Innovative Early Childhood Education Program Prepares Unsung Essential Frontline Workers

April 29, 2021

The COVID pandemic threw into stark relief how much we depend on certain professions to keep our society functioning, especially in a crisis. In many cases, the most unsung of these essential frontline workers were teachers in early education, who continued to care for and teach our youngest citizens in challenging and risky environments.

In the Greenfield area and beyond, many of those frontline workers are current and former students of Greenfield Community College, which offers an accessible, innovative, and effective early childhood education program.

The GCC education program, led by Dr. Peggy Martalock, offers a liberal arts education track associate degree, designed for students who plan to transfer to a four-year college and pursue teaching positions in public schools; the early childhood education certificate program, for those who want to advance in the profession or start toward a degree; and the early childhood education associate degree, for those pursuing careers in birth through age eight education and care.

GCC’s early childhood education program puts a very high emphasis on the relationships between faculty and students, innovative pedagogy, and experiential learning. The program is influenced by the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, which Martalock describes as an “emergent inquiry based curriculum that is co-constructed between teachers and children,” and that posits school as a “system of relationships among all the stakeholders in the process.” The Reggio Emilia approach sees the educational environment as a teacher, emphasizes the many educational languages of children, and prioritizes pedagogical documentation as a way to understand how children think and learn.

One of the highlights of GCC’s ECE program is their dedicated Early Childhood Education Lab. The lab is a classroom for teachers that includes the materials, furniture, and equipment they might see in an early childhood classroom, as well as equipment and materials not typically seen in ECE, such as a wind tunnel and robotics for young children. It allows education students to work together to co-create lessons and build experiences for children using hands-on materials and technology rather than just conceptualizing from a theoretical perspective.

The ECE program is also in the process of taking the Education Lab to the next level, creating a documentation and transdisciplinary studio that will give education students many ways to think through teaching problems and solutions with faculty and students from many disciplines throughout the college.

GCC students also benefit from the college’s participation in the Massachusetts Early Childhood Career Pathways grant program, which helps educators advance in the field by completing coursework towards certification or a degree in the field. Those who are working in the field already, or who plan to start in the field within three months, are eligible. The grant pays for their courses, materials, and wraparound support, and in some cases provides a stipend for such needs as transportation and childcare as they complete the child development associate (CDA) certificate. There is further funding through the ECE Scholarship Program that will pay the costs for those who go on to complete the associate degree and a bachelor’s degree and support from GCC faculty and staff in navigating all these avenues. The first cohort of approximately 15 students began in the fall of 2020 and even in the midst of the pandemic and remote learning, nearly all of the students continued into the second semester. GCC is currently accepting applications for a new cohort that will begin in the fall of 2021.

Dean of Social Sciences and Professional Studies Chet Jordan has been deeply impressed by the faculty’s ability to educate this new cohort in such adverse conditions. “Watching our faculty go through that inaugural process of introducing their students to the kinds of pedagogy that we find important, but having to do it remotely, was really fascinating and the leadership of the faculty has been inspiring as well,” he observes. “The retention from one semester to the other is a testament to both our students’ commitment, and to our faculty’s ability to reach beyond the digital divide, and ensure that community is built, which is essential to creating really robust early childhood centers.”

That sense of community the faculty was able to inspire with synchronous online courses was crucial to the students who deeply missed a feeling of community they take for granted in educational settings. “I have consistently heard across different classes and different students that having that connection was really important and was so needed when they were becoming disconnected in the field,” says Martalock.

Students throughout the ECE program have shown great perseverance and dedication to their field throughout the pandemic. They had to navigate the shift to remote learning, and like many GCC students, had to juggle their course work along with caring for and navigating the schooling of their children at home. Many work at childcare centers and went back to work early in the pandemic. On top of their regular demanding work, they had to manage the new safety regulations and protocols from the state, as well as the stress of their much greater risk of COVID exposure.

The college also had to be creative to insure their students were getting the practicum hours they needed. Last spring, some were able to finish their practica remotely, while this year, most were able to complete their practica at educational centers where they were already employed.

In the view of GCC’s leadership, our society needs to more explicitly recognize early childhood educators as essential frontline workers who, in Martalock’s words “needed to step up and put themselves more at risk than other populations were asked to do.” They are hopeful that the experience of the pandemic will make people more aware of how crucial early childhood educators are to our society and to parents who rely on early childhood centers to help care for their children.
“We’ve always known this about early childhood educators, that they’re incredibly creative, and they’re committed to the children and the parents and the families they serve. Our teachers are integral to the family structure and they’re integral supports to a child’s early phases of development,” says Jordan. “Research is clear that the first years of a person’s life set the foundation for everything that comes next in our lives. Early educators and caregivers literally co-construct the lives of our children and our society,” Martalock adds.

In Jordan’s view, this is the ideal time to establish better support for this essential sector of the economy, before a return to business as usual. “The pandemic has shown us, much like it has in other areas, where the gaps and our inequities really are. Early childhood education is considerably underfunded and under resourced and these teachers and staff members don’t typically make a living wage. There’s a mismatch between that demand and that need and what our society prioritizes in terms of resources. Now is when we need our state legislators and our federal government to respond in kind and to act.”