Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.
Inside her home in the rural northeastern Colorado community of Sterling, Lora Grippin runs a licensed preschool that carries the state’s rare top rating. She reads classic books — “Mary Poppins” and “Little House on the Prairie” — to her toddlers and preschoolers each afternoon. She converted a bedroom into an art room and stocked it with every conceivable kind of art supply in her quest to help her charges flex their creative muscles.
Grippin, who routinely works 10 or more hours a day, takes her job seriously. But not everyone does. People often ask if she’s “still babysitting.”
Grippin talked to Chalkbeat about how she wishes she could respond to that question, what she does when a child is having a bad day, and how she incorporates the community’s leading industry into the preschool experience.
In September, Grippin was named Early Childhood Professional of the Year by Qualistar Colorado, a Denver-based nonprofit that promotes quality in early childhood education.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Was there a moment when you decided to become an early childhood provider?
Like so many others, I began caring for children in my home while my own children were young. I was only going to do this until they started school full time, but as my kids headed off to school I found that I wasn’t ready to give up caring for and working with young children. I quickly decided that I wanted to specifically care for preschoolers, and began taking classes and trainings to become an early childhood educator. I have loved working as a private, full-day preschool, with the feel of home and family with the structure of a formal preschool.
Tell us about a favorite lesson or skill you teach.
Last fall, we converted a bedroom into our art room. I am passionate about art and freedom of expression. Even 2-year-olds get excited about creating their own masterpieces. While they are busy creating, they are also improving coordination, fine motor skills, visual processing abilities, self esteem, and learning how to express themselves and use creativity. The easels are always available for the children to paint, chalk, use markers or crayons. The table always has something available as well; paper, crayons, pencils, scissors, glue, stickers, Play-Doh and tools, floam, stamps and ink pads, different paints or shaving cream.
What object would you be helpless without during the day?
I have eight little ones from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Our days are so busy playing, exploring and learning, that if we didn’t have our rest mats and our quiet time routine it would be a disaster for all of us, including the parents. Every day each child gets their mat, pillow and blanket out and quiets down for reading. Last year, we read through the “Mary Poppins” series. This year, we started the “Little House on the Prairie” books. First, I ask them what happened last in our story. I am constantly surprised at how much detail these little ones remember. Then I read for 15 minutes or so.
After our reading, I always say “I love you more than _______,” with a different word each time. One at a time, I cover them up and they get to tell me they love me more than something too. This is one of my favorite times. I have heard things like “I love you more than monster trucks,” “I love you more than Target,” and “I love you more than horses and cows.”
What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your program?
We live in a small, rural, agricultural community. Our play and many of our conversations revolve around crops, farm animals, tractors (the best color of tractor is a hot topic that we avoid), and the fair. In our preschool family, we have a world champion auctioneer, a couple of parents that rodeo, a family that has a meat processing plant, ranchers and farmers. Most of the families are very involved in 4H. Agriculture is the most important contribution to our community and keeping it involved in preschool helps to prepare these young minds for adult life.
What’s your best trick for handling a child’s challenging behavior?
We have a fairly peaceful environment, so when a child is acting out or having a difficult day, I first try and find the cause. I contact the parents to ask for their input and advice. Many times, the family had a late night, the child didn’t sleep well, Daddy left town, or another routine disruption for the child. Knowing the problem helps me know the right words to use to explain things clearly, have consistent boundaries, empathy and consequences (if needed), and lots of love.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I had a family that had previously had a horrible experience with a child care provider. The older children had been hurt and verbally abused in the care of someone they trusted. When they came to me, I had to not only gain their trust, but help repair it. This was no easy task, nor one I took lightly. I went above and beyond the normal parent-teacher communication and relationship. I wanted them to have complete and absolute confidence in me. Our relationship grew into a lasting friendship and set the standard for how I interact with all my families.
What part of your job is most difficult?
I am asked quite often if I’m still babysitting. I know that it is not meant as an insult, but it’s unintentionally very demeaning because it shows a lack of understanding about the qualifications we all hold. I would love to say in my best teacher voice, “I am a qualified, professional preschool teacher. This is my chosen occupation. I am licensed with the state of Colorado as a child care provider and have to follow their rules and regulation. I have been to countless continuing education trainings that are always in the evenings or on weekends. I spend a large portion of my free time planning and preparing, cleaning up and organizing, and doing bookwork. My daughter used to babysit, and she made a lot more per hour than I do.” Usually I just smile and say, “Yes.”
What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching in an early childhood setting?
I believed that everyone would treat their child’s caregiver with the utmost respect — following the contract, paying on time, being grateful and kind, listening to the caregiver as an educated and knowledgeable professional. Most do and I have been fortunate enough to not have encountered this a lot, but many others in this profession have.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about working with young children?
Children grow and develop at their own pace. I can’t force development. I approach teaching as having fun and providing exposure. Some things are learned after children are exposed to it the first time. Other things are learned after the fiftieth time. I have to have fun, be patient and love them where they’re at while moving them forward.
Wages for early childhood teachers are low industrywide. Is this a challenge for you? If so, how?
As a home child care provider in Sterling, my fees are average for this area. Compared with the Front Range and other parts of the state, I am well below average, but that is to be expected. If you look at how much I make in relation to my business hours, I make considerably more than the people who work in child care centers. What concerns me is that many people explore a career working with young children in a center. If these jobs are not treated or paid as a profession, we will lose out to more respected and better-paying jobs.