While the need for quality early childhood education often goes unmet across the country, the York JCC is making the teachers and students in its early childhood education program a priority.
Walking into Tammy Golden’s classroom is like walking into a big hug.
It’s a warm, welcoming space where natural light spills in through the windows, plants line the sills, and student artwork hangs right at eye level for a 4-year-old. Every morning, she greets her students with open arms and a smile on her face, ready to start another day. “So much development happens before a child turns 5,” Tammy says. “That’s when I wanted to make a difference.”
In the 18 years she’s taught early childhood education at the York Jewish Community Center, that’s exactly what she’s done.
Why early learning matters
Kindergarten teachers can spot the difference immediately — which students have received quality early childhood education, and which have not. “We have decades of brain science that show us that the first experiences that children have with well-supported, competent adults shapes everything that comes after,” says Suzann Morris, Deputy Secretary for the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning.
But in York County, across the commonwealth, and across the country, the need for quality early childhood education often goes unmet. Low teacher salary, high turnover and underfunded programming mean many kids who would benefit from quality early childhood education aren’t getting it. Fixing that starts with prioritizing early learning, Suzann says. At the York JCC, they’re doing just that.
Building a relationship
When Lia Kukuk was 4, she was shy and would cling to one person, making transitions difficult. She could also be controlling and reacted impulsively with frequent, epic meltdowns. “She could have flipped the room upside down in minutes if she wanted to,” Tammy says.
It was a challenging first year. Slowly, Tammy built up trust with Lia. She was there every morning to greet Lia, and together, they worked to set her up for success.
“Tammy was the perfect teacher for Lia,” says Lia’s mom, Emily Brown. At JCC, teachers use a looping process in early childhood education. That means kids have consistent teachers who move with them from one classroom to the next. When Lia moved up to Tammy’s classroom, she had another teacher move with her to make the transition easier. That consistency is key.
“The longer a teacher can stay in the classroom with a child, the better off they will be to build that important relationship,” Suzann says. Most of the teachers at the York JCC have been there for years. Low turnover builds trust and helps students feel safe and secure, Tammy says. They know the teacher they have this week will be the same teacher they’ll have next week.
That relationship isn’t just important for the kids; it also important for the parents. Tammy keeps parents informed every step of the way and was able to direct Emily to resources that could help her daughter. The early childhood education teachers at the York JCC keep up to date on what services are available for students and their families. They also continually educate themselves with trainings, maintaining accreditations and high-quality credentials. “They’re a recognized, demonstrated, high-quality program that has a remarkable reputation,” Suzann says.
Be a star
The progress Lia has made in the past year blows Tammy away. Now, when something happens that could set Lia off, Tammy gives her a verbal cue. “Be a star,” she tells Lia. Those words are a reminder to take a deep breath, relax and regroup. It’s a chance to calm down, to check her emotions before she escalates. And with practice, it’s working.
Not only has she been more in control of her emotions, she’s conscious of her progress. I can control myself and I can be helpful and not hurtful anymore, she tells Tammy. “It’s powerful to hear her say that out loud,” Tammy says. “She’s gotten the skills that she needs to be successful.”
Making a difference
Lia is going to kindergarten next year. It’ll be a big change, her mother says, but thanks to Tammy and the other teachers at the JCC, she’s ready.
As for Tammy, she says she’ll miss Lia. But this is why she loves her job, why she comes in every day with a big smile and open arms. The reward is seeing how far students like Lia have come and knowing they have the skills to succeed. She’s making Lia a book to take with her when she leaves. It’s filled with pictures of her classmates and wishes for good luck in kindergarten. The last page is a message from Tammy, who has spent the past two years helping Lia get to where she is today. It’s a picture of a giant star.