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If learning starts at birth, teacher training has to start earlier too

Oct 24, 2014

This daycare center in Detroit is one of the places where teachers are undergoing training as part of a new initiative.
Credit Sarah Carr / Michigan Radio

Sarah Carr is editor of The Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism dedicated to covering issues facing America's teachers. While in Detroit she put together this story for State of Opportunity.

In Detroit and across the country, pre-school instructors are being asked to teach more formal academic skills so their students can get off to a strong start in school and life.

That means more training for some of these teachers, like Tanisha Tinsley, an instructor at Village of Shining Stars, a Detroit daycare that enrolls kids between the ages of 1 and 5.

While her toddlers sleep, Tinsley practices changing diapers on a doll she calls Lance.  “Hey Lance, it’s diaper changing time,” she says. “Thank you, Lance. Come on, I’m going to pick you up,” she coaxes. “Are you ready? Let’s go.”

Tinsley’s actually practicing far more than a routine diaper change. Under the watchful gaze of her teaching coach, Alicia Williams, she’s learning how to talk more to her toddlers, a crucial way to teach them language.

“It’s not rote instruction, but you are still instructing because you are giving them language,” Williams says. “You are actually describing their actions. So you are doing a lot, you are teaching even with that diaper change.”

This school year, Williams is providing one-on-one coaching for Tinsley and other instructors through a new, foundation-funded program operated by Excellent Schools Detroit. The coaches are working with teachers in independent childcare centers, elementary schools, and other settings that teach kids from birth through third grade.

Ninety-one teachers are going through the training, which includes group sessions and the individual mentoring. Williams observes her teachers every couple weeks. After each observation, she gives them one skill to work on, like talking more to their little ones.

The teachers practice in front of the coach before trying out the new teaching skills on their kids. Denise Smith oversees early learning initiatives for Excellent Schools Detroit. She says teachers practicing is something that doesn’t happen nearly enough. Smith says that in most professions, people “practice and practice and practice, over and over again to become superstars.” But when it comes to early childhood education, “we have not practiced,” she adds.

Early education instructors have long been America’s most undertrained and underpaid teachers. Many of them need the extra support. At the first group training session earlier in the year in Detroit, only two of the teachers were well-versed in the state’s early learning standards. Only one was deeply familiar with the Common Core.

Back at the Shining Stars daycare center, Tanisha Tinsley’s cousin, Keisha Tinsley, works with three-year-olds. She says the coaching is already making a difference. She’s using more advanced vocabulary words when talking to her students. And she’s surprised by how much they understand.

“One parent actually came back and was like, ‘My son came home and was talking about what he did in school and he was in his room using all these big words.’ So at least I know he is picking it up and going back home and using them,” Keisha Tinsley says.

Young children are like sponges, Tinsley adds. They’ll absorb just about anything she tells them. That makes her job easy and challenging at the same time. And it makes quality teacher training all the more important.