Early childhood educators from several countries joined AFT members in a discussion about the importance of children’s play and the threat of privatization.
Leading off the panel discussion was Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers member Rhonda Hall, who said it’s crucial for the union to take a seat at the table when policy is made on education and family services. That’s because the union is a powerful advocate for early education, a good thing because “so often when I talk to policymakers about adequate funding or a living wage, all I hear is crickets.”
Crickets would be an improvement, however, for early childhood educators living in occupied territories on Israel’s West Bank. Mais Jamleh, president of the Union of Palestinian Kindergarten Workers, described life under occupation and how educators there try to provide a haven for children exposed to trauma. The difficult conditions don’t prevent people from functioning, she pointed out; Palestinians still go about their daily lives and, because they value education so highly, are among the most educated people in the Arab world.
Asked what a regular day looks like, Jamleh said that life in the West Bank is often not “normal.” Families bringing their children to school face heavily armed roadblocks and checkpoints; rides that should take a few minutes can turn into hours. Sometimes, cities like Ramallah are completely cut off.
The response from educators is “safety first.” Jamleh said that from the days of the second intifada, or uprising, in 2000-2005, teachers have received training in dealing with trauma, which includes making school a place where children feel safe.
Despite these challenges, plus long hours and poor working conditions, the kindergarten workers have notched a few victories. In three years, their union has established a training center for new teachers and won an agreement to create a pension program.
Another international leader, Lasse Bjerg Joergensen of Denmark, has an easier time of it. Almost every child in Denmark attends kindergarten, and about a month ago, an education bill passed in the Danish Parliament that is expected to improve early childhood education.
“It was a happy moment,” said Joergensen, treasurer of the Danish Union of Early Childhood and Youth Educators. “It was like to be in paradise.”
He is passionate about the importance of play in early childhood development. “When I talk about play, people say, ‘Yes, but are they going to learn something?’” Play and interaction hold meaning and teach children that “it is not always your turn; you have to wait for someone.” To applause, he said preschoolers “have to learn soft skills because they are the foundation for hard skills.”
As a trade unionist, he believes strongly in democracy and the opportunity to raise children as participants in democracy. His keywords for this philosophy include empathy, motivation and curiosity.
Although Denmark may seem like paradise compared with Palestine, it does face some of the same threats as the rest of the world. One of these is privatization. “It comes in slowly through the back door,” Joergensen said. Companies like Pearson and Bridge International Academy push unproven practices, particularly in African countries where they can take over the whole school system.
This profit-seeking approach is familiar in the United States, too. Unfortunately, Hall said, some people believe that early childhood education is nothing but babysitting, and that playing is not learning.
She said she loves helping children make the transition to first grade and helping families learn how to advocate for their kids. “No matter where a family comes from,” she said, “we know they are looking for a safe and nurturing place for their children to grow. So I urge you all to continue to raise your voices, to speak to your neighbors and to advocate with your elected officials.”
[Annette Licitra / photos by Pam Wolfe]