Staff Spotlight - Erin Steffy
In 2021, we will using our Staff Spotlights to learn more about individual staff, their inspirations, and their incredible resilience in adapting to Outdoor Learning in a pandemic.
Erin is a teacher in the Green Room.
What inspires you to be a teacher?
My sixth-grade teacher was passionate and joyful when he taught. Growing up as an identical twin, he was the first teacher to see me as an individual. That act of being seen changed my identity and it made a huge impact on me. Making a positive impact on children’s lives, small or big is what keeps me inspired to teach.
Why did you choose Playschool?
I visited Playschool 10 years ago while teaching at another parent co-op in Philadelphia. I fell in love with the school and was certain that I would want to teach here, if given the opportunity. Playschool held all of my teaching philosophies and beliefs. It was a perfect match!
What best prepared you for teaching at Playschool?
Teaching at schools that valued learning through play and incorporated the environment into the curriculum. Additionally, working at another parent-cooperative showed me the value in teachers and parents working together.
Why is play-based education so important to you?
I feel that it’s a time in a child’s development where they not only learn through play but are the leaders in their play. When they’re learning through play, they’re questioning, experimenting with the world around them and they are moving! This is the most authentic way for students to learn and it is often too short. Moving on from Playschool, students are in a much more traditional educational setting and their learning will no longer be led by them.
What are one or two things that prospective parent should know about the Green Room or Playschool in general?
In the Green Room this year and moving on to next year, we’re using a mixed-age group and that’s my preferred age range-threes, fours and turning fives. This age range promotes so many learning opportunities that aren’t necessarily available when all of the students are in similar developmental spaces. In my experience, there’s so much team building and working together as a group. Some of our older students have opportunities to be leaders and influence the younger students in their learning. The younger students depend on their peers more when in need of help, rather than the teachers. We encourage these relationships and foster a sense of community.
What are some of the developmental expectations for children in your group and what are some of the ways that you foster those?
We really focus on, for the younger kids, self-care and independence. Overall, we focus on social and emotional development. This is the foundation for future relationships with friends, teachers and peers. Academics have a purpose and importance but our young students need to learn how to be social beings first! We also focus on conflict resolution, how to be flexible in their play and how to be a part of a group. For most of them this is their first time being a part of something bigger than their family. We teach them how to recognize others’ ideas and feelings. How to make space for everyone and how to listen to one another. We also make sure that our older students have what they need academically and a foundation for moving onto Kindergarten. Learning through play offers opportunities that promote literacy and math skills in fun and engaging ways.
How have the kids adapted to outdoor learning? And what’s something that you’ve had to change to adapt as a teacher?
The students have adapted to learning outside seamlessly. I think that being outside is really part of how they learn best. For me, the learning outside piece in the beginning was about being flexible. Having an idea or vision but knowing that we would have to change most of our plans and be ok with that. I think as teachers, we always like to know what’s happening and to plan ahead. This year taught me how to plan ahead but to trust in what might open up authentically from the environment and the students. Staying in the moment and being flexible!
What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned from the switch to the outdoor program?
As a teacher, I learned that it really wasn’t that different teaching our students outdoors. I think it’s actually easier for me. The kids have so many benefits by being outside. Also, I was able to slow down. I think I learned how to better myself as a teacher this year, because for the first time since the beginning of my career, I was put into a situation that was completely new. I had to take risks and put myself in uncharted territory. The most important thing that I learned this year is how much the children learn by being outside.
How do they learn more?
They have the space, first of all, to explore without there being a lot of limitations. When we’re inside, there’s less space, the kids have to share materials and it can feel overwhelming. It can get loud inside and make it more difficult to focus. Outside, we’re saying “no’ hardly ever. Only if they’re in a dangerous situation do we have to intervene. Outside, they are questioning everything and given more time and space to explore.
What have you learned from the experience of teaching in the pandemic?
I’ve learned to slow down. To be more flexible. Before the pandemic, I wasn’t necessarily noticing as much with myself as a teacher. I think the pandemic forced us to stop everything and to pause. I really know my students more this year and who they are and I feel like I know myself a little bit better too.
How have you seen your students respond to the pandemic?
Our students have responded very well to wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing. I thought that we would have to have many conversations about it and really didn’t. Just like any year, in the beginning we set expectations and they followed them. This year, those expectations were a bit different but so was teaching outside! Our Green Room students were all new to Playschool this year so they don’t know how it can feel or look differently.
What is your favorite children’s book?
That’s difficult to narrow down. I love literacy and am currently getting my Masters in Reading and Literacy. Children books vary so much; some offer early reader experiences, while other authors and illustrators offer humor and some are wonderful for making predictions, inferences, rhyming and repetition. Some authors I like include Jon Klassen, Mo Willems, Oliver Jeffers, John Burningham, rosemary Wells, Jan Brett and Erin Stead.
What is one thing that helped you get through the last year?
Definitely coming to Playschool. There was a timeframe last year when we went home and didn’t come back. I enjoyed that time to just spend with my family. By the time the summer was ending though I was eager to get back to some normalcy. Not many people can say that they love coming to work and they love who they work with. Having that excitement to look forward to and all of the changes this year was going to offer, made the year a bit more normal.
Is there something that you’ve learned about teaching or education or kids from another teacher or former teacher who was important to you?
All the great ideas and inspirations I have as a teacher were taught to me by other teachers. Those teachers learned their ideas from teachers they met along the way. Not many of our ideas are original. We make alterations or tweaks to make them best fit our students. I’ve worked with so many amazing teachers who had more experience than me, especially when I first started teaching. I still use a lot of those ideas that always work.
Teachers inspire students in many ways. If your students take one thing away from their time with you, what do you hope it would be and why?
Going back to the first teacher, who inspired me to teach? My teacher saw me for who I was. So, I feel for them to just remember that they were seen and valued is what is most important to all of us. Many of them will only have just a few memories of me so I hope that in those memories is the feeling of being loved and having fun together. That’s what matters the most and that’s why I teach.