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News + PoliticsEducationTeaching behind the mask: Toddlers in the Tenderloin

Teaching behind the mask: Toddlers in the Tenderloin

Taking care of 'my children' in three languages at Glide.


Teaching Behind the Mask is a series of voices from infant, toddler, and pre-school classrooms across San Francisco. It’s a collaboration between Barbra Blender, Eliana Elias, and the remarkable early-childhood education teachers who continue to serve children and families during the pandemic. Read previous installments herehere, and here.

When Latino families knock on our doors for the first time and ask for help, I am often the one sent to greet them. After hearing my fluent Spanish, there are moments of relief and of surprise. Things quickly turn to laughter and to many questions: How is a Chinese woman so fluent in Spanish? What are you? Are you Latina? Are you Asian?

I find myself sharing bits and pieces of my history with them, and, as we build our relationship, that initial surprise turns into this comfortable feeling: the language unites us, helps us connect with the other teachers on our team, and helps me build relationships with our toddlers.

Families learn that I grew up in Mexico, the daughter of Cantonese speaking parents. At home, my parents insisted on keeping our home language. At school, we learned Spanish. They learn that I live near the Cow Palace but that I have made the Tenderloin my community for the past 15 years. They learn that I respect this community and love my work. They learn that I refer to “my children” when I talk about the children in the classroom, and that I celebrate each child in my care, regardless of their backgrounds.

I know the challenges of not being able to use one’s home language first hand. I arrived in San Francisco at 22. Even though I had taken English classes in Mexico, my tongue was often twisted into knots as I tried to express my ideas. Many English as a Second Language classes at City College and more than 15 years of working with Preschoolers and Toddlers in the Tenderloin have pushed me to feel comfortable expressing myself in English too.

With these three languages, I can do for the children what my parents did for me: support them in maintaining and developing their home languages, as they connect with their families and their cultural backgrounds. And I try to give the multicultural and multiracial families that walk through our doors a feeling of being home. We know we have achieved this when we experience the families’ gratitude and when I see the children’s smiles. There is no better feeling. I have a passion for helping children and their families and I am moved by a deep love. I find my home here too. I strive to create a vision of home to be where one belongs…for many, this is their home. And for me, this is my home.

Becoming a toddler teacher and overcoming the fear of diapers

My desire to become a teacher is as old as I can remember. I used to “play teacher” during my early childhood years in Mexico. As I was going through high school, and preparing to enter college, I was pushed to make the practical decision to go into a profession that would pay me a living wage. I studied accounting, filling my head with numbers. And, in a way, I am happy that my college career was interrupted when I moved to San Francisco. As I sat in the counselor’s office at City College, I was guided to take my General Education courses and English, and decide on the major later. And It was perfect because my aunt, who was a family child-care provider at the time, reminded me of how much I loved children, and encouraged me to find a job in childcare. “Find out if you like it,” she coached.

I started working in preschool classrooms, first as a full-time assistant. Balancing coursework with a full-time job was hard. In order to experience a more flexible schedule, I became a substitute teacher for a while and was able to visit many classrooms throughout the Tenderloin and SF and learn a lot.

When I was ready for a full-time job again, I was offered an opportunity to teach at Glide. The supervisor at the time told me that the only opening was with toddlers. I had no experience with that age group, and I was filled with anxiety: “How do I manage changing diapers? What about all the tantrums? What about the incessant MINE, MINE, MINE!” I was not sure I could handle it.

That is when the supervisor shared her own learning journey and encouraged me to try. The teachers in the classroom at the time were patient and really supported my learning. I began to love this age group. I returned to City College to take classes in infant and toddler development and learned a lot about brain development. Those classes helped me see how much toddlers learn, how their brains expand the most during this brief time. I began to understand the world of toddlers, and the reasons for their strong emotions.

My supervisor offered me a position in the preschool classroom, but by then I was already in love with the toddler group, and that is where I have been for 12 years, here at Glide Childcare. I can be having a hard time at home and outside, but when I get here, and I see the children, all my worries melt away.

Where did all “my children” go? Covid, the pandemic and the search for “normal”

COVID has changed our work in many ways. During the shut-down First Five, DPH and Support for Families offered us many workshops that prepared us for reopening our doors. I confess that I was very nervous at first, but those classes helped me. We returned and within one week in the classroom I started feeling better, more confident.

My biggest support though, is my co teacher Rita Yu. She is amazing and I can rely on her to follow through with the additional cleaning we have to do and also with giving the children the love that they need.

I am saddened by the fact that we can’t serve all the children we used to serve before. I often wonder what is happening to the children that did not return. Where did all my children go? Are they developing well? What is going to happen as they develop? Are they getting enough to eat?

For the ones who are here, I do my best to give them a sense of “normal.” Even with all the cleaning and the masking, my co teacher and I have achieved this. We don’t mind washing the toys one, two, three or ten times a day, so we can offer the children this sense of normalcy.

Rita Yu and I could not provide this level of quality for the children if we did not have extra support. We are grateful to Glide and of the FYCC coworkers, who bravely work every day for our community. Our site manager, Lanie Igtalog works with the administration to get us all the PPE we need to feel safe, and our mental health consultant is always ready to listen to us. I am also very appreciative of the extra support the families receive from Glide and the Family Resource Center: Diapers, materials for children, food distributionand services. Our Family Resources Center is able to help the families financially. I have tremendous gratitude for the many who make it possible for us to survive.

And, on a personal note, I wish I could do even more. I wish I could give them access to jobs, I often worry that some families don’t have all that they need. I want to encourage families who are looking for support to join us here at Glide. And encourage our authorities to continue to support early childhood educators to stay in San Francisco, and not be fearful of serving the Tenderloin community. Because when I am here at our school, I feel like I can provide for the children: I can’t make sure that they get exercise, fun activities, nutrition, safetyand plenty of love from us. With all of that, our school, becomes a home and refuge for many. I hope our school experience will reduce the negative effects of this pandemic on the children’s future development.

On being Chinese in the age of COVID

 I work with toddlers to help them use their words, to learn how to live well with others, and to become open to our differences. It is so hard to see what has happened in America in the past four years, and particularly during this pandemic. So much hatred. I see pictures and videos of elderly Chinese being pushed down and hurt and I think: How could this happen here, in the “land of freedom?”

I have not experienced any violence myself, and my family has not either, but I hear from friends about their fears and their experiences. So much of what is happening comes from a climate of confusion, and the desire to use this confusion for political gains.

President Trump repeated so many times that the Corona Virus is Chinese that people began and continue to blame the Chinese community… those of us who work here, shoulder to shoulder with all of the different racial groups are now blamed and victimized for a virus that has no nationality.

This scapegoating has happened before. I want to continue to work with the toddlers in my care, so they grow up able to build relationships with people of all different cultural backgrounds.I call on all educators to unite in the goal of teaching our children with an anti-racist stance. It is important to educate our children to be anti-racists at an early age. If we nurture the sprouts early, they create strong roots.With this strong beginning, we can create our community, our country as it is intended: a country of freedom. This is the reason I came here. And this is why so many come and stay.

Learning from toddlers

I sing with children every day. Every day, I offer them encouragement in their language of preference. I cultivate the language of love between our toddlers and I observe how loving the toddlers can be with each other. I think we can all learn from toddlers.

I know that many people fear toddlers, and think of them as “irrational,” diaper wearing, screaming little beings. A long time ago, I made the same assumptions. But toddlers are capable of so much joy, and so much love, and so much acceptance! I am so grateful to be learning alongside them and to use the many parts of my identity to help them develop a strong attachment to their home language and culture.

If we continue to do this, my hope is that acts of violence against people, simply for the fact that they are different, will not be as common when “my children” are grown. I hope they will bring the songs I sing in Cantonese, Spanish, and English inside their hearts and will make the world a little bit better each day.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram


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