Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
As the importance early childhood learning becomes more widely understood, so, too, does the importance of early learning educators. As she describes, that’s just part of what inspired Clinical Associate Professor Tonia R. Durden to help design and launch the inspiring Birth to Five Program at Georgia State University.
Chris Riback: Tonia, welcome to the studio.
Tonia Durden: Hello, glad to be here.
Chris Riback: You have been on the research side of early childhood education. You’ve been on the teaching side. And you are now on the teaching of teachers side.
Tonia Durden: Yes, yes.
Chris Riback: So you’ve got the whole thing down I assume?
Tonia Durden: I have it all wrapped around and still learning because that’s a big part of being an educator at any level is to learn from your students. So I’m also learning from the teachers who want to be teachers as well.
Chris Riback: I’m sure you are. Tell me about them please and tell me about the Birth to Five program at Georgia State.
Tonia Durden: Well, I originally started my career at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which is a predominantly white institution. When I transitioned to Georgia State University, one of the unique elements of Georgia State is that it is one of the leading universities in the country for successfully graduating African-American students. Not only was it my alma mater, I got my early childhood degree from Georgia State’s undergraduate program, but also the Birth to Five program that I run is what I actually helped to start when I was a graduate student there. So, it’s bringing me around full circle.
Tonia Durden: Now the actual students there, about 90% of the students are African-American or Latino students who are interested in pursuing a degree in early childhood and also learning how to teach very young children, birth to kindergarten. What’s unique about that is typically in our field with teachers who are birth to kindergarten, only about 35% are African-American. We have this huge, huge push in early childhood to diversify our workforce with more black and Latino teachers. So I’m really excited to have the opportunity to be a part of that work where we’re actually increasing our diversity in teachers.
Chris Riback: I want to ask you about workforce development-
Tonia Durden: Yes.
Chris Riback: Because it is a big challenge-
Tonia Durden: Yes.
Chris Riback: In early education. But first, what inspired you? How long ago was it that you helped design the Birth to Five program and what inspired you to design it?
Tonia Durden: Very good questions. So this was 10 years ago that we were really interested at Georgia State in developing a degree program where individuals who are interested in working with our youngest citizens had the opportunity to learn competencies and skills and how to teach them. Now we’ve had for over 20 years, elementary ed, secondary ed, middle school teacher certification, but not for birth to kindergarten, particularly birth to age five because that’s always been perceived by the public, and even by professionals, as that’s babysitting or you don’t have to have a certain level of competencies or skills to teach infants and toddlers. So advocates such as myself and researchers and teacher educators were really trying to push legislation in Georgia to think more critically that we do need individuals who are teaching infants and toddlers to be just as competent as those who are teaching fifth grade or seventh grade.
Chris Riback: What changed the perception? It couldn’t have just been, “Hey this would be nice to have.” Was it the research? Was it tied to science of learning and development?
Tonia Durden: There were four main things that contributed to that shift. The first thing was that we had a legislative body that was really seeking ways in which we could improve the economic vitality of the state because more and more parents were entering to the workforce and therefore, needing childcare and not just childcare but quality childcare. The second is there was this huge robust amount of research and the science that was coming behind the benefits of starting early even from the womb and so that was another kind of big incentive. Thirdly, is that we had one of our landmark universities in the state that actually began to pilot the Birth to Five program and saw that there was a huge market. The fourth thing, of course, was all of, I call us giants. The very silent giants in early childhood finally got our voice and said, “We’ve known this all along. We have not only experience but we have the data to prove that we do need quality teachers teaching our very young children.”
Chris Riback: And fifth, of course, your personal entity. Who in government is going to say no to you?
Tonia Durden: Well, that’s one of the things I learned in Nebraska as being an early childhood specialist is I learned how to do these elevator speeches with parents, with policy officials in order to truly get across how it’s very important to start early with young children.
Chris Riback: How does workforce development… Really connect those dots for me. How does it translate into an improved early education experience for the children?
Tonia Durden: That’s very key and I’ll start even from the womb because just from the talking and the conversations and the vocabulary, all of that starts very early of what children are exposed to, their literacy rich environments. If you have one child who has experienced a robust exposure to environment literacy and language and responsive experiences from their primary caregiver, whether it’s a parent or whether it is a grandmother or whether it is an early childhood provider, then it’s a remarkable difference than that child who has not experienced very intentional teaching and learning experiences.
Chris Riback: I love it and I know you put the emphasis there meaningfully. The use of the word intentional.
Tonia Durden: Intentional.
Chris Riback: Because this stuff’s not accidental.
Tonia Durden: It is not.
Chris Riback: It doesn’t happen by chance.
Tonia Durden: That’s why we have to prepare teachers. We have a cadre of teachers that already, “Oh, I love teaching. I love children.” Well, love is just the foundation. You also need to know how to teach children effectively and intentionally and also what’s developmentally appropriate for young children as well. It’s not developmentally appropriate to have children sit in desks for eight hours a day and have this kind of direct instruction learning. They learn through play. They learn through curiosity. They learn through conversations. Then they learn through all types of manipulation as well.
Chris Riback: It’s just so important to keep in mind and, Tonia, to close out, you have an anti-bias book coming out.
Tonia Durden: Yes. We’re so excited, the authors and I.
Chris Riback: I’m sure you are. Give me the thesis. Give me the ideas in the book. What have you found? What do you propose?
Tonia Durden: We have over 30 plus years in early childhood of ways in which to create racially equitable educational experiences for black and brown children. However, we really haven’t seen, even in those 30 years, a market increase in graduation rates, in articulating to higher education and to overall success that we should have seen. What this book does is it really does unapologetically say, “Look, these are the individual issues that we have to address from our microaggressions, our biases, the way that we see children and do or do not affirm the culture, the language, the knowledge that they bring with them to the classroom.” Then we have to look at systems and we have to look at how our systems, our policies, how our educational practices, how our classroom observations do or do not allow children to truly demonstrate their knowledge and their skills.
Tonia Durden: Once we critically examine the systems and the individual framework that impact young children, then we have very specific solutions that we provide to leaders, to educational leaders, to directors or principals, to teachers themselves, to policy leaders and also to those who are responsible for creating these systems. We’re really excited about the book that’s coming out, because it really does do a critical examination of where we are and where we could be if we’re intentional in our work.
Chris Riback: And solutions.
Tonia Durden: And solutions.
Chris Riback: And speaking to the full audience range of the folks who are responsible for early childhood learning in America.
Tonia Durden: That’s right. Because if we have the will, then we truly can create racially equitable education experiences for all children.
Chris Riback: Well, listening to that from you, I believe it.
Tonia Durden: Great.
Chris Riback: Tonia, thank you for coming by the studio.
Tonia Durden: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.