With an ECE career that spans nearly 50 years, Clarence Little has a wealth of experience on which to draw as a StrongStart Professional Development Center (PDC) coach, Professional Learning Community (PLC) facilitator, and facilitator of Leading for Change, 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.
But Clarence lives the ethos of continuous improvement that underlies the professional development and training offered through the Massachusetts StrongStart PDCs. He is always looking for opportunities to advance his knowledge. While completing a fellowship for mid-career professionals through the CAYL Institute, for example, Clarence joined the Early Education and Care Workforce Council, which makes recommendations to the state’s Department of Early Education and Care on how to improve professional development and higher education opportunities for the state’s early care and education workforce. Shortly after Clarence joined the Workforce Council, the group considered proposals from the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation and other entities to administer the StrongStart PDCs.
Clarence attributes his burgeoning involvement with the Metro Boston PDC to his appreciation for the program’s connection to UMASS Boston, which is home to robust ECE degree programs along with the Leadership Institute, which administers the StrongStart PDCs through a partnership with the MA Department of Early Education and Care. Little believes the connection with UMass Boston elevates the PDCs and the ECE profession as a whole in the eyes of law and policy makers.
“As we’re trying to build the field of early childhood education and support the workforce, I thought a university connection was vital because in order to professionalize the field and for us to express that to legislators and so forth, credentials matter,” said Clarence, adding that the school’s incredibly strong undergraduate degree program in early education was key to Boston’s early education workforce.
Clarence became interested in ECE as a student at Northeastern University in the 1970s, when he became the assistant to a behavior modification therapist at the Putnam Children’s Center. The experience piqued his interest in child development and prompted him to change his major to child psychology. At the same time, Clarence’s parents and aunt decided to open their own childcare center in Grove Hall, and he didn’t hesitate to help them out.
Clarence eventually earned his CDA and later started coaching and mentoring peers through several different entities, while also continuing his professional development by taking ECE and related courses at local colleges and through programs like the CAYL Institute’s Schott Fellowship, with Dr. Valora Washington as a mentor. One of the most influential mentors in his professional development, he added, was UMass Boston’s Mary Lu Love and the Building Careers Program.
The family business, originally called Wee Toddlers Childcare Center, eventually grew to three centers, but was later consolidated into the Grove Hall Child Development Center in Mattapan. After Clarence’s parents passed away, he and his niece took over as owners and operators of the center.
As a Metro Boston PDC coach, Clarence has worked primarily with directors of out-of-school-time and ECE centers. His years of experience in the field have taught him that the PDC model of coaching—where coaches act as advisors in supporting early educators as they develop and implement their own solutions—is highly effective.
It’s incredibly important for early educators to innovate, Clarence said.
“My role as a coach is to say, ‘Okay, if you’re having a problem with this, stop and look at it and see which ways you could go with it. I will give you some resources, I will help you along the way, but I want you to develop the skills to do these things so you can impart them on your staff and anyone else that you have an impact on,’” said Clarence.
One director with whom Clarence worked was new to her job and struggling with her confidence in the position. “She had been a lead teacher but she was really unsure about being a director,” said Clarence. “But as we met a few times and talked, it was obvious to me that she knew what she was doing.” What she needed simply was reassurance, he said.
Indeed, some of the issues Clarence encounters in his coaching stem from the fact that by nature of their work with children, early educators are isolated from professional peers who can offer feedback, advice, or encouragement on a regular basis. A coach can help fill that void.
As Clarence continues his training to become a Leading for Change facilitator, he reflected on his own experience as a student in the course, saying he relished the opportunity to focus on one project to improve one specific area of ECE.
“It was really helpful in terms of getting you to focus your ideas and to really flesh them out,” he said. “It helps you to really see where you want to go and helps you to actually make a plan to get there in both the short term and long term.”
Clarence’s change project grew out of the coaching work he did at a center experiencing a shortage of special education aides and instructors as challenging behaviors among children were increasing in the wake of the pandemic. The program was concerned they could not be fully inclusive because they did not have adequate support to meet children’s growing behavioral needs. Clarence’s idea was to create an internship / apprentice program to connect out-of-school-time programs with local college and university students studying ECE or psychology.
As a result of his work, the center was connected with two students from Curry College. Clarence said he plans to expand his project with an eye toward getting UMASS Boston students involved as well.
“That project and all of my work with the Metro Boston PDC is what my life’s work has been about,” Clarence said. “My focus for myself is to always be learning and to impart what I learn to others. I build up the leaders I meet and try to give them the confidence to recognize themselves as leaders, move forward, and do the same for others.”