What Could She Be Thinking?

What Could She Be Thinking?
by Margie Carter
In working with directors to design
more effective staff development
strategies, my goal is to promote a way
of thinking about this work rather than
to promote particular techniques. I want
to strengthen the ability of teachers to
examine what they are seeing. And I
want to fortify their confidence in
working with a repertoire of thoughtful
actions and approaches to planning. In
my opinion, thoughtful teachers are
solidly grounded in a philosophy, are
self-aware, and work with clear values.
They are culturally sensitive, have a
working knowledge of child development, and good observation and communication skills. They are curious and
approach relationships with attention,
respect, and a desire to learn. So, how do
we nurture these qualities in teachers?
In an essay on teacher education, Bill
Ayers (2004) suggests that “preparing
teachers of judgment and thought, of
care and compassion,” requires we
reconstruct our teacher education
curriculum to include the following
Autobiography — being aware of oneself as the instrument of one’s teaching
Inquiry — being curious and pursuing
the “why”
Reflection — thinking rigorously in
order to act
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Critique — challenging what is unfair and
Community — combining insights and
energies with others
How can we practically incorporate these
ideas into our staff development work in
early childhood programs?
Create a vibrant, supportive
organizational culture
Even the best teachers will wilt when the
organizational climate undermines their
growth. Does your organization feel like a
community engaged in inquiry, reflection,
and critique? To me, these qualities shape
professional environments and organizations. If you fail to treat teachers as
professionals — in your environment,
policies, support systems, and interactions
— you will find yourself with continual
staff turnover and a shaky reputation.
Teachers who stay will likely not see
themselves as professional and probably
lack motivation to get better at their jobs.
On the other hand, if you give your
teachers decent working conditions with
the time, tools, and learning opportunities
they deserve, you will stabilize and
strengthen your team, and the outcomes
for children will be enhanced. This
suggests staffing patterns with adequate
time to study documentation, meet and
plan, communicate with families, track
down resources, and just catch one’s
breath with a cup of tea in a quiet, attractive space. For everyone to keep learning
and growing, your organizational culture
should be one of excitement, not excuses,
support and appreciation, rather than
scarcity and apathy.
Is your organizational culture one which
encourages autobiography, that is, a
continual expectation that people deepen
their self awareness to understand where
their philosophy, values, ideas, actions
come from? Without becoming a
therapist, how can you explore as a staff
the life experiences and influences that
have shaped who they are and how they
approach the teaching and learning
Strategies for autobiographical
staff development
Here are some strategies I’ve seen
directors effectively use:
Margie Carter is the co-author
of numerous books and staff
development videos for early
childhood educators. She
travels widely to speak, consult, and gather stories from early childhood
classrooms. Margie thanks Jacky Howell for
prompting this story with her exemplary
teaching and photos. To learn more about
Margie’s work visit, www.ecetrainers.com.
Single copy reprint permission from Exchange, The Early Leaders' Magazine Since 1978
PO Box 3249, Redmond, WA 98073 • (800) 221-2864 • www.ChildCareExchange.com
Multiple use copy agreement available for educators by request.
■ Interview prospective teachers to
uncover self-awareness. (If you were
to write your autobiography, what
would it be titled?)
■ Introduce yourself with a phrase used
about you in your upbringing. (“Hi,
I’m Margie and I always take the side
of the underdog.”)
■ Invite teachers to reflect on their own
childhood experiences related to
discussions of children’s behaviors.
■ Create bio-boards with teacher stories,
photos, and artifacts representing the
values they bring to their work.
Ayers reminds us, “Being aware of
oneself as the instrument of one’s
teaching, aware of the story that makes
one’s life sensible; allows for greater
change and growth as well as greater
intentionality in teaching choices.”
Nurture observation
and thinking skills
Becoming a keen listener and observer is
certainly a requirement of thoughtful
teaching. If you consult a dictionary, you
discover that the definition of the word
keen includes “showing a quick and
ardent responsiveness; enthusiastic,
eager, delighting in the chase, intellectually alert, extremely sensitive in
But rather than fostering “a delight in
the chase,” most programs require
teachers to fill out reams of paperwork
to demonstrate they are observing and
assessing children’s development. A
profession that allows this to happen
sacrifices one of the most joyful,
engaging, and intellectually stimulating
experiences readily available to teachers.
Children, in turn, lose the possibility of
having their play and ideas taken
seriously. Their activities are less likely
to be what George Foreman describes as
“learning encounters.”
Strategies for making
observation fun
To keep the observation process joyful
and thought provoking, I recommend
directors use strategies offered in The
Art of Awareness (Curtis & Carter, 2000),
including the following:
■ Use optical illusion or spot the
difference books in your staff room or
on your meeting agenda.
■ Offer quotes from artists or nature
observers for reflective writing or
discussion (i.e., Georgia O’Keefe,
Corita Kent, Barry Lopez).
■ Offer art photos or cards and ask
teachers to analyze them by describing the patterns, colors, textures,
mood, and meaning the art piece has
for them.
■ Distribute sets of similar nature
objects such as leaves, rocks, shells,
feathers; and after a period of careful
observation, list all the ways they are
different from each other.
■ Bring sketches of children’s block
structures describing the details in
sequence of how each was built.
Each of these activities can generate a
playful spirit towards observing and
some interesting insights and selfawareness. They can be routinely
incorporated into staff meetings. Along
with these, you can also engage your
staff in studying documentation stories
with guiding questions to uncover their
individual reactions and engage in some
meaning making together. Choose
stories that are provocative with the
goal of getting people engaged in
deeper self awareness and dialog.
Explore the “why”
of teacher actions
Teachers often have a knee jerk, critical
reaction to other teacher’s behaviors
that are different from what they’ve
been taught or how they think a class-
room should run. Our goal should be to
help them get curious, probe the “why”
and engage in inquiry.
The following example works well for
this purpose. Suggest that when teachers read this description and study the
photos of Jacky’s classroom they look
for examples of how this teacher’s
values have influenced her environment, routines, and expectations.
Remind them to notice their own
reactions, questions, and curiosities.
After teachers have read the story and
studied the photos, invite a dialog with
questions like these:
■ Apart from your own reactions, what
could she be thinking?
■ What philosophical perspective,
values, or learning theories are at
work in this story?
■ What would you like to ask Jacky to
deepen your own learning?
Summarize the inquiry or critique as
you bring the discussion to a close. For
instance, Jacky’s story offers a peek into
how a teacher goes about translating
her philosophy, values, and solid early
childhood learning theories into her
classroom environment, routines, and
overall classroom culture.
Creating a community of active, joyful
learners is central to Jacky’s thinking.
She wants children to feel connected to
and care for each other and the natural
world. Jacky believes children are
capable of making responsible choices,
and she respects where they want to sit
and different forms of participation
during group times. She subscribes to
the learning theories of multiple
intelligences (Gardner) and social
constructivism (Vygotsky) and provides
opportunities for children to learn from
and with each other.
Jacky’s classroom culture focuses on
caring, curiosity, and inventiveness,
rather than children’s compliance with
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Located in an old elementary school building, Jacky’s room has many of the features found in a typical early childhood
environment, including limitations such as built-in counters and inadequate storage space. Around the room are learning
centers with child-sized furniture and a variety of materials at children’s eye level. However, the children can sometimes be
found squatting on a table or countertop. The room includes a number of plants, and there is usually some kind of animal
present. Children move about the room in a relaxed, easy way,
enjoying the materials and each other’s company. When Jacky
gathers the children together on the rug for group times, they
are invited to choose a seat, join in the singing, sharing, and
story time, or just be an observer.
As she documents the children’s fascination with hatching
chicks, Jacky puts one of the fluffy new friends on top of the
incubator and watches to see what will happen. She approaches
an intrigued child who has dragged a chair to boost himself up
on the counter. “What do you think the little chick is trying to
tell the eggs inside?” she says, rather than scolding or invoking
a keep-your-feet-on-the-floor rule. Likewise, when Jacky spots a
child who has climbed on a table for a better look at his castle
drama, she joins him with an invitation to converse about his
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rules. Shaping your classroom culture
from the philosophy, values, and
research you subscribe to may require
you to reconsider whether your room
arrangements and routines are working
to support your objectives. What do you
want to do next?
I find that teachers need practice in
thinking through the complexities of
their work. More than a bag of tricks,
we could be offering staff development
experiences and a methodology for
inquiry, planning, and decision
making. This would support teachers
to know what they are thinking as well
as how to engage in thinking about
their work. As they internalize this
approach to development and make it
their own, teachers’ confidence and
eagerness to learn more steadily grow
stronger. Bill Ayers summarizes my
thoughts well:
“Successful teaching cannot be
completely prescribed, but must be
discovered again and again as the result
of a teacher’s ability to extract knowledge from unique and messy situations
and then to make specific choices and
judgments. . . . Teachers make hundreds
of choices every day, and those choices
have powerful reverberations in the
choices students will make today and
tomorrow. This is why teachers must
struggle to become more aware, more
thoughtful, more caring, more
Ayers, W. (2004). Teaching the Personal
and the Political. New York: Teachers
College Press.
Curtis, D., & Carter, M. (2000). The Art
of Awareness: How Observation Can
Transform Your Teaching. St. Paul, MN:
Redleaf Press.
March/April 2007