This post documents my personal experience volunteering in an early childhood special education (ECSE) setting. My words share one perspective on the field of ECSE education and should not draw comparisons to the field of ECSE or all teacher education programs.
The fall semester was an emotional and mental roller coaster.
I remember starting hopeful and nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. Coming out of that semester, I feel so much stronger, more confident, and more drained than ever. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, placing myself within vulnerable, challenging situations.
Some days, I needed to cry or take a mental health break to process the day before. Others, I celebrated an accomplishment or encouragement from professors. Either way, I began to recognize my emotional and mental health state and needs. Eventually, I took action on that recognition by advocating in my professional and personal lives.
It is important for teachers and teacher candidates to talk about their experiences, to be honest with how they are feeling, to admit when they need a break, and advocate for the systemic support they deserve. This being said, constant discussion and protest can be burdensome and may not always be met with approval.
However, I will continue to show up and fight for systemic support for teachers and teacher candidates that go beyond self-care professional development and limited vacation days. Teachers constantly fight for their students, their classrooms, their pay, and their respect. It's time we fight for them too.
Through this post, I hope to give an authentic glimpse into the life of a teacher candidate during a pandemic.
mental health and making change
This fall, I finally realized that I needed to recognize the state of my mental health. Past semesters were littered with "bad days" and bumps in the road. However, those bumps quickly came together to form one long ditch.
I found myself feeling anxious about showing up to my school and feeling burnt out after just a few hours. I felt alone, unmotivated, tired, and upset. My schoolwork added to my stress. And as a cherry on top, my field schedule changed each day.
After a couple of months, I decided that I had enough. This experience was not typical and changes needed to happen to help me and my classmates simply get through the semester. To start, I began talking with a counselor to gain control and regularity over my circumstances. I was able to receive feedback, validation, and strategies to help me push on.
A couple of months after I began field experience, I sent a voice message to my cohort group chat explaining that I was starting a proposal. I invited anyone interested to join me in the drafting process or to sign their name in support. To my excitement, all of them agreed to help!
Over the next couple of weeks, we met to draft our argument and share our experiences in the field. We carefully wrote up our requests and included commentary and evidence to support them. We included our list of courses, calculated workload, and detailed concerns. Some of my classmates even met with our professors to articulate concerns and share the current state of our cohort.
Actions we requested:
When we were ready, we sent our proposal to our professors. And to our surprise and gratitude, it was well-received. Our concerns, struggles, and experiences were heard and, eventually, actions were taken to foster stronger communication and ease the workload. Our professors' actions brought some relief and comfort with courses, but my anxiety in the field didn't cease until the semester was over.
Although I was proud of my classmates and myself for drafting an action proposal, it should not have been necessary. It saddens me that we came to the point to take the matter into our own hands to address issues within our program and college. Moreover, our requests for clear communication and relevant content were not already requirements.
My semester in the field of ECSE was not typical. I observed the effects COVID has had on ECSE teachers, specialists, caregivers, students, and teacher candidates. Students were still adjusting to being in school and navigating how to be young humans. Teachers, caseworkers, and specialists were overworked and took on more children than they can handle. A system that already lacked support for young children and early childhood educators was barely holding it together.
As a teacher candidate, it is sometimes difficult to face the realities I may encounter in my career. I continue circling back to that ever nagging question. . ." Why do I still show up?". Despite the burnout, lack of support and communication, and the need to advocate for things that should already be required. . .why do I still show up? And some days, I couldn't answer that question. For others, I simply tried to better the lives of the students I worked with. I sought out joy in the small moments, accomplishments, and milestones.
Behind closed doors or curtains or whatever you want to call it, that was my reality of volunteering in early childhood special education. I learned valuable lessons that helped me get through each day --good, bad, or in between. I set personal and professional boundaries for myself. I acknowledged how I was feeling and allowed myself to feel. I recognized times when I was in control and times when I was not. And, last of all, I understood when I needed to walk away.
My final thoughts
Unfortunately, I did not get a good introduction to the early childhood special education field. I will have another experience in ECSE next spring. However, I will be a student teacher instead of a practicum student.
Looking ahead, I am keeping an open mind about reentering the ECSE field. My rocky semester last fall was just one example of what ECSE could look like. Every teacher, school district, family, and community is different, and all of those factors can influence the outlook of a field experience. There are hundreds of wonderful ECSE teachers, specialists, and caseworkers that bring in so much positive change and light.
The bottom line is please don't generalize my experience in early childhood special education. Although I felt the effects of some of the systemic issues --such as lack of mental health support, overflowing caseloads, and the struggle to deliver effective interventions during a pandemic-- there were individual circumstances that also contributed to my experience.
If you take anything away from this post, it's that teacher candidates' voices and mental health matter. We are the ones who see the flaws in the education system at the preservice level. Our calls for change within programs must be heard and respected. Our contributions to the field and our community must be recognized. Our feedback on cooperating teachers, placements and professors --positive or negative-- must be taken into account.
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MN Department of Education: Early Childhood Special Education
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Meghan Hesterman (she/her) is a child advocate and education blogger. While a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), she created Journal of a Future Teacher to share her journey in becoming an early childhood teacher.