Rigorous LOVE!

Over the past two months, I’ve been thinking about education from a completely different angle: The angle of a new mom. My daughter was born in late June, so my husband and I have been carefully searching for the perfect childcare environment to protect and amuse our daughter when I return to work in September. This responsibility made me feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. As a teacher, I have eyes for every single safety hazard and ears for every little educational detail. Rest assured, we found the perfect environment after an arduous search. But the lengthy task provided much time for thinking and reflection. Amidst the many tours and conversations, I found myself thinking a lot about accountability.

When it comes to accountability, I absolutely believe that teachers should care about students and track their progress. However, the rhetoric about accountability is more like a disease that cannibalizes other conversation topics, like the well-being and emotional health of kids. As I toured childcare facilities, some directors went on and on about rigor, assessment, and DATA! They talked about how teachers would be carefully tracking my daughter’s progress, following a fancy curriculum, taking pictures of her learning, and uploading them to their data reporting system so I could log in and see her progress. Data, data, DATA!!!! You know what I wanted to know about? I wanted to know if they would hug her, protect her, sing to her, read books, and make funny faces. I wanted to know about their art projects, family communication, and safety practices. All the talk about rigor and accountability made me yawn.

As an early childhood educator, I often feel suffocated by the assessment practices in our state. Preschool teachers are required to keep online portfolios for each student in a program called Teaching Strategies GOLD. Though I strongly believe in old-school portfolios (a collection of student work in a folder to reference for planning and assessment), I struggle each year to make the online portfolios meaningful to me as an educator. I work hard to feed the “data beast” with the required number of entries for each student. Sometimes, I find myself taking photos, recording video, and logging data while I would rather be interacting with kids to facilitate learning. I watch my wonderful Educational Assistants playing with my students while I observe through the camera of the ipad—recording the precious data so the state can see that I’m doing my job as a teacher. I’ll be brutally honest: I hate it. I hate it when I have to feed the data beast instead of spending time with my students. I was a better teacher when I was allowed to track student progress through real-life student portfolios that enhanced my reflective planning and supported my family conferences. It gave me a lot more time with kids and much more authentic data. Online GOLD portfolios cramp my style.

So, as the childcare directors went on and on about rigor, assessment, and data collection—what I really wanted to say is: Just play with my daughter. Smile at her and sing songs. Get messy. Tell me about it casually when I pick her up or stop in for a conference. I don’t want you stuck behind a computer entering pictures so that I know you’re doing your job. Can I just give you permission to skip the accountability stuff?

We saw lots of fancy facilities that promised to be experts in child development. Some were as high as $262 weekly! As we considered the cost and I grieved the idea of leaving her anywhere, I thought a lot about teacher pay as well. I’ve heard people argue that teacher attrition is related to women who get teaching degrees in college because they plan to become stay at home moms someday. I argue that this might not actually be a “grand plan,” but a circumstantial decision once teachers have children. The cost of childcare—compared to the actual salary of a teacher—is mind blowing. When we realized that childcare would cost between $800-1100 a month, I started thinking that taking care of her myself sounded pretty good. Spending half my paycheck on childcare seems a little insane! I thought creatively about selling a car and making other tough decisions so I could stay home with her. If I didn’t absolutely LOVE my job, the final decision would have been a no-brainer.

In the long run, we didn’t choose the most expensive childcare facility, the one with the fanciest curriculum, or the one with the most rigorous assessments. Instead, I witnessed a special moment and knew I had found the right place: As I was talking with one of the teachers, THREE little babies crawled all the way across the room to be near her. It was like she was a child whisperer! The first one crawled to her feet and reached to be picked up. She picked him up and another little guy crawled over, pulled up to a standing position, and gazed at her with desire. Her arms were full, so she sat down on the floor to snuggle both the boys. About that time, another little girl peered at her and started making her way across the room. Assess THAT! What a beautiful little moment. I knew I had found my daughter’s childcare facility because I saw LOVE there. It wasn’t about fancy anything or rigorous accountability. It was about good old-fashioned L-O-V-E. And I think that love is something that all educators should be talking more about these days. Rigorous LOVE!


Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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