NewsNov 15, 2018

Celebrating the power of relationships

A trio of Lesley leaders look at the past and the future of early childhood education

An overhead shot of Brattle campus and the City of Cambridge with buildings and fall foliage.

Lesley closed out the Wonder of Learning exhibit in Boston on Saturday evening with a panel discussion and reception on Brattle Campus celebrating Professor Emerita Mary Mindess, Visiting Scholar in the Creativity Commons Lella Gandini and President Emerita Margaret McKenna, and their contributions to the field of early childhood education.

Mary Mindess, Margaret McKenna and Lella Gandini
From left: Professor Emerita Mary Mindess, President Emerita Margaret McKenna and Visiting Scholar Lella Gandini

The exhibit focused on the Reggio Emilia approach to teaching young children, which emphasizes exploration, self-directed learning, and building relationships between students, teachers, families and the community.

The panel discussion was held in the chapel on Brattle Campus and drew an engaged crowd of educators whose interest in the Reggio Emilia approach to “joyous learning” sparked a lively question-and-answer session. The panel was one of the first public events to be hosted at the chapel since Lesley acquired the building from the Episcopal Divinity School earlier this year.

The panelists discussed their collaborative work establishing the Reggio Emilia Institute at Lesley and expanding Lesley’s Kindergarten Conference into an international gathering of educators focused on cutting-edge theories and practices in early childhood education.

McKenna, who now sits of the Massachusetts Board of Education, emphasized the importance of investing in early childhood education, decrying reductions in state funding.

“We have the highest graduation rate in the country and the highest achievement gap in the country,” she told the audience. “Unless we find ways to build affordable quality daycare and joyous early childhood education — not testable, but joyous, child-centered education like we see here — we will never close that achievement gap. What I learned from you, Mary, and from all of you sitting here, I bring every day to my work at the Board of Education. I’m like a broken record on how important early childhood education is and how we need to support it and support teachers and what they do.”

Edith Lesley founded this institution as a school for kindergarten teachers
and we have to remember that—that’s where we come from and that’s
what we should be proud of.
Margaret McKenna , Lesley University President Emerita

The importance of collegiality and strong relationships was a strong theme throughout the evening. Gandini, a visiting scholar at Lesley since 2008, and Mindess, Lesley’s only faculty member to be awarded an honorary Lesley degree, both spoke gratefully of their collaborative relationship establishing the Reggio Emilia Institute and of the whole-hearted support they received from then-President McKenna. McKenna, in turn, praised the innovative spirit and determination that raised Lesley’s profile in the field of early childhood education.

Edith Lesley founded this institution as a school for kindergarten teachers, and we have to remember that—that’s where we come from and that’s what we should be proud of. There’s nothing more needed today than paying attention to early quality teaching and learning,” said McKenna.

The importance of relationships and connection — between teachers and students and between educators — was echoed by audience members.

“I was one of those kindergarten teachers who ran and ran and ran,” said Andi Edson, who leads the Lesley New Teachers Community, “and one of the things that kept me in this wonderful arena of educators and learning was that I didn’t have a support group in my school, but I found like-minded individuals with whom I could hash over all these questions about teaching. I was so grateful for the Kindergarten Conference for educating me and for the two of you for what you did to enlighten scores and scores of kindergarten teachers in this state.”

In a discussion about challenges — how to manage ever-changing modern technologies, how to work with administrators who are resistant to new ideas — McKenna noted Lesley’s strong connection to its alumni, especially educators.

A string of photos set up as a timeline.
The reception featured a timeline exhibit of Lesley’s early childhood education history.

“Schools of education owe it to their grads to support them so that when they graduate, they can come back to get the support you need when you run into those situations, to get advice and support from your fellow grads and your faculty to help you deal with those problems," said McKenna. "You should not be on your own, and Lesley does that. …Every school that teaches teachers and does not do that is negligent, and you can quote me on that.”

The post-panel reception in Washburn Auditorium was framed by a timeline exhibit of Lesley’s early childhood education history, from Edith Lesley’s interest in the then-new kindergarten movement to more recent milestones like the establishment of the Reggio Emilia Institute and the Child Homelessness Initiative. Tables displayed familiar books on early childhood development and a set of “Fröbel gifts” — educational toys designed by German educator Friedrich Fröbel, the creator of the “kindergarten” concept.

Lesley’s unique position in the field of early education and as a place for teachers to share ideas and support throughout their career was a common thread throughout.

“I think we have at Lesley an amazing esprit de corps, a feeling of belonging and caring,” said Mindess towards the end of the panel discussion. “You don’t see that at a lot of places, at least places I talk to people about, and I hope that we can continue that.”