Early Education Leaders, an Institute at UMass Boston

provides the leadership development opportunities and infrastructure that early educators need to support thriving children and families.

Two PMC grads team up to provide resources to FCC providers

Ami Patel and Julie Smith became fast friends at the first meeting of their Early Education Leadership Fellowship cohort in the Post-Master’s Certificate in Early Education Research, Policy, and Practice (PMC) program, bonding immediately over the realization that both were family childcare (FCC) .

Smith, despite holding a master’s degree and nearly 24 years of experience as an FCC provider in West Bridgewater, felt nervous and intimidated about returning to school after 10 years. That is, until she took a seat next to Patel, who has worked in ECE for 15 years, the last three as an FCC provider in her Holden home. Patel immediately put her at ease: “We were like sisters, right from the beginning,” Smith recalled.

Their friendship has shaped the women’s professional paths, as it led to their joint application and acceptance last year to the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC)’s Leaders Shaping Leaders, a leadership development program for FCC providers. Now, both Patel and Smith are enrolled in Lesley University’s individually designed doctoral program. On the days they need to be on site at the school, they fuel themselves with Indian food prepared by Patel’s mother-in-law as they study ways to improve the quality of ECE they provide in their respective programs.

Patel enrolled in the PMC because she wanted to further her education but wasn’t yet ready to enroll in a doctoral program. The program is a 12-credit advanced graduate course of study for early educators that is anchored with our Leading for Change curriculum and focused on research, policy, leadership, and innovation. She learned of the PMC while researching her continuing education options and contacted Lynn Mendes, our director of leadership programs who runs the PMC, to discuss Patel’s experience and career goals. Impressed by her career trajectory, Mendes encouraged Patel to apply for our Early Education Leadership Fellowship, which covers PMC tuition and other related costs, and walked her through the application process.

“It was really the next logical step for me to further my education,” said Patel. “I have a master’s, I want to advance the early education field, and having been in the profession for 15 years, it made sense.”

Smith applied for the Fellowship after being encouraged by an Antioch University doctoral student who interviewed Smith for her thesis on the lived experiences of successful FCC providers. “One of the things I said in that interview was that I really enjoyed the education piece—continuing my own education. I take everything I learn and bring it into the family childcare.”

The PMC program “really did change who I am as an educator,” said Smith.

Patel credited the program with empowering her to be a stronger leader and advocate for ECE regardless of her professional title or platform. “I learned there’s many ways to be an advocate in the field of early education,” said Patel. “We all have value as ECE professionals, including FCC providers. We’re not just babysitters.”

Patel said she has incorporated that mindset into her work coaching FCC providers affiliated with United Way of Massachusetts Bay’s Shared Service MA program, encouraging them to advocate for the importance of their work with the families they serve and to set professional boundaries to avoid burnout.

Similarly, Smith said the PMC program “really did change who I am as an educator.” When she began the program in 2021, Smith was about a year into implementing a pedagogical change in her FCC, adopting an outdoor nature-based curriculum after years of providing traditional ECE. She was excited about the learning opportunities it presented for the children she cared for and for herself, too. The PMC was her chance to hone her new curriculum and share her enthusiasm for nature-based ECE with peers.

“I totally just jumped in with both feet. This made such good sense to me and I loved everything about bringing the kids outside, having our classroom outdoors, having a very nature-based and child-led program,” Smith said.

As part of the PMC, students complete a Change Project, a concrete action plan designed to improve their program’s quality and promote equity.

Both developed projects that were ultimately designed to improve kindergarten readiness in young children. Patel aimed to do so by increasing family engagement in her program by expanding her communication with parents/caregivers to include education on the benefits of FCC in the development of children’s autonomy and social emotional skills.

Smith, meanwhile, aimed to help FCC educators increase the amount of time they spend outdoors during the school day by creating the Massachusetts Association of Nature Inspired Family Daycare Educators to educate FCC providers about the research-based benefits of nature-based education and provide guidance and resources to facilitate outdoor learning.

“For example, you don’t need a bigger outdoor space,” Patel interjected. “I don’t have a big yard. But how can you use what space you have to give the kids the best outdoor experience? That’s what the Association could help with.”

Smith’s project got a boost from Patel when the two teamed up for NAFCC’s Leaders Shaping Leaders, which requires that participants work in pairs as mentor and mentee during the year-long program. Given that their participation in the PMC overlapped with their work in Leaders Shaping Leaders, which required them to complete a project similar to the PMC’s Change Project, they decided to refine and enhance Massachusetts Association of Nature Inspired Family Daycare Educators. In July they traveled to Atlanta to present their project at the NAFCC Annual National Conference.

Soon, they’ll be launching an association Facebook page that will be an easily accessible hub of information, resources, and connection for like-minded FCC providers to connect.

“We went from graduating from the PMC in May to going to the NAFCC conference in July, and then literally a week after we started our first PhD program residency at Lesley University. It was, like, crazy,” said Smith.

Patel acknowledged it’s been a “tough two years,” with such a workload, but added, “we had one benefit in that we had just finished the PMC when we started our doctoral work, so we had that ‘school mindset’ and were prepared for the intensity.”

Another benefit is that they’ve had each other to lean on through the whirlwind of the past couple years. “We’re connected,” said Patel.

“I feel like we’re on a fast track, like we’re on the slipstream of the universe. And as FCC providers and leaders, we really are making a difference,” said Smith.

“Every day of the first five years of life matters,” Smith added. “And we are right there, partnering with families. I think that our work in the PMC helped us to be able to really conceptualize and verbalize the importance of our work as early educators. It helped us to understand the value of the teacher/researcher, how we can make a difference in our own programs, and empower other educators to make a difference in theirs.”

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