Briana Harris is from Henderson, Tennessee, and currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a lead teacher at Cambridge Early Learning Center, which is part of the Metro Nashville Public Schools system. She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Tennessee at Martin. She began her early learning career in Nashville as an educational assistant and interim teacher at the Martha O’Bryan Center. She is passionate about early childhood education, her family, and her three dogs!
ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and development?
BH: I’ve known since I was in kindergarten that I wanted to work in early childhood education. I had a difficult childhood. My experiences caused me to be a fragile child and I didn’t trust new people and was afraid of new situations. My kindergarten experience was critical for me. Was school going to be okay? Was it a safe place? I didn’t attend preschool, so kindergarten was my first school experience. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Emily Brown, was everything I needed her to be for me as a child. She and her classroom were my safe place when I really needed one. I so clearly remember the love, grace, patience, and kindness I experienced that first year in school. She gave me a sense of belonging in a world that terrified me and I knew that I wanted to be just like her. I wanted to be a teacher and wanted to do for other children what she had done for me. She had the power to help me love school or hate school and I knew I wanted the opportunity to make children’s first year of school positive and meaningful.
My high school offered a program where students could spend time as a teacher’s aide, which was great for those of us interested in an education career. I worked in a first grade class for an hour every day. Then, when I went to college, I went into an elementary education program so I could become certified to teach PreK through third grade. Many people asked me why I was limiting myself, since I could get a degree in teaching kindergarten through 12th grade. This didn’t impact me because I knew that I was passionate about teaching young children. After graduation, I started working at the Martha O’Bryan Center in Nashville, Tennessee, which focuses on serving children living in poverty. It was a great experience and I eventually became a lead early childhood teacher. Then I began teaching at the Cambridge Early Learning Center, a center with only preschool classrooms that is part of the Metro Nashville Public Schools system. This is my third year teaching at Cambridge. I love being in an exclusively early childhood center — there is a lot of singing in the hallways! The downside is my students are only here for a year and I don’t have the opportunity to see them grow as they progress in older grades.
ED: What is your favorite thing about the beginning of the school year and what do you do to prepare for the first day?
BH: Getting to meet the new children and families. For the most part, the children are so excited. Some of them have been in child care or Head Start, but for many of them, it is their first time being in school. I take it very seriously that they enjoy their first school experience from the beginning. After looking at the names on my enrollment list, it really is fun to meet them in person.
In terms of preparation, I remind myself to be patient and go with the flow; having strict educational expectations for the first few days is unrealistic. It is often very hectic with parents and children crying and parents trying to take pictures, and I have to remind myself to be flexible.
I want the kids to have a sense of belonging immediately. So, before the first day, I work hard to make sure the kids’ names are on their cubbies and in other places in the classroom. I also work to put pictures of the kids up within the first couple of days since many students don’t yet recognize their written name. We also get their artwork posted in the classroom early. It is really powerful for them to feel like they belong.
The first day can be hard on families, especially if it is their first or only child. The week before school we host Meet the Teacher Night, where families can bring their child in to meet me and see their classroom. This also gives families the chance to speak with me so we can begin to build trust. It is really important to give families the opportunity to ask me questions and see what I’m like. This event has been very successful. I can really tell the difference on the first day of school with children whose families were able to take advantage of coming in before the first day. The children usually settle in much easier.
Some parents have a hard time saying goodbye to their child, particularly on that first day. One of the things I tried to do this year was to have a place outside the classroom where they could take their first day of preschool photo so that after the photo was taken they could say goodbye and their child could enter the class on their own. In our school, we have an archway near the entrance and we really encourage families to say goodbye there. We try to foster independence at the beginning of the year with the kids and work with families to help them understand that this is a good thing!
ED: How do you know if the first day was a success?
BH: I like to think of it as a success if the children leave with smiles on their faces. We often have tears at the beginning of that first day, but if they leave school with smiles and say they want to come back by the end of the day then I think it was a success. We might have tears again on the second morning, but again, if they leave happy by the end of the day then I think it was a success. It might still be scary to get dropped off, but those smiles show me that they did have fun and enjoy school, which is my goal for those first few days.
ED: What advice do you have for other early learning teachers on strategies to use at the beginning of the school year, to make the rest of the year a success?
BH: My advice is to systematically focus on building strong social and emotional skills for the first month to six weeks. Our school uses the Pyramid Model for promoting social and emotional competence in young children and we start implementing this on the first day. We did home visits a couple of weeks ago and many parents wanted to know when we were going to teach letters and numbers. We share with families how important it is that we start out with a focus on social-emotional skills. Starting school is a huge transition for kids. Children need to be able to identify their emotions and develop skills for how to deal with different emotions. We start the year learning our schedule and routines, discussing what is expected of members of our classroom, exploring how to be kind to one another, and understanding that it is okay to get upset while learning skills to calm ourselves. We also spend a lot of time on problem-solving, including how to be fair with one another and how to solve problems without needing an adult. The children need to learn to function successfully as a class and by spending the time on social and emotional competencies those first several weeks of school, classroom management is easier and the entire year can be practically seamless. After that, you can easily dive into the academics.
On a last note, recently, our state recognized the importance of social-emotional development. In January 2018, they released updated Tennessee Early Learning Standards for four-year-olds in our state. I was very happy to see that the updated standards strengthened the importance of social-emotional development. This is all so important because, if children don’t feel safe and loved in their classrooms, they aren’t going to be able to learn!
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