Vanessa Pashkoff
Vanessa Pashkoff

Vanessa Pashkoff spent time in high school and college working as a nanny. And she was always inspired by “the spark of children and wonder,” she says. But as a student in McMaster University, in Canada, where she’s from, she earned a degree in political science. 

“I was convinced I was going to be a social worker.” 

A friend, however, was going to teach in Korea, and that inspired Pashkoff to look into teaching abroad. She applied to a program, got accepted, took a crash course in teaching English as a second language and spent a year teaching a preschool class in Japan. 

“I lived in Kobe,” Pashkoff recalls, “and I loved it. It was amazing to help people learn and to see another environment and the cultural differences. It really was what I was looking for without knowing it.” 

“I created some incredible relationships with families, and I am still in touch with them to this day.” 

While she was in Japan, Pashkoff decided to apply to Brock University in Ontario, Canada, so she could earn a degree in education. 

“It was the kind of thing where everyone else seemed to know that I was going to end up being an educator or a teacher, and I just never wanted to admit it,” she says. 

Pashkoff began teaching in elementary and kindergarten classrooms. She took courses in early childhood education. Eventually she and her husband moved to California where she became a lead teacher at the Berkeley School. 

“I found my groove at that school. It felt like my forever home. It was filled with incredible educators. It had been a Montessori school for many years, and then it became a beautiful blend of Montessori and Reggio-inspired education. 

“I already had the Reggio philosophy in my practice, but my experience at the Berkeley School refined my practice and my teaching ‘voice.’ ” 

When Pashkoff and her husband decided to move to Massachusetts to be closer to family, she began looking for what she hoped would be a local version of the Berkeley School. She found The Family Cooperative in Watertown, Mass., and had a two-and-a-half-hour interview with the director, who was at that time Binal Patel. 

“We talked about everything related to early education and philosophy. And without even having seen the school, I jumped on board.” Pashkoff became a preschool teacher and the after-school program director. “And I worked there for four years.” 

Pashkoff helped with family engagement, developing school policies, and the Reggio Emilia practice of documenting children’s work. 

A year ago, Pashkoff moved to Western Massachusetts. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she had been staying at home with her son. She was considering her work options and facing the lower salaries that programs in her area pay. And in the midst of this, she launched an Instagram page – provocations_at_home –that featured all the activities she had been doing at home with her son. 

What’s a provocation? 

“A provocation is an invitation to play. It could be a tray with rock or feathers or Magna-Tiles with a shatterproof mirror behind it. It’s open-ended so a child can bring what they want to the activity.” 

“It gave me more purpose,” Pashkoff adds, especially since this was the first time in 14 years that she hadn’t been teaching in a classroom. 

The Instagram project also led to invitations to share this approach, so she started running weekend workshops. She also got an email from Patel about a part-time job as a program specialist with MAAEYC, the Massachusetts Association for the Education of Young Children. 

Pashkoff applied for and got the job. 

“It’s been exciting to collaborate with such incredible educators to promote the importance of early childhood education and early childhood educators,” she says. “I do a lot of the event scheduling. I promote professional development opportunities, and I support MAAEYC’s membership committee, professional development committee, and public policy and advocacy committee.” 

While working for MAAEYC, Pashkoff spent her days working as a toddler teacher at the Williston Northampton School’s Children’s Center. She recalls a quiet student there who liked to sit outside and run her hand over the grass. Eventually she began pulling up blades of grass. But what Pashkoff discovered upon closer examination – and documented thanks to the Reggio Emilia approach – was that the student was lining up the grass blades in height order.

“There was reason and intention,” Pashkoff says. “I took pictures and followed her whole process. I wrote this up for her learning journey book to capture how methodical she was about what she was doing.” 

Now Pashkoff is taking a break from teaching. She has just completed Strategies for Children’s Speakers’ Bureau program, an intense 7-week advocacy experience for 15 early educators from across the state. And she is focusing on her son and on her consulting, which lets her share her passion for play. 

“I’ve dreamt about writing children’s books and creating a consulting company and getting involved in advocacy. And I had talked myself out of it. Now, I’m learning that I have something to share. And now there are a lot of big changes happening in early childhood, especially in Massachusetts, and I want to be involved in that. One big thing is that we’re being recognized as educators.” 

 That recognition is crucial for making real progress in educating young children and on the public policy front. When we asked Pashkoff what she wants legislators to know about her work, she said: 

“What I want policy makers to know is that we are incredibly valuable. And if we are not compensated the way we should be compensated, our workforce will continue to dwindle. We do a lot, and we deserve to be recognized for that.” 

Pashkoff’s favorite children’s book? “Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats” by Alicia Potter. 

“Miss Hazeltine takes in stray cats and creates this whimsical, magical, beautiful home for them full of safety, security, and silliness. These cats are brought by people from all over who complain that the cats are worthless or scared of birds or afraid of everything. Miss Hazeltine brings them together and they practice things like pouncing and coping with scary noises and birds. She’s a woman who sees the power in all these cats.” 

“The book shares the importance of believing in those who aren’t believed in. And for me, that relates very much to children. We need to listen to them much more than we do because they have so much to teach us.”