For the Early Ed Leadership Institute’s Amanda Wiehe Lopes, earning a Ph.D. in Early Childhood Education and Care capped a personal, educational, and professional journey that began when she was a teenager ignoring advice from the adults in her life to become a teacher.
“I thought of teachers as people who wore khakis and had a lot of rules,” recalls Wiehe Lopes, who successfully defended her dissertation in July, 2021. “That was my experience growing up and I just didn’t see myself in that role. I hated khakis, I hated rules —and still do.”
Instead, Wiehe Lopes wanted to be an artist. So she studied drama and performance art and eventually taught theater to mostly pre-school age children at the Seattle Children’s Theatre Drama School.
“We called ourselves teaching artists. It never clicked for me that I was a teacher even though I was teaching a half-day preschool program with a creative arts curriculum,” recalls Wiehe Lopes. She worked with a team of teaching artists to develop curricula for early education and afterschool programs, elementary schools, libraries, and museums. She also ran workshops for teachers who wanted to bring creative dramatics into their classrooms. She noticed that teachers were often interested in creative dramatics, but when it came time to integrate it into their curriculum, they struggled because of organizational structures that prevented them from using their own creativity.
After she moved on from the drama school and searched for work in early education settings to replicate what she had created in Seattle, she says she had a “hard time getting people to take what my version of early ed was seriously.” So she decided to go back to school to earn a master’s of science degree in early education and moved to upstate New York.
She began working for the New York State Theater Institute and built out their creative dramatics program while also continuing to lead workshops for teachers about using them in their curriculum. She noticed the same pattern as in Seattle – teachers were enthusiastic about creative dramatics but had difficulty making it a part of their regular practice. As she worked on a master’s thesis that focused on the impact of story drama (a theater-inspired play-based curriculum) on young children’s literacy learning, professors encouraged her to continue her scholarship and her studies in a Ph.D. program.
Wiehe Lopes was taken aback. She says she didn’t think she fit the profile of a candidate for a doctorate in education—even though she was working as an early educator as she earned her master’s degree.
“I had had this professional experience of not being considered a legitimate educator and I never really put myself in the educator camp,” Wiehe Lopes explains. “I put myself in the artist camp—an artist who happened to teach kids. My focus in teaching was on celebrating children’s creativity and creating environments that allowed others to be creative. I really didn’t even start to think of myself as an educator until I studied for my master’s degree, so the idea of getting a PhD didn’t feel real to me.”
An additional, complicating factor was that Wiehe Lopes’ singular focus on creating environments that nurture creativity wasn’t always appreciated by her superiors in more traditional early education settings. (To be fair, her admittedly “super messy” lessons at times involved “stringing funnels from the ceiling and pouring paint through the funnels so the kids could make these amazing creations by swinging the funnels.”)
“I became frustrated with systems and regulations that not only inhibited my creativity, but punished me for it,” she says.
So she decided to pursue a position in administration to test her ideas about leading for creativity in early education. She landed a position as a program administrator at a center in Boston and for the first time felt as though she was free to experiment with organizational structures to support creativity.
“I took what I had been doing for years as a teaching artist and brought that to the school,” Wiehe Lopes says. “I collaborated with teachers to really experiment with how story drama and other creative dramatics techniques could work in a more traditional school setting.”
She also taught more workshops for teachers and again noticed that some educators struggled to effectively implement story drama in their classrooms but still could not figure out why. When she learned of the Early Ed Leadership Institute’s Post-Master’s Certificate in Early Education Research Policy and Practice (PMC), she saw it as an opportunity to explore the ways in which imagination and dramatic play can be supported and encouraged as a regular part of the early education curriculum.
But once she was immersed in the PMC, her interest shifted from supporting children’s imaginations to supporting imagination and creativity from a more holistic view: leadership, teaching practice, environment, and mindset.
“As much as I loved working with children, I thought of the broader impact of working with educators and leaders,” she says, recalling that she couldn’t stop thinking about how she could “work with adults to help them experience the world through a child’s eyes, which is what I felt creative teaching did.”
So Wiehe Lopes applied to the Early Ed Leadership Institute’s newly launched PhD program in early care and education shortly after completing the PMC. Her research focused on developing a coaching model to assist four early educators in implementing story drama in their classrooms. Wiehe Lopes provided six weeks of coaching in story drama lesson planning and then observed teachers as they executed their lessons and documented their experiences.
“There’s a lot of research about professional learning from a child-outcomes perspective, but very little research—especially about creative teaching styles—that focuses on the teachers’ experiences,” Wiehe Lopes says. “I wanted to know what was happening for them, what they enjoyed about it, what they found most challenging, and what they experienced when they tried to bring story drama to their classrooms.”
This desire to help early educators embrace their own creativity and promote creativity in their teaching practices led to Wiehe Lopes’ doctoral thesis, “Let’s Play A Story: Early Educators’ Experience Implementing Story Drama With Support From Coaching,” which documents outcomes for four early educators who worked with Wiehe Lopes to integrate story drama—in which educators guide children in improvised role play inspired by a children’s book or other narrative—into their curriculum.
Her research resulted in four findings. The first was that coaching in story drama supported the intentional planning of play experiences. Wiehe Lopes says she found that though the teachers valued play and considered themselves to have a play-based learning environment, they had actually never had training in how to enter, lead, or facilitate play, nor had they ever intentionally planned dramatic play experiences.
“This was their first time doing that and receiving coaching to support their ability to do that,” says Wiehe Lopes. “This was the first time they were encouraged to not only plan for, but actively participate in imaginative play with children.”
Second, Wiehe Lopes found that engaging in story drama positively impacted educators’ relationships with both their coworkers and the children. Simply put, “because they’re playing together, barriers are busted,” says Wiehe Lopes.
Teachers saw the children differently, approached their behavior differently, and relaxed their expectations of what was appropriate behavior at storytime—even for themselves, which helped them bond with their colleagues. In the context of story drama,what was described by teachers as disruptive behavior and excess energy before coaching, could be easily channeled into active improvised role play after coaching.
“Some children’s behavior that teachers had previously found challenging could be reframed as strengths when viewed from a play-based perspective,” Wiehe Lopes says.
Third, the experience of coaching for story drama changed the educators’ literacy practices. They had new books, new ways of approaching books and were doing more planning for literacy. For instance, teachers who previously did not read storybooks to themselves before reading them in the classroom began doing so, so they could be better prepared to lead storytime. One teacher, who before coaching said she avoided reading in the classroom for fear of judgement from others, described how much she looked forward to story time after coaching in story drama.
Last—and this might be the most important finding of all—the educators were genuinely surprised by how much fun they had implementing story drama. “I was really surprised that they were so surprised by how much fun they were having,” says Wiehe Lopes.
The unselfconscious joy the teachers experienced resulted in their engaging with their teaching practice differently. “When teachers are laughing and joyful in the classroom, that’s releasing stress,” says Wiehe Lopes. “They just ended up engaging with their practice in a different context.”
As Director of the StrongStart Training and Technical Assistance Grant for the Early Ed Leadership Institute, Wiehe Lopes is just as focused on professional learning, children, and creativity as she was over 20 years ago at the Seattle Children’s Theatre. But today, she is bringing new knowledge to the field that makes it easier to “promote creativity in teaching practices and organizational structures” and, consequently, bring more joy into the classroom.
While she analyzed her dissertation data during the coronavirus crisis that pushed early education to the brink, Wiehe Lopes was struck by the importance of focusing on early educators’ positive experience with teaching and professional learning, Wiehe Lopes says, given that so much of ECE literature focuses on the negative experiences of educators.
“There is so much joy in this work,” says Wiehe Lopes. “It’s good to remember that, celebrate it, and cultivate opportunities for both children and teachers to experience it.”