AFT Members Shine at Early Childhood Conference

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You didn't have to look far to find AFT blue at the 2011 National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) annual conference, Nov. 2-5 in Orlando, Fla. Union members from around the country attended the meeting, participating in AFT-hosted events that ranged from thought-provoking workshops to lively social gatherings and friendly, informative chats with early childhood educators who stopped by the union's exhibit hall booth.

Worthy Wage Quilt at NAEYC conference

At the booth, the AFT's Worthy Wage Day quilts were on prominent display and proved to be great conversation starters for visitors and AFT volunteers who staffed the display. AFT members explained how the quilts are delivered to key policymakers on May 1 (Worthy Wage Day) as part of the union's core effort to secure strong support for programs serving the youngest learners and to spur political support for legislation that will bring professional compensation, education and training to the field. Passersby were encouraged to contribute notes of support to the quilt—an opportunity that central Florida preschool teacher Gloria Ehrhart wasn't about to miss.

"Wages are very low for the amount of work and time we put in," said Ehrhart, who commended the AFT for taking this message to the corridors of power. Early childhood educators "are framing the minds of our future, and our work is not taken as seriously as it should be" by too many decision-makers.

"We're getting a lot of support from providers," said Penny Wilson, one of several AFT members who traveled from Vermont to participate in the conference and to help staff the AFT booth.

conference participantsPanelists, from left, Barbara Bowman, Sue Bredekamp and Eugenia Kemble answer questions from the audience.

Also well-received were AFT workshops at the conference; sessions on topics such as brain development in young students drew packed rooms and overflow crowds. Many of the workshops showcased free materials for early childhood educators developed by the AFT and partner organizations, including the Transitioning to Kindergarten toolkit and the popular Colorín Colorado website.

One of the featured sessions explored the role of curriculum content in effective training programs for early childhood educators. The panel presenters included Barbara Bowman of the Erikson Institute and Chicago Public Schools; Susan Neuman of the University of Michigan; early childhood education consultant Sue Bredekamp; and Eugenia Kemble, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, which sponsored the session. The panelists stressed the need to view curriculum as an adaptive plan that must be augmented with the type of training that gives teachers a wide repertoire of teaching strategies—particularly at a time when students hail from varied backgrounds, and bring a wide range of skills and experiences to their early schooling. The session also described work supported by the Shanker Institute to craft professional development for early childhood educators.

conference participants

It's critical to recognize that children come to school "to learn about their world," rather than the names of colors or letters in isolation, said Neuman. Educators can build on that interest when they "encourage [children's] questions, help them answer, and help them discover their answers by themselves."

When it comes to curriculum and effective training, too many policymakers are pressing the field in directions that are not supported by the research, and "we need an army out there who understand the complexity of this" issue, Kemble said.

The AFT's reception at the conference also was an opportunity for union members to get to know each other better and to mingle with colleagues in their field. A highlight of this year's reception was the presentation of a Worthy Wage Day quilt to Florida state federation president Andy Ford, who is also an AFT vice president. [Mike Rose/photos by Gregg Mathews]

November 8, 2011