When children feel safe, validated, and nurtured within an engaging, positive learning environment, they can learn and thrive. Such an environment is created by intentional educators who support students by facilitating discovery and supporting their students in establishing positive relationships with others. This kind of setting is only possible when those same educators receive adequate support, training, and guidance from intentional leadership. Enter our featured program - the Virginia Marx Children's Center at Westchester Community College. I chose to highlight this program because of its commitment to building environments that truly support all community members, from students to staff, exemplifying what can happen when a culture of learning is embedded in the center environment.

Opening its doors in 1986, the Virginia Marx Children's Center is licensed by New York State, nationally accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and received a 5 out of 5-star rating from QUALITYstarsNY. The center is a model in its community, providing a first-rate, high-quality educational experience to preschool students in a warm, nurturing environment. Accomplishing this is no easy feat, so I recently sat down with Kalsi Johnson, the program's director, to discover what makes her center so unique.

Our conversation focused on the program's approach to staff professional development planning. Kalsi explained how the program utilizes professional development plans for teachers who express their need for more support beyond group training sessions throughout the year. "The teachers were saying they needed more. Some of our teachers have been with us for over 26 years, and they've been through a lot of different trainings." Program leadership responds to these requests by conducting individual staff observations and engaging in dialogue about strengths and growth opportunities. "We do an informal observation in the classrooms, observing the teachers; then, we meet with them to discuss the observation, and together we come up with a plan to identify areas of strengths and those that need improvement. We want to see how we can support [them]. We had some of our teachers who were great with interacting with children [but]they needed a little improvement in engaging with the parents, or they needed a little bit more assistance in being able to support their staff or the field students in their classrooms. Different teachers had different needs."

In our field, teaching staff brings diverse experiences and educational backgrounds. Effectively supporting such professionals requires learning opportunities that are developmentally appropriate and specific to the needs of each educator and the populations they serve. Equally important to ensuring effective professional development is that educators can provide input about future training and development activities. The program's approach to professional development planning is collaborative rather than "top-down." The center uses the Core Body of Knowledge as a guide, specifically the Core Competency Assessment and Professional Development Planning tools. Kalsi describes the approach as a three-step cyclical process incorporating assessment, reflection, and planning. While the formal part of the process can be done annually, it is meant to be an ongoing process that contributes toward overall improvement.

Such a process is designed to be responsive and calls educators to take responsibility for their professional learning and growth. Kalsi expressed that teacher feedback is taken very seriously. For example, when one of the teachers mentioned needing help improving her art area, Kalsi and the team worked with the teacher to identify an appropriate learning opportunity. Sometimes such opportunities may be in person, and other times they may be online. Additionally, teachers assess their performance in collaboration with leadership, noting areas for growth before sitting down with the Director to craft a plan that works for the teacher. Noting the collaborative process's significance, Kalsi said, "It's really for the staff to learn and to improve and for positive feedback. They're aware that it's very informal. They're not getting nervous when I [observe them]. [They're] not frightened by it; they're happy to do it."

Kalsi mentioned that the program continues to utilize professional development plans because, at their core, staff want to improve and are excited to get support in the areas they have identified. This collaborative effort builds buy-in, support, and sheer fulfillment when teachers see the benefits inherent in a greater ability to plan lessons and structure their centers. Sometimes attending a training session motivates staff to advance their education. Kalsi told me the story of one such teacher in her program. A seasoned, mature teacher was considering whether to complete her CDA but felt intimidated by the prospect because she hadn't been in a school for a long time. Through the support of Kalsi and QUALITYstarsNY, the teacher obtained her CDA free of charge and ultimately decided to continue her education. Many other educators in Kalsi's program have followed suit.

To date, more than 80% of the teaching staff at Marx Children's Center have higher education degrees ranging from associate's to master's degree level, likely because Marx Children's Center also serves as a laboratory school for Westchester Community College students majoring in Early Childhood. It was through this same initiative that Kalsi joined the team. Over the next 20 years, Kalsi would hold just about every position in the program, from field intern to Assistant Teacher, then Teacher to Assistant Director. Following the retirement of her predecessor, Kalsi was promoted to her current position. According to Kalsi, most teachers work in the program while advancing their education, resulting in a direct pipeline from the college that includes fieldwork opportunities for current students. Several of the staff have also had the opportunity to serve as instructors for new educators entering the field. 

When I asked Kalsi what her program would be like if they were not utilizing professional development plans, she said, "I don't know what it would look like, but I know it wouldn't look like what we have…. Professional development is very important. We have to make sure that we're getting new information and new ideas. We're constantly learning and utilizing this knowledge to benefit the children."

It was Beverly Falk who said, "As teachers, we always need to be learning. We should always be trying to outgrow ourselves because teachers are never finished - we are always in the making." Through this ever-evolving process, true transformation occurs, the kind of transformation that can only occur when we are proactive.

Watch the full interview below:

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