The Role of the Teacher in Early Childhood Education

A teacher, in any educational context, is a compassionate learning partner who skillfully engages in dynamic practices that enrich lives. The image of the teacher as a person who holds power above children and families is one that we need to discard permanently in order to advocate for a strong image of the child and innovative practices in Early Childhood Education. I believe the role of the teacher is rooted in love, respect, creativity and a desire to facilitate authentic connections between people and concepts. These include emotional, intellectual and creative connections between participants (children, educators & families) and technology, materials, the community and nature.  It is a dynamic, deeply reflective role informed by an image of the child as capable and competent.

At one time I’d say “I may teach three year olds, but that doesn’t mean I have the intellect of a three year old” in defense of my work as an Early Childhood Educator. I now see this phrase as a disservice to efforts around advocating for an image of the child as a capable, competent protagonist in their learning experiences. Young children are brilliant and this brilliance should only serve to elevate the role of Early Childhood Educators and support a strong image of the child.

As Malaguzzi states, the role of the teacher is “complex, multifaceted, and necessarily fluid, responsive to the changing times and needs of children, families and society.” (p.148) In my circle of family and friends, I find the role of the teacher is largely regarded as a knowledgeable guide who embodies compassion and love. These considerations are inspiring, yet I believe many people -policymakers in particular- devalue the role of the teacher because they devalue women and children. Early Childhood Educators are typically women and among the lowest paid of all educators; this indicates that the role is perceived as passive, unskilled and unimportant. In a recent New York Times article about how the pandemic illuminated the need for childcare it was noted that  “mainstream economists, mostly men, had argued that child care or other care work was something women did purely out of love, impossible to think about as an economic issue….“It’s women’s natural inclination or moral duty to do it,” Dr. Folbre said”. While this article doesn’t exactly make the argument that the role of the teachers is one of value, beyond providing a service that enables more women to work, it at least makes the case for one of the reasons why early childhood education is important. I’m hopeful this realization, along with President Biden’s efforts to provide universal preschool and affordable childcare, will help to bring more attention to the voices of those working to elevate the field of ECE.

I’m inspired by the phrases used by Reggio-inspired educators to describe the role of the teacher. As stated by Fraswer and Gestwicki, and quoted by Edwards, the role includes “co-constructor of knowledge, creator of environments as third teachers, exchanger of understanding, supporter of the competent child, documenter & researcher, partner with parents, listener, provocateur and negotiator of meaning.”(p.149) I also see the role as one that embodies intentional, mindful ways of being with the world and ourselves; these elements are some of the most powerful since they are necessary for every aspect of life.

I think the challenges with regard to how the role of the teacher is perceived largely have to do with issues of how women and children are perceived and thus valued. Society should view the role of the teacher as one worthy of respect and one that is connected to and influences the world beyond the classroom. I agree with Rinaldi’s statement regarding society’s “moral obligation to invest in education”(p.153) and I believe teachers should “take the attitude of researcher and listener” (p. 183) and commit to the practices of observation, documentation, reflection and constructive criticism of our ways of working so we can not only do what’s best for participants in our contexts, but also the entire field of Early Childhood Education. Considering how the role of the teacher relates to contemporary society, I agree with Gambetti that “We have a responsibility to continue moving forward and to evolve by keeping in step with a changing society.” “We owe this to children, ourselves, our community and society.” (p. 180)

There’s work to be done in elevating the image of the Early Childhood Educator, but I’m hopeful the field will experience positive changes as more people engage with innovative ECE practices, self reflection, and authentic connection with caregivers and fellow educators.

Published by Andrea Dupree

I'm a Graduate student (MA Innovative ECE), RYT/ Children's Yoga Teacher & Reggio-inspierd educator facilitating classes on Outschool & an artist at heart ✨✌️