Like many local residents, Spencer Chenier, 24, is ready to go back to school. Only he hopes to return not as a student, but as a full-time teacher in a pre-kindergarten, kindergarten or first-grade public school classroom.
Armed with his recently completed master’s degree in early childhood education from Howard University, as well as teaching experiences at the School for Friends preschool and Harriet Tubman Elementary School in the District, Chenier said he is optimistic about finding a job soon. “Hopefully, I can start in September,” he said.
As schools open and after-school programs and activities resume after the summer break, Chenier is one of many Washington area residents still seeking a teaching job.
Academic coursework and related experiences such as those he possesses are considered musts for teaching children well. If you don’t know your subject, whether it’s math or music, you can’t teach it. But there are other, non-academic skills and attributes that applicants also need to be successful in working with children.
Chief among them is patience, several experts said, particularly in a preschool or special-needs setting. It’s also important to be observant, flexible and high-energy, said Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the District-based National Association for the Education of Young Children. And teachers need to be able to “keep several balls going in the air and to think on their feet” and to handle “inevitable” conflicts, she said. Furthermore, it’s good to be a team player because “usually you are working with another teacher or assistant to plan activities,” she added.
Open-mindedness and objectivity are two other useful attributes when working with kids of all ages and ability levels in and out of the classroom. “You need to be able to provide great care to every child, not just to those you like or those who are like you,” Willer said.
Deanna Costa, former education director at the District’s Joy of Motion Dance Center, agreed. She said Joy of Motion looks for instructors who can work with children from different backgrounds and with varying ability levels. The center is “more inclusive now than it used to be,” she noted. “We believe dance is for everyone.”
Segun C. Eubanks, director of teacher quality for the District-based National Education Association, a teachers union, said that as schools and community centers become more diverse, teachers need to have “cultural competence.” By that, he said, he means they need an ability “to understand where the kids come from and use that in the context of how to teach them so that there’s a connection between what’s going on at home and in school.”
Some employers look especially for people with a passion for spending time with children. For example, Sara Schain, owner of Yoga Tales, a children’s yoga studio in Bethesda, said she likes to hire people who “genuinely love children” and are “sparkly” around them. “If there isn’t magic in your eyes, the kids know that,” she said.
But the NEA’s Eubanks said a commitment to helping children should matter more than how much a teacher likes little ones. “It’s not solely about loving children, but about being able to make a change in their lives,” he said. He also stressed the importance of having good communication skills with adults because “it’s becoming increasingly clear that child-care workers and teachers have to engage parents more effectively.”
Male teachers often need to be mavericks when it comes to teaching young children, Willer said. She estimated that 98 percent of preschool teachers are women; according to NEA data, 79 percent of K-12 teachers are female. “It takes a trailblazer to forge a path where men are clearly a minority,” Willer said.
Chenier said he recognized that being an energetic and enthusiastic man with good credentials and experience will be helpful in his job hunt. But there’s another quality that he possesses that he believes should factor highly in the hiring decision. A teacher must be an authority figure, he said, but “to an extent, you also have to be a child at heart, and I think I am.”
How exactly does he know that? “If I’m not too busy, I’ll watch Saturday morning cartoons,” and he plays with a neighbor’s nine children, he said. Moreover, “if I’m out with a group of my peers and we’re near a playground, I’ll say, ‘Oh, there’s a swing set; we’ve got to stop and swing.’ ”
And if the tot lot has a slide, he said, “I’ll always go down it.”