Hard-Earned Recognition for the Pre-K Classroom with Tabatha Rosproy

It’s no secret that in the United States, early childhood education receives far less government funding and public attention than K-12. So today we’re interviewing Tabatha Rosproy to highlight the crucial role of early childhood education and the issues educators face in the pre-k classroom. 

Tabatha is the 2020 National Teacher of the Year award recipient. Along with being a 10-year veteran and brilliant educator, Tabatha’s pre-k classroom is . . . unique. She teaches in an intergenerational program: her classroom is housed in a local Kansas retirement community and nursing home. 

Tabatha has a lot of insight, so let’s jump right into the interview. 

Introducing Tabatha Rosproy

pre-k classroom

Well, Tabatha, welcome to The Teacher Education Podcast. How are you? (01:04)

Tabatha Rosproy: I am doing well. I am making it through the summer. (01:08)

And I have to congratulate you because you are the winner of the National Teacher of the Year Award for 2020. (01:15)

Tabatha Rosproy: Yes. (01:16)

And the award program has been around for 68 years, but you’re the first early childhood educator to receive it. How do you think that’s significant for you that you’re the first early childhood educator to receive this award? (01:28)

Tabatha Rosproy: Well, for me personally, I never imagined myself here. Not in a million years that I ever imagined I would be in this position, but I’m just so excited for what I think it’s going to do for the field of early education in general. So I think because preschool, pre-K, before kindergarten, is not mandated by really any state or fully funded by any state that we have, as early educators, struggled for the last several decades to have the same legitimacy as our counterparts in elementary and secondary ed. (01:59)

And so I think this is a big step forward in the country acknowledging the direct contributions of early childhood educators. And I am just thrilled to get to sing from the rooftops, the praises of early childhood educators all over our country. (02:17)

Recognizing Early Childhood Educators

Now you talk about legitimacy, do you feel like this award is a significant move towards that? Do you feel like you’ve achieved that legitimacy or do you feel like there’s still things that need to happen? (02:28)

Tabatha Rosproy: I definitely think there’s still work that we need to do. And one of those things would be convincing the stakeholders, the government to fully fund early childhood education experiences and to start with, for all four-year-olds in our country. I would love to see that happen in Kansas, and I would love to see that happen all over the United States. And I think once we reach that, that will be where I think our counterparts in elementary and high school are. (02:55)

How do we go about doing that? How do we create that policy shift? (03:00)

Tabatha Rosproy: Well, I think it’s just gonna take a lot of relationship-building with legislators, and with the communities that we work in. So a lot of people don’t even really understand what early childhood learning opportunities there are in their own community. In my town, we have free four-year-old preschool for any four-year-old, but that’s not the case in a lot of places. But even though we have that and we’ve had it for many years, some people still don’t know about it. And so they don’t think about sending their child to school until kindergarten. So I think it’s just going to be a lot of on the ground work advertising what early childhood education is and what opportunities are already available in your community. (03:38)

"There needs to be a lot of groundwork advertising what early childhood education is and what opportunities are already available in the community." —Tabatha Rosproy, 2020 National Teacher of the Year Click To Tweet

Fantastic. Are you part of any organizations that are working towards that, in your own local community as well? (03:44)

Tabatha Rosproy: Yes, so I am a part, well, was a part of, when I was in the classroom, of the Early Childhood Readiness Coalition here in Winfield, Kansas, and then also a part of a grassroots organization called Save our Schools, Cowley County. And it really just works on educating community members on the issues that have to do with education county-wide. (04:06)

Preschool in a Nursing Home

Now, one thing as I was reading about you and your experiences that I found particularly interesting is that your preschool classroom is a pretty unique environment. Your classroom is housed in a local retirement community and nursing home. Can you explain how your program works? (04:24)

Tabatha Rosproy: Yes, absolutely. This is one of my favorite things to talk about. So we have been inside of the nursing home for two years, and so it’s a relatively new partnership, and it was built on models that other schools have. There is a kindergarten in Kansas, in Coffeyville, Kansas, inside of a nursing home, but we are the first public preschool inside of a nursing home in the state of Kansas. And we involve the residents of Cumbernauld Village, which is a nursing home that we are housed inside of, in almost everything in our day. Not only do they read with us one-on-one (working in small groups), they also play with us, they come on our field trips, we do activities with them around the nursing home, they come outside with us, they stomp in puddles and go fishing. (05:09)

So they’re really just a part of the fabric of our classroom, which is incredible, not only for my students to be able to experience the joy of connecting with people of different age group and to build empathy for people of different abilities, but it also allows me to work with smaller groups of students. So I’ve also seen the academic skills in my class, just raise and raise each year. (05:31)

Interesting. You said this has been going on for two years. Were you a part of the pilot program then that started this? (05:38)

Tabatha Rosproy: Yes, I was. And it actually came out, it was the brainchild of our Early Childhood Readiness Coalition. So we worked to identify what the needs were in our community and we decided that we needed more full-day preschool opportunities for our families and for our students. And this was one way that we worked with a community partnership. They built the classroom for us, and then we supplied everything that went inside. And so it’s just win-win for both of us. (06:04)

Fantastic. I now want to think of all the different things, like that’s such a unique idea. I wonder what other ideas you could come up with too. Have you thought about that? Any other out of the box ideas? (06:13)

"I would love to see every nursing home in our town with a classroom inside of it." —Tabatha Rosproy, 2020 National Teacher of the Year Click To Tweet

Tabatha Rosproy: Really this has been my main thing for two years, and then came Kansas Teacher of the Year and then National Teacher of the Year. But I hope that I will continue to get ideas like this. Right now I would love to see every nursing home in our town with a classroom inside of it. I think that would be incredible. (06:28)

Tips for Training Early Childhood Educators

That’s fantastic. So, as I mentioned before, many of the teacher education professionals that listen to our podcast, I think they would be particularly interested in hearing what you found was the most informative experience or class or assignment that you completed as a teacher candidate. So in other words, what really helped you in your training to be a successful preschool teacher? (06:49)

Tabatha Rosproy: Absolutely, all of the content area stuff was important, but the most beneficial class that I had had to do was classroom management. And even then, I think that I wasn’t totally aware of what was going to be waiting for me, but I go back to thinking about things that I heard in that class, right? And who is it? Is it Harry Wong or Henry Wong, trying to think, writes a book then a lot of teacher prep programs use, and you might know, yes. I will clarify that name later sometime. (07:21)

But just preparing you to make relationships with your students and not only with them, but with their families too. And so a huge dream of mine is to actually eventually be also teaching college classes based totally around on trauma-informed teaching on helping kids regulate their emotions and how to build relationships with students and families because that is absolutely the most important thing that I do. (07:46)

3 Tips for Teacher Preparation Programs to Better Prepare Early Childhood Educators Click To Tweet

Actually, that leads really nicely. And this could be actually an answer to my next question. So I was going to ask you, what are three things that you would think that teacher preparation programs could do better to prepare early childhood educators? (08:00)

Tabatha Rosproy: Absolutely that, that is one of them, preparing them for just sort of new territory. I don’t think that we’ve always had the same needs in our students, but I think as society has changed, our kids have new needs. So we’ve gotta be ready to be responsive to those. But I also think that maybe we could do some more preparation on managing other adults because a huge part of being an early childhood teacher is, you usually have some help in your classroom because the legal ratio of your students is usually 10 or 12 to one. So if you have any more students in that, you have another adult working with you, a paraprofessional or a teacher aid. (08:35)

And one of the most challenging parts of the job is managing another adult, who, you know, my principal can come in the room, give me some feedback, and then she leaves the room. So when you’re in charge of staff in your room, you give them the feedback, but then your elbow to elbow all day. So you also need to remember those relationship pieces. And you really have to make deposits into your relationship account so that when the first time, and I say this with families too, the first time that something negative happens, it doesn’t feel like such a withdrawal on the system. So those are two big ideas that I think…. I probably got a little more than I remember, but college being so long ago, that would be something I think that lots of ed prep programs to focus on. (09:18)

Fantastic. Well, and it sounds like you also have to manage a lot of adults, especially your volunteers as you call them, right? What has been the benefit of children working with people, the volunteers in the nursing home? (09:34)

Tabatha Rosproy: Absolutely we’ve seen some academic gains. We all know that working with smaller groups of children is more beneficial to them. And they’ve also been getting read to one-on-one every single day, which I could not do on my own. So just that exposure to language and, creative, silly, fun play while you’re reading a book together, is just so magical and important in their learning. (09:57)

But I’ve also seen my students build skills like empathy that I never anticipated. I thought it would take some time for them to really get to know the volunteers, the grandmas and grandpas, but they really within two weeks of our first month in the classroom, they were all just in love with each other, right? They just couldn’t wait to see each other every single day. They were asking how they were doing. Parents were reaching out to me talking about how much the kids were talking about the grandmas and grandpas at home. They just, unlike any other class I’ve ever had in the last two years, they have this unique ability to empathize and love and connect with others that I’ve never seen before. (10:35)

Engaging Young Children Amidst the Pandemic

Now you’ve been given this award during a pretty disruptive time in our history. And because of the pandemic, I’ve seen that you’ve been serving as a co-chair at the Educator Taskforce to help compile Kansas Continuous Learning program. What are three things that you found successful in helping your young children remain engaged and keep learning during the pandemic? (11:36)

Tabatha Rosproy: I would say definitely taking every opportunity that I had to connect with them personally, where I could see their face. So, our district worked really hard to provide technology and internet to every household, and that we really saw the benefits of that because we couldn’t be as creative we’d like because it really wasn’t safe to encourage anybody to be out of their home at a certain point. And just seeing my students’ faces, at least once a week or more, was so important to maintaining a relationship. (12:05)

Another thing was making sure that they saw their friends’ faces, right? So they needed to see their friends. And 16 preschoolers on a class-wide Zoom or Google Chat is chaos, but it is so worth it because of that connection they got to maintain. They miss each other so much. Most of our time was spent them just figuring out how to get someone’s attention on there. (12:26)

And I think that it has to involve the families at that point too, which would be my third thing, which is, again, to check on the families. That was a big thing. This was new for them too. So we were going through a lot figuring this out, but families had to shoulder a huge percentage of that burden, from working from home or having sick relatives but also balancing their kids’ schoolwork. So big thing that really helped me be successful with my students was to check on their families and say, how are you doing, what is it that you need, how can I help you create some routines at home? Just remembering that they are people too and that they could use a little bit of support. (13:01)

Oh, it’s so wonderful that your school district was really good about making sure all your students had equal access to the Internet, which is so key right now. That’s fantastic. I love those three things. Thank you for sharing those. (13:14)

Tabatha Rosproy: You’re welcome. (13:15)

Facilitating Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

Now you’ve been given quite a megaphone as the 2020 National Teacher of the Year. And you’ve said that you want to use a spotlight to advocate for social-emotional learning. Now there are a lot of issues and ideas out there to champion. Why did you decide to focus so much of your message on social-emotional learning? (13:36)

Tabatha Rosproy: As an adult, I’ve had to figure out my own emotions, and regulating feelings. It’s may have seemed silly for adults to have, but I think that it’s been a missing piece for older generations is that we weren’t taught to regulate our feelings. And so we were taught to either bottle them up or excuse them, ignore them, do something because it wasn’t okay to have them. But as I have gotten older and read more research, and become more active and responsive, I learned about something called conscious discipline which is a brain-based research program by Dr. Becky Bailey. And it really spoke to me, and I started learning about it more than 10 years ago when I was student teaching. And it’s something that I really invested in her research and how the brain works. (14:23)

And so what I found out was that kids aren’t able to regulate, specifically young children that our brains aren’t fully developed until we’re 24 years old. And that is a huge indicator of success in the classroom. If you can regulate your emotions, you’re gonna be a better problem solver. You’re gonna have better critical thinking skills. You’re gonna be a better friend and a better learner. So I think if they could hear about how important it is that it’s just as important to be intentional in teaching about self-regulation as it is our ABCs and learning to write and learning math that they would be changed and they would forever have to move forward with supporting their children, those efforts. (15:04)”

"If you can regulate your emotions, you're going to be a better problem solver. You're going to be a better friend and a better learner." —Tabatha Rosproy, 2020 National Teacher of the Year #SEL Click To Tweet

It’s so fantastic that you were exposed to that research so early on, and it’s influenced you so much in your teaching, in your approach. For those who maybe are interested in focusing more on that in their own teaching, what are some things that they could do to facilitate social-emotional learning in their classes? (15:21)

Tabatha Rosproy: I would say for one, do some research on what happens in the brain when a child is upset. That would for sure be one thing. You can see what area of the brain they’re in, and look at some techniques on how to get a child calm because calm is where they need to be in order to access all of their critical thinking skills. So if a child is screaming and flailing on the floor, that’s not the time to reason with them, right? Or if a child is behaving in antisocial behavior, you’re really not going to reason with them at that time because they’re just not in that part of the brain. (15:55)

So some things that you can do are deep breathing exercises, using language that is less about judgment and more about noticing like, I see that your hands went like this, you seem upset. There are some very subtle shifts that we can make in our teaching techniques that really make our classrooms more of a safe place where kids can feel free to express those emotions and to make mistakes. (16:18)

Is there a good starting place as far as what they should read to do a little more research? (16:24)

Tabatha Rosproy: Yes, I would absolutely start with a book called Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey. And the whole premise of that book really focuses on regulating yourself, which is a critical thing of teaching kids how to regulate their emotions. (16: 40)

The Magic Wand Question

Now we’d like to ask all of our guests this question before we end it, and we call it our magic one question, and it is if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about early childhood education, what would it be? (16:53)

Tabatha Rosproy: Oh, wow. It would be the access, right? I would just make it accessible to every family that needs it, because we know that there are 3 1/2 million four-year-olds in the United States, and only about 1 1/2 million of those kids qualify for funded pre-K. And so we have millions of kids underserved. And I just think about what we could do together if we got to help them when their brains are in their most critical formation, which is from zero to five years old. I think we would see gains for years to come. I just, yeah, I wish every kid could have access to quality early childhood experience. (17:33)

"There are 3 1/2 million four-year-olds in the United States, and only about 1 1/2 million of those kids qualify for funded pre-K. And so we have millions of kids underserved." —Tabatha Rosproy, 2020 National Teacher of the Year Click To Tweet

Lightning Round

At the end of each podcast episode, we do a lightning round with our guests. And that just means I ask you a series of questions and you just answer with a one word or one sentence answer. (17:44)

Tabatha Rosproy: All right, I love games. Let’s do this. (17:47)

The last book you read and enjoyed? (17:49)

Tabatha Rosproy: Oh my gosh, How to be an Antiracist, Ibram Kendi. (17:55)

That’s on my list. I just bought that, fantastic. Your go-to resource for teaching? (18:01)

Tabatha Rosproy: Considerate Classroom is huge, it’s a blog that I follow, and she is great with early childhood interventions. (18:10)

The first thing you’re going to do when the pandemic is over? (18:13)

Tabatha Rosproy: Oh my gosh, get together with all of my friends and hug and kiss them as much as I want, because I miss them so much. (18:19)

The next destination on your travel bucket list? (18:24)

Tabatha Rosproy: Oh my gosh, Louisiana, New Orleans. I have a good friend there now, and I have been wanting to visit for a long time. So as soon as I can, I’ll be going. (18:33)

I went there just before the pandemic hit. (18:35)

Tabatha Rosproy: Ah, lucky. (18:35)

And I was so happy that I got to go. It was fantastic. One piece of advice you would give to new early childhood teachers? (18:47)

Tabatha Rosproy: I would say take the help that people are offering. In the beginning, it feels like you have to do everything by yourself, but the teachers who have been there a while are so eager to help you and their knowledge that they have from the years they’ve spent going through the same thing will be so useful for you. Don’t feel like it’s not okay to say yes to help. (19:07)

I’m really glad that you brought that up. Well, Tabatha thank you so much for joining us on the Teacher Education Podcast. We’re so grateful for your insight, your work. And once again, congratulations on being the Teacher of the Year. (19:19)

Tabatha Rosproy: Thank you so much. I was so glad to be here, and I look forward to working with you guys in the future. (19:25)

Conclusion

That’s it for today. Don’t forget to subscribe. If you like what you heard, please rate and review this podcast to help others find us. The Teacher Education Podcast is brought to you by GoReact. This episode was hosted by me, Hillary Gamblin, and produced by Danielle Burt, Joseph Winter, and Jordan Harris. Guests on the podcasts are expressing personal opinions for informational purposes only. They’re not acting as official representatives for the universities or organizations.

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