has taught for 29 years, most of it in Detroit. "There's so much room for growth—to nurture and support not only their academic needs but their social and personal needs."

One of those needs is play, and Willey will scrounge and cajole to make sure they have it. Not long ago, she wrote a successful grant to get snow pants, boots, hats and gloves so that her pre-K students weren't robbed of the opportunity to go outside and play on snowy days. The chance to play and explore also finds a home inside the classroom, where Willey says one of her greatest joys is working with students and "watching them grow from not knowing any letters or how to write, to being able not only to write but to 'read' each other's names and knowing sounds that letters make." Recently, she took her students to a nearby exhibit at the "Robot Garage," where the preschoolers got to see how a computer programmer could skillfully arrange 0s and 1s to make a toy dog do amazing tricks.

"Kathy continuously supports her kids out of her own pocket," a colleague notes. For her, it's all about making sure the kids "are receiving the best life experiences daily." Ask Willey to tell it, however, and she insists on being billed as "the fortunate one" in the story. "Our school goes up to eighth grade," she says. "I get to watch some of these students grow up, and I love it when they come back to see me."