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Teacher of the Year Katy Smith talks about early ed, 'ages and stages' and children's fast-paced lives

When Education Minnesota announced the identity of the state’s newest Teacher of the Year over the weekend, it marked a historic first: For the first time in the award’s 47-year history, it went to an early-childhood educator.

Yes, that’s right, to one of the unsung foot soldiers who get kids excited about learning and, equally important, their parents feeling capable of helping them realize their potential.

Katy Smith has worked for Winona Public Schools since 1993, but she teaches in the Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) program, which provides classes for parents and their kids, ages birth to 9.

I could provide you with a synopsis of the ECFE’s approach, but really what you need to know is that Smith coaxes frazzled parents off skinny limbs and sets entire families on the path to school success. As Winona blogger and Smith-o-phile Lisa Gray put it, thanks to Smith, “One more parent remains on this earth because they did not have to jump out a window.”

Katy Smith
Katy Smith

Yesterday, Smith set aside a small portion of National Teacher Appreciation Day to talk about early ed, the harried pace of family life and one of her own high-school teachers.

MinnPost: What role does ECFE play in a high-quality early-childhood education?

Katy Smith: If you are 3 and you walk into school with your mom once a week or your dad on Wednesday nights for daddy and me or whatever it is, they consistently walk you into a school building and you have a great experience. You scream a value without saying anything at all to your kids: This is important for you and it's important to me and we do this together.

I think great early childhood programming happens without the parents every day as well, as long as you stay connected, you have good communication and you are all working towards the goal of raising someone who is ready for kindergarten.

MP:  What impact does your work have on families?

KS: The curriculum that I teach, much of it is ages and stages: Temperament, nutrition, sleep — all that stuff that helps you understand the particular child that you are given. If you know that your kid, at 3½, goes crazy in fluorescent lighting or you just suspect that Target is too much for them, and you wonder why every time you go in he just freaks out, I'll help you understand. If I can help you understand how your kid is wired, that they’re not necessarily an analytical but a more creative type, and you get to understand that when they are 2, instead of fight about that for 15 or 17 years, you have a better parenting journey.

I worry so much about how fast the pace of childhood is. It is shocking to me how people can go through a day, drop somebody off at day care, pick them up, run them to soccer or to watch their brother play soccer, grab something really quickly to eat, check in on email and Facebook and then it's time for bath and bed already. There isn't a whole lot of unstructured time in families anymore, and that worries me.

It is in the mind-numbingly bored, dull times of family life that you really get to know one another and crack jokes and figure out something to do together, because you don't know what to do when you're not so scheduled. That's kind of where my heart and passion lie, and so much of that is just stolen by media, you know?

I was born in 1960. I would wish on any kid in Minnesota the pace of the childhood that I grew up with. I just can't believe how much faster, how much more is crammed into a day, for an average child under 5. 

MinnPost:  Are you concerned that our love affair with standardized testing and assessment is also having an impact on early childhood?

KS: Oh, absolutely it is. If you were to walk into a first-grade room you would walk out of there and go, ‘Phew, that's a lot going on in there.’ In third grade? Your head would spin. You wire a brain once. To wire it a totally different way takes a lot, lot, lot of effort. I'm really concerned that we wire it well and to me wiring it well means feed it well, give it enough time to sleep, give kids toys that are creative instead of toys that play for them. Keep their eyes off of media long enough that they can form their own impressions about life. 

MP:  What are your duties as Teacher of the Year? Did you get a crown? Will you be going on a whistle-stop tour? 

KS: It's just an imaginary crown, but I've been wearing it on my head for a very long time. I do kind of go on a little speaking tour. It's not as grand as a carriage or anything. I will take my Malibu and my satellite radio and hit the road. If [other] people are interested in having me come speak to them, I’ll look at whether it fits into my ECFE schedule.

MinnPost:  Anything that you want to talk about that I didn't cover?

KS: Today is National Teacher Appreciation Day. How are you celebrating?

MinnPost:  By kicking myself that I didn't realize it yesterday. Each of my children has one or more teachers who really knocked one out of the park this year.

KS: I called my high-school track coach [from Hopkins’ erstwhile Lindbergh High School], Jim Whitney, who was just absolutely in the right place, at the right time, for a girl that needed to figure out how to channel her energies. I spent the morning on the phone with him.

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Comments (1)

"Bang for the buck" is FAR greater in early ed, kindergarten and early primary grades than it is later on. Beginning with the premise that there are no saints in reality, early-ed teachers come as close to sainthood as you're likely to find in education, I think, at least in the public sector. As a high school teacher, I was always acutely aware that, at most, I was adding a thin layer to whatever a child's previous years – in school, at home, at play – had constructed. I agree with Katy that, in that structure, it's crucial to get the wiring right.

All that, and I like Katy's philosophy. As both parent and now grandparent, it seems important to me that children have ample time to just be children, exploring and questioning and being silly at their own pace and in their own style. My 2-year-old granddaughter is an absolute delight, and is discovering, now that spring has made its belated appearance, things like insects. She calls them "boogs," and is fascinated by them, simply as mobile, living creatures that aren't at all like she is. Structured play time and even PBS don't really allow her time and opportunity to do this sort of thing.