Teacher Profile #5: Susan Eisman

I would like to create social change so that children’s experiences are truly valued, their parents and teachers are better supported to fully meet children’s needs, and a social justice curriculum is embraced nationwide. I would like to teach differently from the beginning.  

Hometown:  Calabasas, CA

Current Location:  Portland, OR

Job Title:  Director & Children’s Teacher at the Hawthorne Family Playschool

Degrees/Education:  BA in Women’s Studies & Art;  MA coursework in Human Development, emphasis on Early Childhood and Anti-Bias Education; 16 years experience in Re-evaluation Counseling.

Age: 50

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How long have you been working with young children?

28 years.

Do you have your own children?

Yes, I’ve been the not-so-evil-stepmom to Gus (18) and Eliot (16) for the past 11 years.

What was the impetus for you to first work with young children Professionally?

I have been drawn to young children as long as I can remember. I like children’s honesty, exuberance and the ways in which they fully show up to play, express, and explore. As a high school student, I sought summer jobs with children because I thought they would be fun. I quickly learned there is a lot going on with each developing human being and that working with children affords a variety to each given day. I have kept with it because it brings me joy, meaning and hope.

Is this your calling? If not, why do you do it?

I find the idea of “calling” a bit intimidating. I guess if I were to name my “calling,” it would be to do human liberation work– to help create meaningful, lasting change that supports human connectivity and challenges oppression.

I’m saddened by the ways systematic white supremacy, male domination and capitalism play out. I want to plug into the ways I can counter these dehumanizing and destructive forces that separate people from each other and teach us lies about each other.  I would like to help to create spaces in which we revere play, nourish children’s authentic ways of being, and teach the building blocks of successful social interaction including combating biases early and nourishing all children’s identities as whole, capable, caring and compassionate people who can make a difference.

Even as a young person I was frustrated with gender inequality. I tried a number of things to push back against a restrictive system–like cutting my hair short, wearing black roller skates, choosing the T shirt iron-on image: “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” and speaking up as I felt safe and bold enough to do so. Later, I sought out a women’s college to study from a feminist perspective and subsequently was drawn to study at Pacific Oaks College given its commitment to social justice and teaching to prepare students to be “agents of change.”

I have found a niche in early childhood to do some liberation work– To co-create a meaningful classroom community context to learn and teach skills about being in relationship, social problem solving, self-expression, emotional intelligence, valuing the ways we are the same and the ways we are different…

As a leader of a small school, I get to influence the thinking, priorities and tone of our community. In that, I often bring some of what I know from my experience in Re-evaluation counseling– a powerful peer counseling model to support human liberation. The basics of RC include trusting that people are good; knowing what gets in the way of relaxed, intimate connections is simply feelings of distress, inflicted by effects of institutional oppression and accumulated hurts; and reaching for each person in our community.

How do you feel fulfilled in your work?

Working with young children is hilarious, interesting, varied, invigorating, challenging, surprising and exhausting. It changes from moment to moment and demands my full attention; so there is never a dull moment.

I love the variety of what I get to do as a preschool teacher and leader in a small, tight-knit learning community/co-op preschool. I like that investing in genuine, caring relationships– with children and families alike– is at the heart of my work. I get to be my authentic self, to continually learn alongside the children, and to share my process with their families.

I get to practice community building to build a kinder, more equitable world. I like thinking about each unique child and their development, coaching children to name and express their feelings to build confidence and empathy, and supporting children and adults to be curious about social justice and to take steps to create a more equitable way of living in the world. I get to truly honor playfulness and creativity as building blocks of learning. I enjoy thinking creatively about curriculum prompts and being continually surprised by what some do with the open-ended play prompts. I like sharing my love of the natural world, continually thinking of new ways to bring natural materials into the classroom and celebrating the outdoors with the class rain or shine.

Working in parent cooperative setting allows me to learn alongside parents and to get to know a child more fully in the context of their family.  I get to share the joy and challenges of each day with families and to better support each child’s development.  Working closely with families feels hopeful to me– we get to break through some of the isolation parents of young children experience and I get to help broaden parents’ perspectives of parenting, learning and creating change.  I find collaborating with families to make discoveries,improvements and adjustments within our classroom incredibly satisfying.

In these ways I get to do what’s most important to me, sharing authentically with the youngest, most impressionable humans and with the people who love them most– their families.

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How do you feel challenged?

Having worked in early childhood since 1990, I sometimes feel impatient. I would like to create social change so that children’s experiences are truly valued, their parents and teachers are better supported to fully meet children’s needs, and a social justice curriculum is embraced nationwide. I would like to teach differently from the beginning.  The lack of respect for young children and their caregivers– parents and teachers alike– and the dearth in funding in early childhood can be discouraging. Early childhood caregivers are under-resourced to do what is arguably among the most important work. We are forced to continually make compromises and work in far from less than ideal circumstances.

For example, as funding is tight and programs consider how to make ends meet, increasing class sizes, and thereby increasing tuition revenue, is first up for discussion. But increasing class sizes is the quickest way to weaken the quality of the program and compromise caregivers’ ability to meet children’s individual needs.

Another example: Many early childhood programs are housed in spaces like churches and synagogues that subsidize the cost of care through lower than market rate rent. Since those spaces were not designed with children’s developmental needs in mind, most of them do not have toilets inside their classroom. Instead of having conveniently located, friendly bathrooms adjacent to children’s play areas while they are just learning about toileting, bathrooms tend to be down long hallways. This makes meeting children’s toileting needs more difficult, and sometimes unnecessarily stressful for children and their caregivers.

The Worthy Wage Movement* slogan summarizes the hardships of early childhood challenges: “Families can’t afford to pay and teachers can’t afford to stay.” Many families are forced to enroll their children in lower quality programs because they simply can’t afford the tuition rates of higher quality programs with lower student-teacher ratios, and better trained and supported teaching staff. Not surprisingly, its families with the most privilege who are typically able to access programs that are provisioned with the lowest teacher-child ratios, the best trained and /or compensated teachers, thereby contributing to the opportunity gap, putting families with less financial means at a further disadvantage.

The relatively low teacher compensation translates to greater turnover among teachers because many teachers don’t see it as a viable long-term option. When I worked as a teacher and a director in full-day child care with multiple teachers, we were often faced with the discouragement of yet another capable teacher/co-worker leaving their classroom or leaving the field to pursue work that paid better. I often felt frustrated by taking two steps forward, knowing we’d have to take at least one step back– when this teacher left or when the next one followed suit. As I reflect back, I feel a bit of the cumulative exhaustion.

I moved away from working in a group center setting, pursuing leadership at a small, mostly volunteer run program/parent cooperative. I trusted my own integrity, commitment, work ethic and passion. I would show up. I would give it my all. And I could count on myself. I think I believed I could sidestep the losses and the discouragement by letting go of having regular co-workers. If I didn’t have them in the first place, they couldn’t leave. They couldn’t compromise children’s growth when they left, and they couldn’t put more weight on those remaining or couldn’t compromise our progress by leaving.

But the truth is, the current parent co-op model in Portland, relies on the investment and dedication of many parents to volunteer their time and talents to run the school. Mine is the only paid position at HFP. While I’ve been amazed by the investment of the many parents who have generously carved out time within their demanding lives to invest in their child’s school, they still leave when their child heads to kindergarten, creating a similar situation of departing early childhood staff. Somebody new needs to be trained and oriented; and somebody new will start at the beginning of their learning curve to assume the required tasks at hand. It’s a compromise.

In this way, working in a parent co-op can be tiring. Teachers are forced to rely on the generosity of parents of young children who are already taxed, given that they are parenting infants, toddlers and preschoolers– young people at the most demanding developmental stage. While we have countless successes and breakthroughs as we partner with these dedicated families, we continually experience the loss of our “co-workers.”

After years in the field, it’s easy to vision significant improvements that would benefit children, parents and teachers, yet mostly we are forced to cast these ideas aside as there is no funding to support them. It’s easy to envision a modified parent cooperative model in which parents have less weighty responsibilities in the program and there is a consistent administrative staff overseeing critical functions such as enrollment, bookkeeping, etc. It’s easy to imagine a setting in which parents and teachers get the support they deserve to function at our best.

My vision of what’s possible, along with the ideas of numerous other amazing early childhood leaders, sometimes seems thwarted before we can even wonder about what’s next– what progress–what next steps we can make to build on our evolving knowledge of best practices in the classroom. The funding is grossly limited in this predominantly female dominated field, so we creatively plan, provision and invest to introduce new activities, improve classroom environments, or modify plans to better meet each child and families needs. We thoughtfully plan within our allotted resources, knowing we could do better.

*=Childcare compensation movement

Tell us about the trajectory of your career. Who was helpful along the way?

Many, many people have been hugely helpful along my path. Partnering with other dedicated teachers, caregivers and child care providers within the Worthy Wage movement in the nineties was instrumental in my own empowerment and ability to take early childhood seriously as a career. I had internalized some of the demeaning and dismissive attitudes of child care and preschool teachers as “just” playing with “little kids” from a society that does not recognize the complexity nor the importance of this work.

While my identity as a capable early childhood teacher and advocate has deepened over time, I still find myself frustrated by the response from someone I’ve just met, who after learning of my job, responds that “must be so fun.” It’s not that the work isn’t fun; it’s that it is so much more complex and more demanding than that.  If done well, it is  downright all-encompassing.

I have had the privilege to work closely with exceptional early childhood thinkers, activists and authors like Margie Carter and Ann Pelo in my early years in Seattle, which made a tremendous difference in my ability to think critically, deepen my skills, gain appreciation for anti-bias education and to apply myself fully. I had the good fortune to work alongside some of the most self-reflective and devoted teachers at Hilltop Children’s Center, where regular paid teacher meeting and planning time were valued parts of each day.

I found author and teacher Bev Bos’s passion and revolutionary value of play, along with her reverence for children’s joy and mess-making invigorating.

I have had the pleasure of working with countless parents on various school boards and within the cooperative contexts I’ve taught. I am grateful to all the board presidents I’ve partnered with who essentially added an unpaid, part-time, demanding leadership job in co-leading a school with me for a year at a time, while balancing the needs of their families. I have been with the Hawthorne Family Playschool for the past fifteen years. The impressive first president I worked with, Jenny Taylor, supported me in finding my place within the school and has become one of my closest friends. The current president, Mitra Anoushiravani, is one of the best thinker/leader/co-collaborators I’ve ever worked with.

I have had the good fortune to share resources and support with a handful of powerhouse colleagues within the Eastside Co-op Teachers’ Consortium over the past thirteen years. These gals balance the leadership of their programs, considering everything from enrollment to fundraising to health and safety to responding to parent concerns and addressing the evolving needs of the children in their care. They work alongside a rotating group of parent volunteers as they plan curriculum endeavors and learn with the children and families in their programs.

Over the past couple of years, I have been inspired and encouraged by getting to contemplate my teaching practice with Laura Czarniecki and Katie Kissinger within an early childhood Anti-Bias Support Group, and more recently with them as well as Qahira Barton and Stephen Karmol, board members of the Threads of Justice early childhood conference.

As I reflect on the few teachers, directors and parents I’ve named; and I think of the many, many more caring, creative, dedicated, innovative and inspiring folks who have invested in early childhood, I am humbled and deeply grateful. They remind me that early childhood is not for the faint of heart and that the rewards of investing in early learning and community building are countless.

 

 

What is on your plate for this school year? Teaching, researching, presenting, etc.

In addition to teaching, I’ll have the opportunity to collaborate with a few local innovative early childhood leaders to put on the annual Threads of Justice Early Childhood Conference. I’m grateful for the opportunity to partner with other teachers and parents who prioritize self-reflection and teaching for social change. I’ll likely have more opportunities to organize additional rallies with Families For A Peaceful Protest, creating safe spaces for families to advocate for social change. I am looking forward to participating in an early childhood Anti-Bias Leadership retreat this winter through the Threads of Justice Collective with the hope that that will help me set some clear goals for myself. I hope to continue gathering exceptional children’s picture books that help counter bias, and finding ways to help parents and teachers diversify our children’s libraries so that under-represented stories and experiences gain more attention.

How has your teaching evolved over the years?

I am more confident. I have a greater trust in children’s natural curiosity and their eagerness to learn. I see my role more as a facilitator to provide multiple and varied opportunities for children to experiment and interact with materials and with each other, and less as the person holding the important knowledge in the room.

I have become a passionate advocate for children’s rights and more empathetic to parents’ needs and experiences. I lead more with adults. I believe that everything I am interested in and everything I learn can be applied to my classroom teaching and leadership within my school community.

As early childhood education becomes a more honored part of our culture, how do you think this has influenced your work with children or teachers?

I’m not sure that I see early childhood as a more honored part of our culture. I would love for that to be the case. I would love for early childhood to be a sought after and revered field, with a dramatic shift in resources allocated to the programs serving young children. I do appreciate that there has been significant thinking, research and writing offered up on the importance of play, respecting foundational years, the value of teachers partnering with parents, and anti-bias education. I know that the work in Reggio Emilia Italy has been transformative in some folks taking early childhood more seriously.

I’m grateful for the activism of educators and parents who helped to create significant changes in the publishing of children’s picture books over the last few decades. There is now a much larger variety of children’s picture books available that represent a wider range of social constituencies and experiences. I seek out some of these exceptional books affirming messages about race, gender, class, ability, sexuality/family structure and culture/language as a central part of the curriculum.

While I see significant contributions to the field, I believe we have a long way to go before E.C.E. is honored as it should be.

What cultural viewpoints do you contribute to the field?

I’m a middle class, cis-gendered, anti-racist mixed heritage Jewish,white woman feminist, artist, activist, nature-lover in a “non-traditional” family. (My partner had been married and divorced with children before I joined them, becoming a stepmom). Being female has been central to my identity my entire life. Valuing children’s experiences was modeled for me as a young child myself. My mom raised me to believe in myself and to value my own perspectives. As a feminist and a Jew, I’m quick to speak my mind and challenge what doesn’t seem quite right. As a child, adults often told me I am an “idealist.” I think I have skills to think outside the box and to vision for better. I think being in the “one down” power position of female, Jew or non-biological parent helps me to be empathetic to other marginalized and discounted groups. I’m pleased to share my orientation as an artist and environmentalist with the children and families I learn alongside.

How do you think diversity in culture is important in the field of ECE?  

Since ECE is about raising young children, I think it’s essential that those caring for young children come from a range of lived experiences and cultural backgrounds to mirror back and affirm the cultures of the children we serve. I think it’s important to represent a broad range of experiences to interrupt, challenge, stretch and/or add to the dominant culture ways of doing things and that will come most naturally as those of us in direct relationship with those we serve, are coming from diverse cultural experiences ourselves.

What is your advice to young/burgeoning teachers?

Caring for young children is important. It is likely some of the most rewarding and exhausting work available because it revolves around the vibrant spirits of young people who are new to the world. Some parts of teaching young children gets easier with time.

The funniest things happen quickly. Children’s words, insights and discoveries can be lost or forgotten as teachers tend to the next arising need in our classrooms. If/as you have a moment, jot these key ideas down to revisit later. They can serve as reminders of the richness of a day together. They can give you an opportunity to further reflect on what transpired. They can help you consider ways to build on children’s thoughts, questions, or breakthroughs.

How do you help yourself relax/unwind after a long day of working with children? What helps you feel healthy and taken care of?

I often have the luxury of walking to and home from school. I find this time restorative and helpful to process the interactions I’ve had throughout the day.  I love tuning into the bits of nature in our city. I have also become queen of the twenty minute restorative afternoon

Non-educational practices/hobbies that are important to you.

Reading in a hammock or by the fire. Escaping into a great movie. Walking, hiking, camping and river rafting. Hanging out with my feline buddy, Catawampus. Making vegetarian munchies. Sharing photos and snipits of our days between my sisters and I via text. Checking out inspiring videos on my friends’ Facebook feeds.

Can you talk about a sacrifice or setback that you have tackled as an early childhood educator over the years?

After working in the field for about seventeen-eighteen years, I was seriously wondering if I could afford to remain in ECE. I was single at the time and most of the teachers my age were partnered– they had a second family member’s income to meet expenses.

Over the past few years, I had been working with my school to creatively balance our budget to eek out a few extra dollars for our teacher compensation package, but we were at the end of what we could likely do with the funds we had available.  Once we had a particularly strong group of board members, many of whom had been leading with me on the board the year prior, I initiated the idea to raise tuition while simultaneously implementing a sliding fee tuition scale. Families would pay according to their means, and the top tier of the scale would generate more revenue for teacher compensation from those families who could afford to pay more. After doing home visits for several years, I felt pretty confident that many of the families in our program could afford to pay more if only they were asked to do so. This group of parent/board members backed my work and were sympathetic for the need for financial change in ECE. Still, it felt risky. After multiple meetings and much discussion, we figured out a way to implement the scale for a trial year without a financial risk to our school. The rest of the school community quickly warmed up to the new tuition payment system. We made a few modifications to work out kinks. The sliding fee scale allowed us to:

1) Acknowledge the financial disparity that exists between families; and act on that information, taking a step toward more equitably addressing these financial differences among families by asking families to pay according to their means.

2) Safeguard access of care for families with low or modest incomes, as families with less or modest incomes self-select to pay lower or middle-rate monthly tuition rates.

3) Educate families about a more accurate cost of early childhood care.

4) Raise additional funds within budgets, as families with greater means self-select to pay a higher monthly tuition rate.

As we generated more revenue, we were able to increase my compensation, making it easier for me to stay in the job I loved. The sliding fee tuition scale continues to be an effective tool for HFP. I’m pleased to share that it’s also been a model for other programs who have opted to introduce a sliding fee scale as well.

For more information about the scale, click here.

What inspired you to keep moving forward?

The last book that you read that really inspired your thinking around your work?

I’m flipping back and forth between two books right now: “Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges” by Patty Wipfler and Tosha Schore and “Anti-Bias Education in the Early Childhood Classroom: Hand in Hand, Step by Step” by Katie Kissinger.  I’m also pouring over a website I just learned about: http://www.talkingrace.org.

Final thoughts: Hope, belief, love of the profession?

I think early childhood teaching is truly about loving the young children and families in our care. It is a blessing to make a living loving and growing with others. It is a huge joy for me to get to run into children who I taught years ago– getting to see them as elementary schoolers, middle schoolers or high schoolers, proud of who they are continuing to become.

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