Bilingual family and community engagement specialist, Megan Day, connects with so many people in central Indiana. Families, especially those whose first language is not English, and community partners know her well. Now it’s your chance to get to know her even better!
As a former high school teacher, what relationships have you seen between early care and education and the later years of childhood?
I was a special education English teacher in a high school that was 95% Latino and 90% free-and-reduced lunch. The average freshman in the school walked into their first period of English at a fifth-grade reading level. My job was to make pre-college and college-level material accessible to students with learning disabilities whose reading levels were often even lower than their peers. Their freshmen year, many of them were struggling to form sentences and summarize the main ideas of a paragraph. By the end of their junior year, many of my students were able to write five-paragraph essays analyzing features of literature. I often wondered, “How did my students get so far behind? Why do they have so far to catch up?” We were teaching skills that they should have learned years ago. I didn’t understand how this was possible.
Now that I know what I know about early education, I understand how critical the early years are for brain development. Children’s brains grow faster during this period than at any other time of life. Many of my students likely were not in quality early learning settings, due to socio-economic and cultural barriers. That means they already missed out on so much before they started first grade, not to mention high school. Early childhood education really does set the foundation for success later in life.
It is also a justice issue. Many of us are familiar with the concept of the school-to-prison pipeline. Even more of us have probably heard the expression that “education is the great equalizer.” This only works if all students have equitable access to quality education. Studies show us that they do not. Our neighbors who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color, as well as our low-income neighbors, statistically get the short end of the stick, leading to poorer life outcomes.
My students deserved to start their ninth-grade year at a ninth-grade reading level. They deserved writing skills that would someday get them into the best colleges. They deserved childhoods with less trauma and more supports. We must do better by them. And it starts at ages birth to five.
If you could go back in time, what is one thing you would tell yourself the night before your first day as an educator?
The night before I became a teacher, I was so nervous I barely slept. I can still remember the pink collared shirt, black-and-white checkered dress pants, and black flats that I chose to wear. At that time, I could count on one hand how many times I had worn a business casual outfit. I had learned about lesson- and unit-planning, culturally-responsive teaching, and classroom management, but I had not thought through how to introduce myself to teenagers, many of whom were heads taller than me. My first period class met me as “Megan…I mean, Ms. Day!”
The rest of the year, I overcorrected, trying to be professional and adult – a small, 22-year-old woman teaching students some of whom were only three years younger. If I could go back, I would tell myself to be real with my students, that a teacher can be friendly while not being friends, that young professionals are still professionals, and if I don’t know everything on the first day, it’s okay.
Talk about an educator you admired and what you learned most from them.
I was fortunate to have many excellent teachers over the years. One who stands out is my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Hardwick. He was passionate about making learning fun, and it showed.
Some days he transformed our classroom into an interview with a 1770s revolutionary, dressing up in period clothing, and speaking in language of the time. Other days, he would present the class with a puzzling problem, entrusting and encouraging us to solve it together through robust conversation. Even other days, he would take us outside to the pond where we would collect samples and take notes about the wildlife around us. He found ways to make learning engaging and pushed us, with support, beyond what we thought possible. Rarely was the word “worksheet” uttered in his class. He rarely solved a problem for us that we could solve ourselves. I grew not only in knowledge, but in teamwork, problem-solving skills, and confidence in that class. He brought the classroom to life.
What has been your biggest learning in your experience working with children and families?
My biggest learning in working with children and families: meet them where they are. Educate yourself to approach them in a culturally-responsive way. Listen for what they need among what is said and unsaid. Know that every family is unique and will need different things. Exercise empathy at all moments and recognize the challenges they have faced, as well as the resilience they have used to face these difficulties. See the humanity in every person you work with and remember that everyone is doing their best.
What do you wish more people knew about early care and education?
Early care and education sets the stage for life. Success in school, interactions with the criminal justice system, career trajectory, and more are all impacted by the quality of a child’s early education. This impacts not only the child but also their family, our community, and the broader workforce. When children have what they need to learn and grow in safe, supportive environments from an early age, our society reaps the benefits, now and later on. Child care is not a political issue or an individual family issue; it is a human issue, one that affects all of us. It takes a village to raise our children, and our children need us now more than ever.
Want to learn even more about Megan? Check out her previous Last Day Q&A post.