One Man’s Early Childhood Education Journey from 1976 to 2016

by Ronald Viafore in St. Augustine, Florida – USA

After graduating with a BS in Early Childhood Education (I was one of three men in the early childhood department at a state university in Connecticut), I remember the day when I got my first teaching job – teaching in a multi-aged primary Open Classroom. Many of you have probably never heard of Open Classrooms. Think of a gymnasium where there are four different classrooms, one classroom in each corner. Can you see that? No walls – no privacy- no way to hide your mistakes. That was my first teaching experience.

When I taught in that multi-aged classroom I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world – mainly because I got a job. (In the 1970s, teaching jobs were not plentiful) My “classroom” consisted of 20+ kids aged 5-9 while the other part of the school was the preschool for children ages 4 and under. If someone came into our school they really could not distinguish the difference as we often mixed children for different learning activities. It was a very progressive idea as we really taught to the individual level and styles of each child. What a concept!

I remember being able to create my own curriculum and be as daring as I wanted to be with science, math and reading. As a new teacher I was in control of what my kids learned. I did lots of research and was able to get young kids reading early and more importantly kids interested in learning.

This was one of the only times when I shared that experience with another male teacher. Together we planned, shared ideas and pushed each other to outdo one another. I vividly remember both of us building a greenhouse in the classroom. The kids and parents loved it! It was fairly primitive in design but the kids grew vegetables and plants. They learned about soil and the impact of water and sun on plants. Our lessons in science, math and reading were focused on what happened in that greenhouse. When I left that school for another career, I heard the new teacher tore it down.

I have been in education for over 40 years. Most of that time I have spent in the early childhood field. The best part of my time spent in this field was the interaction I had with so many children. For them I was the male role model or the big brother they did not have. For them I was their confidant, their teacher, the one who played with them and pushed them to try new things. For them I was a novelty.

In 1976 I earned $5500.00 a year. My roommate was in the music business and he earned $10,000.00 a year. He still does not know how I managed to survive on such little money. Well, I did by securing a second job which I had most of my career until I earned enough money from teaching to support my family. That was about 20 years long. Since then salaries have climbed to respectable levels especially in the Northeast, out West and in the parts of the Mid-Atlantic states.

As a male in the teaching profession, I have endured some hilarious moments with the kids. I was always the one to try something new to the kids in order to help them become confident and not be afraid of the unknown. I have worn silly costumes, acted like a little kid at times on the playground and even volunteered to be the “one in the audience” to participate in whatever assembly program we had at school. Often I did so and the kids would just howl to see me perform some silly act. Once I had to do the “Tooty Ta” with the kindergarten class in front of the whole school filled with community members and parents and classes from PK-8. If you have never seen the “Tooty Ta”, check out Jack Hartmann’s hilarious movement activity on YouTube. You will see what I mean.

Throughout my career, I had to also endure some strange looks and comments from other guys. I remember once being at a party and as guys usually do, we talked about sports and careers – Well, one of the guys asked what I did and I said I was a teacher. His response was, “Cool, you teach high school?” I said, “No I teach third grade.” You should have seen his face. He quickly went blank and turned to talk to some other guy. This became the norm for me as most men think it is “unnatural” for a guy to teach little kids. It has been tough over the years but I manage to just respond with “Hey, where else can you hang out with some cool kids who think you are the best thing in their world.”

And that is true to this day. Kids seem to gravitate to men who are successful teachers. You see we are easy going, seem to connect with kids, appear as that very important role model, have that booming voice that gets kids’ attention and for some reason are the ones who can truly inspire a child to learn and enjoy learning.
Since the late 1980s when wage enhancements pushed salaries higher for teachers, more demands became apparent. I have seen some excellent initiatives come and go in the education field. I have also seen some pretty bad initiatives ruin a classroom environment or take away the role of the teacher as the autonomous facilitator of the classroom.

From Madeline Hunter’s Lesson Plan Format to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Big Ideas in Understanding by Design and from Carolann Tomlinson’s Differentiated Instruction to Marzano’s Effective Teaching Strategies, education has endured some very different approaches to improve the quality of education in the classroom. But by far one of the most important changes in the field of education is seeing more men in the classroom, especially in the younger grades. Mind you, we have a long way to go but if you are one of the guys who teach in the primary grades or below, you know, it is a pretty special place to be!

Today we are seeing an onslaught of assessments throughout the country and individual towns and cities are hearing from parents and teachers about the effect these assessments are having on children. Changes are coming our way with less focus on standardized assessments and perhaps more focus on teaching methods and portfolios which include authentic assessments over a period of time. We may even see a return of creativity in the classroom and perhaps some guy out there will build his own greenhouse or model spaceship or a simulation of the Mars environment or the Tundra. Perhaps men will take the lead in bringing those creative juices back to the early childhood classroom where children will once again revel in being part of the global community and solve problems by using their creative thought process.

As we near the end of the No Child Left Behind Act which was enacted in 2001 to President Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act, men will continue to play an important role in the lives of children. The pay may never be comparable to other professions, but men teachers will be able to look back on their careers and know that they truly made a difference in the lives of children. I know I can and I would do it all over again.