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June 18, 2009

5 Qs with Sophia Pappas

PAPS In December 2006, Sophia Pappas began writing about her experiences in her pre-k classroom for Inside Pre-K. You can find the archives here. I was so excited when I discovered her in March of 2007 because I had not found many pre-k blogs, and hers was SO good. I learned a lot from Sophia as she described what it was like to move from novice teacher to teacher leader. Her perspective was refreshing because it was open-minded and reflective. I really felt like I was learning with her. I think Sophia inspired many people with her thoughtful posts. I know she inspired me. Now, Sophia has published a book based on those experiences titled: Good Morning, Children: My First Years in Early Childhood Education.

When I asked Sophia if she would do a 5 Qs interview with me ,she happily agreed. Without further ado.

1. How was the reality of teaching preschool different from what you expected when you decided to join Teach for America?

While I understood the importance of high quality early childhood education for furthering educational equity, I was not aware of the complex analytical and organizational processes required to meet the needs of all pre-K students.  My students could make tremendous progress in all developmental domains only if I adopted a highly systematic and comprehensive approach to planning, teaching, and assessment.  Policymakers interested in early childhood education investments need to realize the wide range of skills required to realize the potential of pre-K programs.

2. What did you learn about yourself from teaching that no other job could have taught you? How has teaching affected how you approach your work now?

Teaching, unlike any other job I could have taken after college, proved to be a fundamentally transformative experience in terms of its impact on my mindset and leadership skills.  My classroom experiences solidified my commitment to eradicating educational equity by demonstrating the ability of all children to succeed, regardless of their birth circumstances.  Once you see a child who came into your class in September uncomfortable with school and with little to no understanding of letters ultimately leave your classroom in June excited about school and on the brink of reading basic sentences, you simply cannot accept any system that deprives children of equal opportunities.  As a teacher, I was able to take ownership of managing an entire classroom, whereas most jobs right out of college often do not provide you with the same level of responsibility.  It enabled me to grow as a leader and professional.

3. Can you describe a couple of your favorite moments from your teaching career and or what you miss about teaching?

Teaching enabled me to facilitate and to witness children growing in formal learning environments for the first time.  I miss being there when my students make connections and express enthusiasm for learning.  Some teachers find taking anecdotal notes burdensome, but I remember feeling incredibly joyful and proud of my students each time I wrote a note that demonstrated their progress.  I was still excited when the note showed the need for further growth because I knew I would have the chance the following day or week to analyze those weaknesses and work with the child to address them.  I guess more than anything, I miss being in a position to have a direct impact on the foundational learning of my students.

4. From your experience, how would you describe the importance of pre-k to a policymaker?

We as a society affirm our commitment to ensuring that all children can realize their potential through public education.  We developed this consensus on the importance of education for a variety of reasons, ranging from the liberal philosophical case for respecting the dignity and worth of each individual to economic arguments focused on fostering a productive society.  Given the critical role of brain development before the age of five, the reality of achievement gaps that start before kindergarten, and the potential for high-quality early childhood education to help level the playing field, we cannot expect to fulfill our promises of equal opportunity or to increase economic vibrancy without investing in pre-K. It's not enough to ensure that young children have a safe place to go during the day.  We need investments that concentrate on access and quality in order to make the most of time spent with young learners.

5. What would you tell someone considering teaching pre-k?

Pre-K teachers have one of the most important jobs.  Early childhood educators introduce children to the institution that has the power to significantly influence their life trajectory.  You should enter this profession aware of the incredible responsibility you have in laying the foundation of skills and attitudes a child needs to succeed.  That task, while seemingly intimidating, can be empowering if you approach each day and the year as a whole as an opportunity to give young children the highly enriching and engaging first year in school they deserve.

Given the high stakes involved, you should become a pre-K teacher only if you are willing to invest the time and energy needed to meet the unique needs of each student.  Concern for the well-being of children is necessary, but not sufficient to be successful.  Similarly, knowledge about child development without a sincere belief in the ability of all children to succeed regardless of their birth circumstances unjustly limits the life paths of children.  You need to commit to leading your class toward significant growth in all developmental domains and be willing to critically reflect upon and improve your own practices to achieve that goal.


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