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 here, here, and here.
What comes to mind when you think of a woman who cares for a group of young children in her own home? What images do you think of? What assumptions do you make?
If you imagine that woman sitting on a couch, in her pajamas, watching children while Family Feud plays in the background, you are not alone. This stereotype is still common.
Most people don’t see Family Child Care as a real business. Most don’t think of FCCs as places of high-quality education for young children and as a support for working families. The idea that Family Child Care providers just stumble into this field is still common.
My story is a story of student loans to repay, of opening and managing a business, of seeking professional development, of committing to my community, and of a lifelong career that I chose for myself.
My Journey Began…
When I was in the eighth grade I took a career assessment. The results came out and they indicated that I would be a good teacher. I was so excited – but I still remember my teacher’s exact words at the time: “No you’re not going to be good at that–you need to find something else!”
I recall feeling really bad and fighting back by thinking “She’s not gonna tell me what type of job I can have!”
So, fast forward to my senior year in Catholic high school, I took an early childhood development elective class anyways. Wow! I will never forget it–I absolutely loved the class. I still have a handout from that class, summarizing “How children learn.” I framed it and I still have it by my desk.
After high school, I decided to pursue teaching. In college, I volunteered in a kindergarten classroom and later worked at an ECE program run by Sheila Norman (a local ECE leader) called Candlelight, located in OMI/Lakeview. These early practical experiences helped me think more about what I wanted to focus on in my studies.
I went on to earn a BA in Humanities from New College University, (now closed) with an emphasis on speech and language development with young children. In addition, I also enrolled in classes at City College and obtained a program director permit.
After working 11 years at a center-based program, in 2005, I felt prepared to open my own family child care.
Having a director being on the floor directly, but also the guidance of having a skilled and dedicated ECE mental health consultant, truly gave me my foundation and a special set of tools to be an effective teacher. I am proud to have been able to extend those skills over the last 16 years to other teachers as a mentor teacher through the California Early Childhood Mentor Program. Sadly, this year is the program’s last year, it is being eliminated by the California Department of Education.
As a Black woman, I noticed the inequities in our community from an early age. As I went on in my studies, I wanted to educate myself to fight these inequities.
I started graduate school and was interested in becoming a clinical psychologist. I wanted to focus on testing for children of color since I saw how these assessments impacted children of color in a negative way. Some of these “tests” were so culturally inappropriate. I remember one assessment that asked “Do you have pancakes, fruit, juice, and milk?” and thought “They don’t get it. It’s not a common breakfast for some children. There was a serious lack of understanding around culture, the language, the body and I just thought “Gosh there has to be more to this! We have got to do better!”
After a year and a half, I got pregnant and it was hard going to grad school and running my business solo. I didn’t want my son to suffer so I made a conscious decision to dedicate myself to my son and my work. I decided to put graduate school on hold.
Fortunately, despite my challenges, I also feel privileged. I come from a family that wants me to succeed. We all support and help one another. My mother, for instance, volunteered in my program for two years. She helped me save up to hire a teacher. She helped me identify my financial goals and stick to them.
It’s ALL about Community…
My family and my previous experiences have also centered me on the values that guide my professional practices. One powerful experience was the unexpected death of my brother. I was only 10 years old, but I was able to feelhow our community came together to support my family during this tragic unexpected event. Members of my community took me to the beach, picked me up after school, supported me and my family. Through these experiences, one learns how powerful this sense of community can be.
Being a part of a community gave me many tools that I use today in my classroom. I learned not to judge children and their families. I strive to learn how to support them in meaningful and impactful ways. Sometimes all we need is a simple conversation. I don’t always have all the answers and I’m far from perfect, but I tell families: “Let’s see how we can figure this out, together, and who can I call to provide you with resources…” and I do it.
Unique Traits of an FCC…
Family Child Care programs, unlike center-based programs, are a direct reflection on the owner, who is also the teacher, the director, the cook, the family advocate, the mentor, etc. Unfortunately, the systems created to “measure quality” often don’t take the uniqueness of our programs into consideration.
FCCs who want to receive public funds to serve low-income families need to go through assessments that are more fit for center-based programs. Current program assessments, designed to put a “number” on our programs, are also not reflective of the uniqueness of each FCC. Often assessors that come to our homes don’t understand these unique traits. Many of these assessors judge our environments, our homes. Essentially it feels like they’re judging us and our character. I still remember one of these assessors: she kept going up and down the stairs. At the time, I had a child who got anxious with all the movement–I just needed the assessor to understand this and I asked her to leave since a child was being impacted. I had to put the needs of the child first. I’m not concerned about the score I received, since it doesn’t define me, my program, or represent the community I serve.
Another big distinction is that we are not “cookie-cutter” programs. For instance, I don’t need to follow strict schedules. Instead, I love having flexibility in my schedule to give a child an extra 30 minutes to use the blocks to build a building or to move the whole block area outside. I love being able to respond to children’s needs by observing when they look really tired and being able to determine when they need a break. Being able to read those cues and individualize the care we give each child is very important.
When I notice that children are acting tired, I often call the family. We engage in conversations about what’s happening for them. With this information, I can better help children. The closeness I build with each family allows for our conversation, to be honest, and clear. I find out when somebody in the family passed away, or when the family’s car broke down, or when spouses had arguments.
Being able to come from a place of understanding helps me be a better educator. It is all about not being punitive or making the families feel bad. It really boils down to having the flexibility, knowing the family, and building relationships with children and families instead of trying to mold them into what they should be. That’s what makes me unique.
African American Early Childhood Educators in San Francisco form a coalition known as AAECE….
The city of San Francisco and the State of California have increased support for dual language learners. Unfortunately, I feel as if the needs of the English-speaking Family Child Care, particularly African American-owned and operated FCCs, have been neglected. There have been fewer professional development opportunities for us and about us, and a lack of understanding about our particular needs in a changing community.
As a response to these concerns, a group of Black FCC providers, Our Kids First (non-profit), and I started our own organization: the African American Early Childhood Educators. Our group received funding from MegaBlack San Francisco, which has been a huge support for the Black community. Our group is designed to respond to the unique needs of children, families, and educators in San Francisco. It’s not just for Black educators…it’s for Everyone who wants to ensure the success of Black children and families.
The city is changing… and people are forgetting our history. Take the Lakeview neighborhood, for example.
I’m still here and I’m looking at how my neighborhood has changed. I used to know everyone on my block. It is different now. It goes along with the invisibleness, the loneliness, especially in our Black community because it is shrinking here.
When people think of the “Black Area” in SF, they think of the Fillmore, the Bayview — and they forget that there was a huge African American community here too. I love seeing this old-timer who rolls on his little scooter, stops by in front of my house every day till I come outside after seeing him waving in the camera just to “hi!”
Scenes like this are getting rarer. I feel like we fell off the map a little bit and I want people to know we’re still here. There is increasing talk about the needs of our Black children but where are the policy and action? I want to be part of the solution, of figuring out how to support our community so we don’t leave our beloved city.
One of the actions I took was to reach out to Ahsha Safaí, District 11 Supervisor, and the OMI Community Collaborative. I was informed of all the wonderful things happening in the Excelsior, but what about us? There are inequities between Excelsior and Lakeview and there are still Black business owners here so invest in us too.” He has responded above and beyond.
Responding to our own needs….Life in Lakeview During COVID…
When COVID hit, lots of FCC providers were exchanging information. There was a lot of information not being shared consistently across the board. We organized ourselves and compiled our lists and started making phone calls to find access to our basic needs like Personal Protective Equipment, food, and materials. We ourselves began making deliveries to other businesses to help out.
Family child care is a small business and this pandemic really brought our community together to advocate for ourselves. We were seeing and experiencing all the inequities that were happening in regards to our children and our Black-owned Family Childcare providers. As a Black woman, I saw it. I heard it. I felt it… and even though we often point these inequities out, often nothing is done about it unless we organize ourselves and make our voices heard.
Teaching and Learning During COVID…
COVID has taught me a lot. Aside from learning firsthand the power of community support, I was also forced to think about how this crisis helped us innovate and change. Let me highlight two of these major changes:
- Rethinking the use of materials: due to health guidelines, we had to remove a lot of the materials that we had been encouraged to have in our programs. It was a godsend to have all that stuff out of the classroom…the children responded so well. We reorganized everything so children had a clear view of what to use, and I saw how this planning helped children decrease conflict and better regulate their emotions. The conversations between children and the teachers became more complex throughout the day. These changes were visible even with the children who exhibit challenging behaviors. It was transformative. I concluded: “I’ll never go back to how it was!” because I saw with my own eyes, a true collaboration between all of us, a true community.
- Using Zoom to access a place at the table: Another positive change that came out with the pandemic–Zoom meetings. Before the pandemic, people like me weren’t allowed to be present in decision-making city-wide meetings because we were at work. If we wanted to attend, we had to pay for substitute teachers. Now, we’re at the table without leaving our sites. Our voices are literally in the rooms.
FCC Needs Beyond COVID…
The pandemic showed our community how the jobs of Family Child Care providers are essential for the economy and for the wellbeing of children and families. I hope this lesson goes beyond the Pandemic. So, for me, we need to create a system that goes beyond Covid. Most of us risked our health and our financial well-being to continue to provide services during this crisis. It is time we receive the support we need to thrive. Things such as:
- Student loan forgiveness
- Affordable health care plans for us and our teachers
- Pathways to homeownership
- Continued professional development supports and access to services (mental health, public health nurses, etc.)
- Opportunities to mentor younger educators (I have been a mentor teacher for 16 years.)
- Pipeline for those in Highschool interested in making a career in ECE
Hope for the Future…
I have been a part of the ECE Workforce for 25 years and have witnessed a lot of changes. Through this past year, participating in our FCC organization meetings, and attending City-sponsored ECE meetings made me realize we all need to cultivate transparency, respect, and honesty among our professionals in San Francisco.
We can agree to disagree and we can move forward without holding on to grudges. The decision-makers (OECE, First 5, Children’s Council, Wu Yee, CPAC, etc) must be willing to have the real stakeholders at all meetings to ensure the community is represented. They need to ask themselves: Am I here for the benefit of the ECE greater community of San Francisco? Am I representing ALL Early Childhood Educators in San Francisco?
I am convinced that honesty, transparency, and respect would go a long way towards building bridges for all our various community partners.