Updated: Aug 18, 2022
On July 30, 2022 the Louisiana Department of Education announced the inaugural winners of the early childhood teacher of the year, and early leader of the year at its annual gala. Up until 2022, this red carpet event focused on K-12 teachers and principals only. Like other states that hold the annual honors, a year-long application and vetting process culminates in big recognition and prizes, which may seem like a colorful state or local news story, but national advocates should be lifting Louisiana's work as a call to action that supports increased parity in the educational system. Here's why:
Early educators have long been invisible, "service deliverers" - and not even regarded as teachers. Common nomenclature for early childhood educators has included the words providers and caregivers, completely negating the critical brain building that these dedicated professionals are facilitating. The "Educator of the Year" efforts is another in a growing list of structures that build alignment of early ed with the elementary and secondary system, and the universe of "teachers" and "education leaders" who are peers in the field.
State teachers of the year advance to the national competition, with the winner elevating their platform and agenda, as they speak around the country about the issues important to them. For example, this year's National Teacher of the Year, Kurt Russell, is committed to the diversity and representation of the teaching workforce. The Council of Chief State School Officers leads that work, and it is "a nonpartisan, nationawide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education." Clearly, early childhood doesn't fit into that mission. But a national organization, like the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), or another national advocacy group can push for an equivalent -- and a platform for our examplars and the goals they want to promote.
When asked, here's what Rochelle Wilcox, Louisiana's Early Leader of the Year, had to say about what she hopes to shine a light on:
"I am grateful for the opportunity to raise awareness for my platform. Right now, I'm focused on policy and providers. There is currently no representation from early childhood at the governing body over the Louisiana Department of Education. Even the name - BESE - stands for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. We would like to have meaningful representation from the body that sets policy for publicly funded early learning centers in Louisiana. Secondly, my nonprofit organization, For Providers by Providers is focused on early learning centers being viable businesses that provide high quality care and education to children across our state. How can we best support these critical small businesses to give children our best?"
We need the voices of leaders like Rochelle and Annie Richardson, Louisiana Early Educator of the Year, to press for parity that goes beyond these types of recognition -- to the issues that deeply impact the decentralized and underfunded ECE system. A practical example comes from the feds: The Department of Education announced extended student loan forgiveness for early educators in qualifying centers. Policy changes like this only happens when children's first teachers are valued as professionals and educators. We must continue to push for efforts that build their visibility and leadership, like the Louisiana Early Leaders Academy, of which Ms. Wilcox is an alumni.
The perspectives and organizing power of those who directly work with children is sorely needed. For too long, commissions and steering committees have tacitly engaged early educators, negating the fullness of their potential. Let's give them some shine (yes), in the service of true decision-making power.
I've always got my eye on Louisiana for innovation in early childhood. Let'see if this move to recognize the best of the field catches on, in other states (just learning that Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning also does this. Who else?), and ultimately, at the national level.