Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? He who learns from every person. – Pirkei Avot 4:1
How do we build the capacity of early childhood educators to become leaders? An important goal in Jewish early childhood education is to provide a foundation for children to become caring, contributing members of society who make a positive impact on the world. Early childhood (EC) educators spend a long time focusing on teaching and supporting children to practice their social/emotional skills, such as empathy and cooperation. EC educators realize that when children cooperate, they expand their skills. If we know this to be true for children, why then, do we offer such little time for EC educators to learn together through cooperation?
An interesting study from 2012, conducted by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation, found that teachers spend only about 3 percent of their teaching day collaborating with colleagues. Although this study was focused on K-12 educators, it unfortunately highlights the fact that most teachers plan, teach, and reflect on their practice alone. How can we expect our teachers to grow into leaders if they are isolated? The Efshar Project, formerly known as the Colorado Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (COJECEI), has found success in supporting educators in growing their leadership capacity through learning cohorts. One such model is a Community of Practice.
A Community of Practice (CoP) is a “learning experience with a committed community of members who share a domain of interest, interact and engage in shared activities, help each other, share information, and build relationships that enable them to learn with and from each other.” If properly facilitated, a CoP not only increases the capacity of an educator in a particular domain, it has also proven to increase the capacity and desire to become educational leaders.
In addition to fostering the leadership capacity in educators, the ripple effect of reaching other educators is profound. Natalie Boscoe, pedagogical coach for the Efshar Project, facilitated a two-year-long CoP focused on documentation in early childhood education. Educators from four different schools in the Denver area participated in this CoP. Over the two years, the CoP had a total of 13 group sessions as well as individual coaching time for each participant. The group sessions allowed for and encouraged collaboration, shared learning, and relationship building. The individual coaching hours offered an opportunity for differentiated learning and goal setting for each participant.
This mix of group learning with individualized coaching was critical in supporting the participants’ learning and capacity to grow their leadership abilities. All of the participants grew their understanding of documentation and the majority of participants took on leadership roles within their school after participating in the CoP. The educators not only had increased knowledge of a particular domain but also reported that working together with other teachers increased their confidence and comfort working with their colleagues. One participant named Sheryl said:
“Over the course of the past two years, I have been a part of this amazing Cop and learned together with wonderful teachers. This has been a different way of learning for me—in the past I learned one-on-one… This type of learning [within the CoP] has helped me to think differently and to become more vulnerable in my own work. Sharing with a group of teachers can be scary; however, these women are open and non-judgemental which is very humbling.”
During the second year of the CoP, Sheryl took on a coaching role at her school. She was given the title Madricha, the Hebrew word for guide. She coached two classrooms per week focusing on documentation. Gaining confidence and practice through her experience as a Madricha, Sheryl is now serving as an assistant director at another school and coaching an entire staff.
Through collaboration, teachers are able to grow their own practice and skills. Another participant of the CoP, Jen, wrote a wonderful blog post for the Early Childhood Education of Reformed Judaism’s website entitled Discovery Through Documentation: Learning From the Children’s Point of View. In this post she highlighted the impact her cohort members had on her own learning:
“Through discussions and constructive critiques of my earlier documentation examples by fellow cohort members and our coach, I quickly changed my goal of documentation to making learning visible to the children, school, parents, and myself. With this change in mind, it was like putting on a new pair of glasses when walking into my classroom.”
In addition to sharing her own learning journey in this blog post, hoping to inspire others on a national level, Jen also now serves as a documentation mentor and resource to her colleagues at her school. She offers her time, expertise, and what she learned during the CoP to her community. Before participating in the CoP, Jen had not taken on a leadership role in her school. She gained confidence and the necessary skills to support others by participating in the CoP.
Francie is another example of growing an educator’s leadership capacity by providing opportunities to collaborate with fellow teachers and a mentor/coach. She, like the other participants, didn’t necessarily have a leadership role in the school prior to participating in the CoP. Francie was so enthralled with the topic and what she was learning that she facilitated a professional development session on documentation at her school for the entire staff. She, too, offers her time and skills by serving as a resource to her colleagues at her school.
By providing opportunities to collaborate, work within a group, and have support from a coach, the participants not only grew their capacity within a particular domain, they also practiced and increased their leadership skills. Listening, empathy, curiosity, collaboration, courage, risk-taking, and bravery are all necessary skills to have as a successful leader. Each participant of the CoP was asked to enter each group session as a learner and a brave leader and as Ben Zoma said, Who is wise? He who learns from every person.