Close your eyes. Imagine taking care of a baby or toddler all day, every day. Alone. Imagine the feeling that you are doing everything wrong, that you aren’t enough for your child, that you have no time to breathe. Imagine the isolation you feel. Now imagine a person coming to your house every week to point out all the things you’re doing well. Imagine a person sitting down in your living room, or wherever you call home at the moment and bringing the energy of learning and collaboration that is meant to serve both you and your child.
Michelle Robertson was practically born to be an in-home educator. She is energetic, compassionate and has a unique background that includes eight years in Chile where she stumbled into a situation in which she took on an in-home education type role with a family of six children. For the most part, her relationship to the family became mutually beneficial in which she gave and received resources, time and love to a local family. Although her role at Verner has more built-in structure and boundaries, at a gut level, love is still the driving force. While each educator brings their unique style and gift to the table, Michelle says of Verner’s nine in-home educators as a whole, including director Julie Jones, “Our team is joined by our heart for the families and making this world a better place.”
Along with the other in-home educators, she visits her families once a week for an hour and a half and builds a relationship with the child and their family. She not only brings the classroom to her children with an individualized, developmentally meaningful range of activities, but she also brings invaluable support and guidance to the parents or caregiver. The in-home educators model activities and offer direct feedback but always with a sense that the educator and the parents are partnering to provide the child with the best learning environment possible. The activities the in-home educators do with children are designed to use what families have readily available at home in order to transform the child’s space into a vibrant place of learning.
Although the home-based program is effective in meeting the unique needs of the families, sometimes families resist home visits. Michelle said that sometimes parents or caregivers feel so overwhelmed with whatever situation they find themselves in, that they resist their weekly visits. When asked how she handles a caregiver’s resistance, Michelle responds simply with, “Love. Love is the bridge. That’s it. I love the children and that’s how I am able to gain the trust of the parents.” They learn quickly that she isn’t there to judge but rather to partner with the caregivers, play, share concerns, find strategies, and to facilitate connections with other families in the home-based program through Play and Learn Socials offered twice monthly.
* Check out our Social Media platforms to see videos and stories of how Verner is continuing to care for, educate and love families from afar! And stay tuned for more in-depth stories on our blog about our Verner Family, both within the context of this current crisis and in general! LOVE IS THE BRIDGE!
The Verner team returned from Guatemala two weeks ago. Now, back in the snow and pine trees of home, I continue to reflect on my experience there. So many people, so many encounters, and so many things to think about, but what keeps coming up for me are the ideas of context, resilience, curiosity, balance, and admiration.
Context: I noticed that the people at Safe Passage, as a first step in our work together, invited us to visit and simply … see. We walked through the neighborhoods and areas where the members of the community live and work. I was so grateful for the opportunity just to look and listen, and to gain understanding about the community from their experiences and stories. It was a great reminder that building any real connections needs this type of sharing and openness.
Resilience: It is easy to focus on the adverse conditions of poverty, and certainly this community has more than their share. What stood out to me, however, was the incredible strength, resilience, and ingenuity of the families served by Safe Passage. As I met the educators and volunteers working with the children of the community, I saw how they – like all of us in this field – love children and work to be their best so the families get the educational opportunities they deserve.
Curiosity: As the Verner team formed connections with our Safe Passage counterparts, I stayed curious about what we could offer and how we could best partner. Yes, we brought our expertise, experience, and ideas to share, but I wanted to know what early childhood education means to this community and what approaches they have developed. The Safe Passage educators were curious to know our perspective on quality education and care, and how our ideas could inform their practice. And we both were curious to see how sharing ideas in this context could create something unique and meaningful to expand their programs and their work with children and families.
Balance: I noticed how, for me, balance popped up as a theme of working in a context of limited resources. Safe Passage offers programs for families and staff such as education, job training, and social work, and provides basic necessities like food. They work in a place with limited resources, but they do so with love and the understanding that everyone deserves the opportunity to build a life for themselves and their families. Verner has a similar mission and programming. We have in common that we both must navigate the balancing act of identifying what is needed, setting high standards and goals, and acknowledging and appreciating what we actually have and what we can do.
Admiration: Watching people dive into work with passion always makes me feel happy and hopeful. My Verner colleagues worked tirelessly each day and fully embodied the Verner mission. They helped each other, were flexible, and met each new setting and person with kindness and authentic care. And, like my Verner colleagues, the people of Safe Passages have incredible passion and devotion to their work, to the families, children, and the community they serve.
I am grateful for these experiences and for the opportunity to work alongside our dedicated Verner team and to start new friendships with amazing people.
Ten two-year-olds, two teachers, and two tables shaped like a rainbow. Twelve spoons clinking against twelve bowls of cereal. Twelve little voices chatting. There is no pressure to hurry.
The teachers sit in the groove of the table that face the children. Each teacher takes cues from the children about the next topic of conversation. Who has a pet? Whose mommy has a baby in her belly? Who drove you to school this morning? They discover differences and similarities about their families, their mornings, their interests. They are silly and serious. Some are entirely focused on eating and others are listening to the sound of their cereal crunching under their spoons.
Neither teacher says, Be careful. Don’t spill. Lean over your bowl. Don’t dribble the milk. Don’t make a mess. Both teachers are eating with the children. Both teachers are engaging in conversation with the children that is geared toward learning about themselves and each other. It feels comfortable and cozy, where the children are respected and valued.
Any redirecting language is prompted by behavior that is potentially unsafe. Redirections are delivered in a gentle yet firm way, focusing on the children’s relationships to one another and how the behavior impacts each person involved. When you kick your friend under the table, I feel nervous that he will be hurt and that will make you feel sad.
Every morning at Verner Center for Early Learning, children and teachers share breakfast together. The shared meal first thing in the morning sets the tone for the day, creating a feeling of family and community. It also provides an opportunity to reinforce community and developmental skills in a way that is natural and fun. Anna Peterson, a teacher in the one to two-year-old class, echoed this sentiment when she shared that mealtimes provide yet another opportunity to guide the children in a natural way through modeling and talking about topics they are learning in other parts of the day.
The teachers are intentional about their focus on the sense that each child’s presence is valued and honored. As they eat breakfast, they are experiencing different textures and discovering what they like and don’t like. As the children are able, depending on the age of the classroom, they help pass out the plates, bowls, and utensils and at the end of the meal, they clear their own plates and bowls and put them in a bin to be washed. They enjoy being in community together.
Theresa DiAmario, a 2-3 year old teacher at Verner East says of this special time, “The children see us listening to their peers and really engaging with the things they have to say. I feel as though this is important because it teaches them that their stories and experiences are meaningful and worth talking about.“ Shelby Ward, who teaches with Theresa says that the breakfast time grounds the group together and centers the class for the rest of the day. Grounding is important after separating from their grown up which can be a stressful time regardless of the child’s age. First thing in the morning, the classrooms at Verner, are energetic and buzzing. Children bring their feelings and excitement into the classroom. The shared meal after Morning Meeting and the transition to school helps to get everyone grounded and prepared for a day of learning and growing together. It’s a check-in before the day is in full swing, and a reminder that, “Hey, we all matter and we care about one another.”
The shared respect and care spills out of breakfast into the next part of the morning. A few kids are sitting on and around Theresa’s lap reading Dragons Love Tacos. One child is absorbed in water play with Shelby, one is filling a bag with toys and pretending to go on a trip and another is building a castle with a set of magnatiles. There is no pressure to perform and the teachers are engaged during free-playtime in a way that encourages exploration, creativity and connection.
Verner’s breakfast time is one small but important building block of what makes Verner a model for high-quality education for early learners. The value of breakfast as a community-building practice can’t be fully measured but all one needs to do is sit in on breakfast at Verner to feel it’s magic and to understand how it sets the tone for a supportive and learning-rich day.