United Way of Tucson & Southern Arizona

Great Expectations for Teachers, Children, and Families

Building a Developmentally Appropriate Professional Development System



John Wooden was the magical basketball coach at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).  His teams won ten national basketball championships in 12 years! Coach Wooden always made his players practice hard and always told them, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

Those words are true for more than basketball.  They are particularly true in early childhood education. Research tells us that many communities in the United States are failing to prepare well-educated early childhood teachers. Many states do not require people who teach and care for young children to go to school to build their teaching skills. They do not require all teachers to learn how to help young children come to kindergarten prepared to succeed. As a result, large numbers of young children are not in high quality early learning environments. They are being prepared to fail when they enter kindergarten.

In Tucson, the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona is working to build a new early childhood professional development system.  With funding from all five First Things First Regional Partnership Councils in Pima County, we have created 16 Communities of Practice. Each one of them is helping to build a high quality system for teaching early childhood teachers to be the best that they can be. We call our new system-building work “Great Expectations for Teachers, Children, and Families.”

The 16 Communities of Practice focus on building a system based on:

All 16 Communities of Practice are based on developmentally appropriate practice, which is a sign of a high quality classroom. They also have these things in common: 1) There is at least one Coordinator who designs and schedules classes; 2) Each one has about 20-25 members in average, and the members are called cohorts; 3)  All cohorts learn about the Arizona Early Learning Standards and how to use them in their classrooms; 4) They also learn about systems building and coaching to improve their problem solving and teaching skills; and 5) They learn about how children learn and develop higher level thinking skills.

We never talk about “trainings.” We only talk about education opportunities. In early childhood professional development, the word “training” usually means a short workshop that is taken one time, and the knowledge that might be gained is not very deep. Thus, long-term positive effects may not exist and benefits probably are small. The biggest problem is that most trainings do not lead to a degree.

For those reasons, we only talk about education opportunities. The ones that we provide for our Communities of Practice members are developmental, which means that knowledge about a topic keeps expanding by offering many opportunities to put the knowledge into practice during the class and in the teachers’ classrooms. We also make sure that education opportunities are sequential. In other words, learning new ideas and skills starts at the simplest level and works upward to very complex ways of looking at the same topic or topics. Learning is designed for individuals’ interests and time commitments.

We are trying to build a culture that respects and supports education for all. We want to see the day when it is the expectation that all early childhood teachers, who so choose, will have the opportunities and resources needed to graduate from college.  Classes for college credit are typically held at Pima College. Some scholarships are available through the Pathways Program and some are through the PBS college scholarships program.

Our funder, First Things First, requires that we bring national early childhood experts to Tucson to deepen and enrich the education opportunities that we provide for our Communities of Practice members. The sessions that the experts present always focus on a certain topic, and each session is then designed for different audiences.

For example, Hedda Sharapan, who worked with Mr. Rogers for 36 years, came to Tucson and talked to three different groups about Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) and how those content areas relate to early language and literacy. First Hedda met with 40 Quality First coaches. She taught them several experiments and activities to use in the classrooms of the teachers they coach. Later that day she talked about the same topic with people in Tucson who design programs for children. Later that evening she met with 30 cohort members who are part of our grant. They learned new STEAM experiments to use in their classrooms. The next day she went to the Tohono O’odham Nation and spoke to tribal Head Stat teachers about STEAM. So, we took one topic and provided a series of classes for different audiences who learned the same concepts at different levels. That is one reason why we talk about education opportunities and why we don’t talk about trainings.

We usually have 6 to 8 national experts during a grant year. All of the sessions are free, and they are given at different times so that we can reach people who have different work schedules. Some of the sessions are given in Spanish, especially those that focus on family child care providers.

The goal of our work is to provide early childhood teachers with a variety of high quality education opportunities. These will be the driving force and the foundation for a new early childhood professional development system. We want to break the cycle of failing to prepare early childhood teachers who will also fail to prepare young children to be successful in kindergarten and beyond.

It is essential that Arizona’s young children have well prepared teachers who know how to build the foundations of learning that these children need to be successful in school and in life. In the spring of 2014, a new law, Move on When Reading, goes into effect. This law requires that all third graders will take a reading test. Those children who are reading well below third grade level will be kept in third grade.

Well prepared early childhood teachers will be the firewall, or the strategy for making sure that when today’s youngest children reach third grade, they will be prepared to pass this reading test, have lots of friends, and be successful in school and in life.

We have great expectations that this work will build a system that supports learning and school success.