Through a program called Quality Connections, funded as a partnership between First Five San Francisco and the Office of Early Care and Education, I enjoy one of the most meaningful jobs I could have ever asked for: I am a coach for ECE educators in publicly funded programs. I enter into partnerships with teachers all over San Francisco, supporting them in implementing continuous quality improvement plans, often moving from one neighborhood to the next as if I were travelling between different countries.
Our culturally and linguistically diverse early childhood educators offer our children and families many gifts. Sometimes they are able to “read” the families’ cultural context, switching from English to the families’ home language, offering “mirrors” to the children and providing strong bridges between home and school.
Other times, when they represent cultures that are unknown to their colleagues and to the families they serve, they offer valuable “windows” into concepts, realities and histories that would only have been accessible via books or TV shows.
I think of this diverse group of educators as opportunities for us, San Franciscans, to continue to grow in our understanding of human diversity.
However, it is also undeniable that providing culturally responsive care to an increasingly multicultural community can be challenging. Child-rearing practices are deeply rooted to cultural perspectives and a multicultural team of teachers, serving a multicultural group of families might face the negative impact of misunderstandings, prejudice and preconceived ideas about the “right way” to raise children.
Successful multicultural teams seem to only emerge when teams are willing to learn from one another and from their families about a world of possibilities and cultural expressions that might initially be different, and “not right.” In these efforts, multicultural teams and families create a “third culture” space, where children’s families and teachers are celebrated and honored, where they honestly collaborate on how to provide the best learning opportunities for children, and where teachers are curious and open to learning together.
Teams such as these are popping up all over the city. One such exemplary team is Maki Matsunami and Antonia Venegas. They have agreed to be interviewed, and to share with us what makes their partnership a strong foundation for their toddler classroom, located in a subsidized program in the Bayview.
Barbra Blender: Maki and Antonia! Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me about your journey in ECE. Let’s start by sharing a bit about yourselves… what brought you to San Francisco, and what led you to working with toddlers?
Antonia Venegas: I grew up in Mexico in a very poor and large family. My parents had eight children. Hoping for a better life, my parents came to the US, leaving me and one of my brothers behind to be raised by my abuela. I was able to join them at 15 and quickly found out that the “American dream” was not easily attainable.
When I arrived, my family was struggling. We did not have enough money for food or clothes. Even though my mom really wanted me to go to school, I had to leave school early to go to work. I started working at age 17, told the boss I was 18 and worked at a company for 12 years. Years later, when I had my first son it became impossible to work. My son was a sensitive child. He cried a lot. It was hard to find someone who could care for him. After much thought and many conversations with my husband, I decided to stay home.
I stayed home for three years till a neighbor suggested a job as an assistant in an infant classroom. I was open with the supervisor, and I told her that other than the experience as a mom, I had no other experience. And I honestly did not know if I would like it. Once I met the babies, I started loving this work. I registered into ECE classes at City College, and that was 19 years ago!
Barbra Blender: And you never looked back, right?! What about you Maki?
Maki Matsunami: My story is quite different. I grew up in Japan, with just one brother. My brother came to study in the US (since boys were encouraged and prioritized more than girls to do that), leaving me behind with my parents. I was 15 at the time. I convinced my parents to let me come here for two months, to learn English.
I fell in love with the US, and returned to Japan but eventually came back to finish high school here. Then, I obtained a B.A. in Linguistics at the University of Oregon and focused my studies in second language acquisition. I met my husband, got married and had three children. During that time, I kept visiting child-care programs. I went to 22 programs and I did not find a place where I felt comfortable leaving my children.
I eventually found one program which I felt comfortable with, but it had a very long waiting list. I really wanted to become a better parent, so I started taking classes at City College and I never stopped till I got my supervisor’s permit. I got an offer to come to work at a program with toddlers six years ago and I continue to learn about human development through my three sons and through the children in my classroom.
Barbra Blender: Interesting connection how you both came to the field of Early Childhood Education through this transition between motherhood and teaching. What else do you two share in common?
Maki Matsunami: I think both Antonia and I encourage our own children to value our backgrounds and cultures, while, at the same time, developing respect for others. In my case, for instance, I want to instill in my children a deep respect for our elders (even one year older than me is an elder). My grandma, back in Japan taught me that, and I think it is very important.
I also celebrate all the Japanese holidays, such as Japanese New Year (which happens between January 1 and January 7). I am trying to teach my boys how to speak Japanese. My husband is from the Middle East (and he is also trying to teach them Arabic). We share with our boys how they come from different cultures, and, at the moment, our sons are resistant and want to only embrace American Culture. But I keep trying, talking to them about their rich cultural backgrounds, telling them “America is a melting pot, but you still have my and your dad’s genes and features and someday this will matter and is part of your identity and the different cultures you represent.”
Antonia Venegas: I agree with Maki: we must teach our children about our cultures and our history. In my case, I work hard to teach my boys (who are now both young men) to speak Spanish, and to embrace their heritage. Aside from the special holidays, such as celebrating Mothers’ day on May 10, as we do in Mexico, I try to expose them to my culture as often as possible.
I don’t often talk to them much about my life growing up in Mexico, because there are so many sad memories. But during a trip to my hometown with the boys, we had some powerful conversations. I remember that we were sitting at a restaurant, and a child from the village approached our table. We invited him to eat with us, but the owner of the restaurant wanted to kick him out because he had no shoes. Something came over me, and I started to cry… “That was me”, I told my sons…“That was me as a child… I had no shoes. I never had Christmas gifts, I never owned a baby doll.”
My sons were surprised. I was able to talk to them about how I grew up. I wanted them to appreciate the lives we were able to build for them here and have empathy for others.
Maki Matsunami: Wow Antonia! You and I talk everyday… and you never told me that. You have the ability to make me laugh so much, and now you have made me cry. You often tell me stories that touch my heart. I have learned so much from you!
Barbra Blender: It is clear, from listening to the two of you, that you have grown to appreciate each other both personally and professionally. When you first started out, years ago, you worked in different classrooms, with different age groups. And I remember that there was not much unity then. What changed?
Maki Matsunami: Well… COVID happened! I was working with toddlers and Antonia with infants. We tried to offer some experiences remotely, but toddlers don’t learn from zoom interactions. So the administrators made the decision to transfer me to the Bayview. At the time, I was not happy at all. This school was much further from my house and family, and I was concerned and resistant. However, I made the right decision.
Antonia Venegas: And for me, I had only worked with infants, and all of a sudden I was asked to work with toddlers AND with Maki. I was nervous. I did not know anyone at the Bayview site.
Barbra Blender: Yes… I can see that this would be a difficult change. Especially with all the other challenges brought about by COVID.
Maki Matsunami: I always had respect for Antonia. I imagined how hard it was going to be for her to work with a different age group, in a new center with new staff…
Antonia Venegas: Yes! Imagine how I felt! We are now like family, mi hermana..
Barbra Blender: Maybe your empathy for each other bubbled to the surface…
Maki Matsunami: Yes! And, the moment we started working together, I could see that Antonia was amazing. At first, I did most of the planning and the paperwork but now… Antonia is doing a lot of it too.
Barbra Blender: And what are the advantages of working with people from a different background than yours… with children who are also from diverse backgrounds?
Maki Matsunami: I want to be able to ask and understand why and how families make choices instead of telling parents what’s right and wrong. Currently, we have some African American children and mostly children from Spanish speaking families. Antonia helps me communicate with the families in complex ways that I could never do, even if I use google translate. For instance: I had been asking a mom to bring extra diapers because we had run out. Every time I reminded the mom, she would shake her head yes… and repeat: “Sí! Sí!” But the diapers never materialized.
I was getting frustrated, till Antonia was able to go deeper, and find out that this family needed extra support. They did not have the resources to buy the diapers. With that information more clearly explained, we were able to find resources for the family. Honestly, a benefit of working together with different cultures is I get to learn quicker to understand deep culture and vice versa. I think we can accept, learn and share if we just have an open mind and heart.
Barbra Blender: You both have experienced hardships and have such empathy and sensitivity to your community’s needs and human kindness.
Antonia Venegas: Exactly! I feel like we both believe in building strong relationships with all of our families. We need to give them lots of positive feedback about their children, while, at the same time, provide information and support, without judgement. For example, a child walked into the classroom with a sippy cup that contained coffee and milk. For most Americans and for Maki, this is obviously shocking. Not so much in Latin America, where often children are offered that during breakfast.
So, rather than judging the parent, I was able to talk to her… to partner with her. I asked more about what would happen if the child waited till getting to school to have breakfast, and we worked together to find a good solution.
Maki Matsunami: Without Antonia, I would not have known that coffee is something some families offer to children. Now we are able to talk to families respectfully about alternatives, without making them feel badly about this practice. Antonia and I are on the same page. We often learn more about different child rearing practices, and this helps us guide and support our families.
Antonia Venegas: And I love learning from all the different cultural backgrounds in our classroom. People frequently think that all Latin American cultures are the same, but this is not true. We invite the families to teach us, to share with us their goals and their expectations for their children. We are a great team because we are both curious about our families’ cultural backgrounds and we work together and have many conversations about how to approach each situation.
Barbra Blender: And now that you actively built this thriving teaching team, working together for eight months through COVID, how do you feel about the transition from your old school where you worked in separate classrooms as lead teachers into this new classroom?
Antonia Venegas: I feel very comfortable… in fact, I feel even more comfortable than before. And it is not because I like working with toddlers more than I liked working with infants… it is because Maki and I are happy to work together. We don’t have to rely on words. We see what needs to be done, and do it. We have fun with the children. We respect our families.
Maki Matsunami: We have a routine! We have fun together. Even though we have worked together before we did not KNOW each other. Now we do.
Antonia Venegas: I even taught Maki how to dance salsa! You know Luis Fonsi? The guy who wrote Despacito? Now Maki knows him too and can dance to it.
Maki Matsunami::Yes.. Antonia and I are happy together. We laugh all day long. We are playful. There is no tension in our classroom, because we talk about everything, and we support one another. I know the children feel it too! When you come into our room there is a lot of joy.
Barbra Blender: Aw, I could talk with the two of you all day… but I need to bring this to a close. I have been thinking about all that you are saying and relating it to Early Childhood Theory. We study so much about attachment theory, and how important it is for children to have secure attachments. However, there is little discussion in our field about the impact of positive attachments between our teaching teams, and how much these attachments impact the children and their families. You two have shown me that multicultural teams, rooted in respect, curiosity and empathy are so powerful. When I told your site supervisor, Robyn King that I was to interview you both for the series Teaching Behind the Mask she sent me the following note: “I am so proud of these two ladies! They are a dynamic duo who represent quality educators. You have chosen the best of the best. I look forward to reading the article and thank you for lending a glimpse into their full days of caring for and loving our children”. And here I am… confirming and appreciating what Robyn stated, and hoping that our San Francisco community will celebrate, cherish and learn from your gifts as well.
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.