All Marcela Simpson wanted was a part-time job to carry her through to graduation. She was living in her native country of Honduras and majoring in business administration at UNITEC, the Central American Technological University.
Simpson applied for a position at a school called La Estancia, a renown bilingual school where she met the school’s director, Ana Aviles, who assigned Simpson to be a lead teacher in a preschool classroom.
“That’s where it all started. I learned that I loved children,” explains Simpson.
Because her grandfather insisted, Simpson completed her Business Administration degree and came to the United States to get her master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she studied with George Forman, coauthor of The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education.
Simpson went on to work at the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Vermont, an early education program that provides inclusive classes for both typically developing children and for children with special needs and rights. In this position, she worked with teachers, assistant teachers, and paraprofessionals providing them with educational resources and sharing opportunities for professional development.
“Based on this experience, I felt the need to learn more about adult learning,” Simpson recalls, “and that guided me to a whole different place.” She contacted the local Resource and Referral Agency in Western Massachusetts and they connected her to provide professional development and coaching opportunities. She also joined the Institute for Professional Education, where she learned more about adult learning theories and principles.
Simpson merged all these experiences – teaching in Honduras and the United States, supporting teachers, promoting effective adult learning, and her Business Administration degree – and became a bilingual early childhood consultant and coach.
In 2012, she started working with Spanish-speaking early childhood educators working in center-based and family child care programs in Western Massachusetts.
“That was an amazing opportunity because I hadn’t realized all the needs that these educators had. That fueled me with the passion to be more involved and to focus on working with Latina family child care educators.”
Thanks to a state-funded Educator and Provider Support grant, Simpson helped these educators develop quality improvement policies and practices. She helped them further develop their business practices. And as these educators came together, they found that they had a voice.
Her work stretched the reach of other programs. When, for example, the Boston Children’s Museum worked with National Grid in creating “Tinker Kit,” to teach young children about tinkering and engineering, Simpson ran a professional development program on how to use the kit for Spanish-speaking educators.
“We developed a professional learning community around the concept of tinkering and how to implement the kit in their programs. I provided coaching on leadership, and I invited everyone to draw on their experiences with children and create PowerPoint slides that we put together and shared with a Latino network of educators.”
Becoming presenters was empowering, Simpson adds, “I remember how these early educators were glowing when they were the ones giving the presentation and sharing their experience with their colleagues.”
Enabling early childhood educators to experience themselves as influential leaders is a core part of Simpson’s work. “It’s vital,” she says, “to rid people of the stigma that their voices don’t matter because they don’t speak English or because in some people’s mistaken views family child care educators are merely babysitters.”
Then COVID-19 hit. Governor Charlie Baker ordered child care programs to shut down. Simpson was on vacation with her family. Educators started calling her. Simpson returned home, and contacted Kimm Quinlan, the Coordinator of the StrongStart Western Mass Professional Development Centers. They worked on funding and scheduling weekly meetings for family child care educators.
“We gathered together online and brainstormed about what we would do when the programs eventually reopened. Educators posed many questions, and I didn’t have all the answers; no one did. But we created a formal space where everyone knew they were not on their own.”
Simpson also initiated a Friday morning coffee chat, a safe, online space where educators could talk about anything.
The pressure of the pandemic grew more intense. In the early days, educators struggled to keep up with the ever-changing flow of public health information programs. Some educators chose to retire sooner than they might have, and some had no other option, then to shut down.
“I know of many programs that have decided, this is not for me, it’s not enough money. I have so much ahead of me, and a lot of potential, and they decided to close.”
Simpson and other early childhood leaders created United Voices/Voces Unidas. The group reached out to Easthampton, Mass., Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, a member of the state’s reopening advisory board, to share the struggles of early childhood educators.
“We became an advocacy group that included center-based directors, programs that were providing emergency care. I represented family child care educators especially those in the Spanish-speaking community.” This advocacy group, guided by Donna Dennette’s vision, emerged as the “The 413 Network,” a group of Western Massachusetts Early Childhood leaders whose mission is to hold frequent meetings with decision-makers to ensure that the unique needs of “The 413” are considered.
For all its tragedies, the pandemic has also led to growth and equipped educators to build a better future, Simpson says, explaining, “the pandemic has taught us as a field, that we are fast learners, and that we can adapt quickly. So many educators who were not well versed in technology are now navigating it.”
Although Simpson is aware that the early education field has made great strides, her goal is to further those efforts with her continued commitment and passion. “We have to stop thinking in silos, regional silos or agency silos, and we must put all of our efforts to embrace a fragile workforce that needs to be valued, embraced, and celebrated!”
“There is just an urgent need to make yourself available, to be vulnerable, to share who you are with others, and to listen to educators’ stories and treat them with respect. Let them know that they are leaders, that they are the heroes.”