When I first started my career in early childhood education over twenty years ago, the only natural career trajectory was to start off as a teacher, move on to an assistant director role, and then eventually obtain a center director position; the pinnacle of early childhood leadership. Boy was I wrong! I was a center director for about a year or so before I decided I wanted to broaden my horizons; going on to earn my master’s degree (and now working on my doctorate) so that I’d have as many options as possible.
All too often, I have seen outstanding classroom teachers move into director roles either because they thought that was the next logical step in their own careers, or because there was a vacancy for which they were recruited because of their skills in the classroom. In some instances, this might be a good move, however the skills required to be an effective center director are different than those required to be effective in the classroom. It is critical to create leadership pathways that are aligned with a teacher’s skill set, and there are a plethora of other options in which to put those pedagogical leadership skills to good use!
Curriculum Coordinator – Many early childhood companies and organizations hire individuals with a strong knowledge of curriculum and classroom practices, as well as teaching experience, to take on roles coordinating curriculum design and implementation at either the center level, or for a group of centers. Some of the responsibilities of this role may include providing training on the organization’s chosen curriculum, custom designing curriculum, supporting lesson planning, choosing materials, and informing environmental design.
Education Coach – Effective coaches possess the ability to build strong and trusting relationships with other educators. Not only does a coach have to have a strong knowledge of developmentally appropropriate practice, but he/she must also be able to share that knowledge through mentoring, modeling, and reflective practice with the educators with whom he/she works. Coaching has been highlighted as a key professional learning strategy in early childhood education. As a result, many organizations, including those that provide direct service programming as well as those that service multiple early childhood programs, have found it necessary to add the role of education coach to their respective staff teams. Coaches spend much of their time conducting observations, modeling best practice, and working 1:1 with individual teachers or teaching teams.
Mentor Teacher/Teacher Leader – Not all superstar teachers need to leave the classroom to let their leadership skills shine. The Mentor Teacher or Teacher Leader is a strategic role within an early childhood organization; providing a leadership pathway for those with exemplary teaching practices who may not necessarily want to leave the classroom. These educators often have model classrooms, and serve as an example for new teachers who want to see best practice in action! This role may also include providing supervision to interns and/or practicum students, conducting orientations, leading teaching teams, and advising other organizational leaders on strategic decision making around pedagogical practices.
There are a host of other leadership positions in early childhood education including consultant, trainer, professional development coordinator, and family advocate. For those who do have a gift for the business side of early childhood, there are also executive director, multi-site or regional director, and business manager roles; best suited for those who have a strong understanding of finance, fundraising, and marketing. Lastly, public policy and advocacy is an area of early childhood education that we don’t always plan to go into, yet serves a critical role in advancing the field and impacting early childhood at the systems-level. Having an understanding of the opportunities for leadership that exist in the field allows emerging leaders (and those who supervise them) to make strategic decisions about how to best utilize their skills to make the most significant impact on children and families, and allows for a system of leaders where diverse perspectives are represented.