“The most important part is to have the students become more aware of the profession that they’ve chosen,” Tracey Williams says of teaching Introduction to Early Childhood Education at Cambridge College. Williams, a Boston Public School special education teacher, is one of Cambridge College’s senior professors.

“A lot of my students have early childcare positions and jobs where they get a lot of practice, but they don’t know the theory behind what they’re doing.”

So Williams, who has had a long career in early education and K-12 special education, teaches her students about Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist, and Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, both of whom studied child development as well as about Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator.

“We talk about the importance of play. We talk about the history of Head Start, NAEYC and how state standards evolved. We talk about family engagement, inclusion, and working with kids who have disabilities. We talk about how early education started, and we look at the impact of the industrial revolution and John Dewey,” an education reformer. 

“Because we talk so much about the early history of child care, I wanted to bring students forward into the present, so I asked them to research early educators of color.

“At Cambridge College our students are very diverse, and I want them to understand that theory doesn’t just stop. Theories evolve and education evolves, and both spread into new areas of education. Also, we had discussed a lot of people who were not of color, and I wanted them to learn about people who were.”

So the class looks at educators of color who focused on early childhood and on K-12. This includes Fanny Jackson Coppin, whose aunt bought her out of slavery. Coppin started teaching at a Quaker School in Philadelphia where she become the principal. There’s also Virginia Randolph, an African-American teacher who eventually oversaw 23 elementary schools in Henrico County, Va. 

“We even fast forwarded to Karen Mapp, who is at Harvard,” a family engagement expert, “and Michele Brooks, who was the assistant superintendent of Family and Student Engagement at Boston Public Schools,” Williams says.

One student researched Stephanie Curenton, who is a professor at the Boston University Wheelock College of Education as well as the director of the Center on the Ecology of Early Development (CEED).

“We look at history and we bring it forward. In the 1800s, educators were looking at how to help disadvantaged students, and that’s what we’re still doing today. I want my students to see that thread.”

“I want my students to understand the history and the theory so that if anyone challenges them, they can explain what they’re doing and why it’s developmentally appropriate. One of the lectures I give is on the importance of play. And one of the questions I ask students is, If a parent questions you about play, what would you say?

“A couple of years back policymakers wanted to take play out of the classroom. And I want my students to be able to say, We can’t do that, there’s a theory behind play. There is evidence-based research about why play is important.

“Toward the end of the course, we talk a lot about family engagement and how important it is for teachers to be there for families, not just at a cultural evening where everyone shares their favorite food, but to help parents understand what their children are doing in our classrooms. Covid has more and more parents asking and wanting to be informed about what and how their children are being taught. It’s a new day for Family Engagement.”

“More parents are involved now because of Covid being coupled with remote learning. They’re assisting in the education of their children, and they’re making their voices heard. We now need parents to join in with the teaching and organizing of their child’s remote schedule and learning time. We have to collaborate, and be flexible enough to work with families. We have to embrace our families so that we can all work on the same team.”

Williams also teaches her students to learn about themselves, to think about how they can maximize their impact in early education classrooms and beyond their classrooms in the early education policy arena. “It’s time to go into the rooms where the decisions are made and the policies are developed concerning children that look like me.”

What lesson would Williams share with policymakers?

“Equity is very important. You go to one school, and it has all the bells and whistles. But you go to another school and all it has is a bell – and no whistles. If policymakers supported equity, then we would all be on the same playing field.”