As a college student, Luis Figueroa thought he wanted to teach elementary school—until he graduated and took a part-time job as a teaching assistant in an early care and education (ECE) program, where he found that he preferred working with the birth-to-age 5 set.
“At that age, they are amazed by everything, basically, so you can make a lot of difference in their lives,” he said.
Figueroa also appreciated the more team-oriented culture inherent to ECE due to staff-child ratio requirements, as opposed to elementary school settings consisting of just one teacher in a room with anywhere from 15 to 30 students. He also enjoyed the fluid nature of the ECE environment; even as an assistant, he sometimes needed to assume some of the responsibilities of a lead teacher and to provide leadership in a team environment.
Seven years later, Figueroa is a full-time teacher and site supervisor at the Webster Child Development Center of the Fresno Unified School District. He enrolled in our California pilot program of Leading for Change to hone his leadership skills after years of on-the-job learning from colleagues.
Leading for Change is our professional development program that trains program administrators, educators, and family child care providers on how to lead for change and quality improvement in their practice, program, or in the field.
“I’ve never had an actual class or training on leadership,” said Figueroa. “So this was my first experience training for leadership skills.”
Figueroa liked that the course was not structured around teaching one type of leadership, but instead allowed for discussion among participants about their experiences. Those discussions helped Figueroa realize that his perception of leaders as “very active, always thinking something, and having a response right away,” was too narrow, and that being a leader didn’t mean he’d have to change his more deliberative workstyle.
“I can be calm, I can manage in a very calm way, and I don’t have to change my personality in that way,” he said.
Just as important, Figueroa learned that, despite appearances to the contrary, leadership does not come easy to many people.
“Usually what you see from leaders is that they’re pretty pulled together,” said Figueroa. “But hearing from other people about their struggles, it was really helpful knowing that other people are going through similar situations.”
Figueroa added that Leading for Change inspired him to engage with the colleagues he supervises more collaboratively, seeking their ideas and solutions to solve problems rather than dictating how things would be done. While staff members didn’t immediately step up to provide input, Figueroa said that over a short period of time, they have become more proactive in offering opinions and asking, “What else can I do?”
“So even though I feel like the strategy to get them to be more engaged in communication I feel didn’t really happen,” he said, “the realization on their behalf that they could more actively help solve problems, that was a change.”
Figueroa’s final take away from Leading for Change is that ECE needs more leaders who have actually worked within the field.
“A lot of the leaders that we have come from different [professional backgrounds] which is fine, you know, we learn from them. But a lot of times this field is a little bit misunderstood,” Figueroa said. “And if we find leaders within the field, they will be better able to understand our work. They understand how the system works and what our needs and our struggles are and how to make things better. That’s one thing I realized after this course.”
Leading for Change was developed by the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation at UMass Boston and adapted from the entrepreneurial leadership curriculum that anchors all of the Early Education Leadership Institute’s programs. Participants learn how to lead for change to improve program quality and promote equity in early care and education. Leading for Change is currently offered to early educators in Massachusetts in partnership with the MA Department of Early Education and Care through its statewide network of StrongStart Professional Development Centers. Leading for Change is also offered to early educators in Maryland through the Maryland Early Childhood Leadership Education Program at the Sherman Center for Early Childhood Learning in Urban Communities at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. All Leading for Change training is offered for free to early educators.