Field notes: a Visit with Noel Magee, Preschool Program Coordinator of Anchor Center for Blind Children

Noel Magee, Preschool Program Coordinator, Anchor Center for Blind Children, as interviewed by Monica Marshall, Communications & Data Liaison, Denver’s Early Childhood Council

1. How long have you been running Anchor Center for Blind Children?

I have been the Preschool Program Coordinator for three years.

2. Why did you start working here?

I got my master’s in early childhood special education and I did my internship here and I just fell in love with it! It’s a very specialized place. We work very closely with families as well as the students. It’s a very specific special need – vision impairments – and there’s so much you can do working with the children. My background is in Montessori education, so there’s a lot of hands-on, experiential learning. I think as an educator, I gravitate towards that type of learning, so working with kids with vision impairment falls along with that too.

3. What is the size of your program?

We have about 20 teachers in the preschool program and we serve about 30 families.

4. What improvements did you achieve in the past program year? (July 2017-June 2018)

This was our first process with the Colorado Shines rating – we achieved a Level 2 through the paperwork process and after our first environmental rating we went to a Level 4.

5. What is a favorite lesson or skill you teach?

Making pumpkin play dough – for our kids it’s a great one because we went through all the ingredients, which included how to use a can opener, how to use measuring spoons, how to mix, so they’re getting a lot of fine motor skills. They’re also seeing things in their environment and creating a purpose out of that. Cooking is something they see all the time, but today they got to be involved with it, which I think was really cool.

We asked the kids, ‘do you have a can opener at home?’ And they go, ‘no.’ We’re like, ‘why don’t you go home and check?’ So it was really cool to be able to relate things that they’ve seen. We asked, ‘who cooks at your house?’ and things like that. We were following a recipe and we actually made the recipe too, to follow sequencing. We did a little bit of literacy. It’s just a cool activity where you can incorporate so many developmental areas, but also be relatable to real life which helps with recall. The more you experience something – the more you can repeat it and have other experiences with it – the more you’ll learn from it.

6. What has surprised you most about working in early childhood?

The amount of support you give to families outside of typical educational topics. For our families, a lot of it is encouragement, trust and building that relationship. I went into teaching because I love kids, but I think you also need that personality where parents can open up to you, where you can really see them as a partner in helping to learn about their child and what they’re going through at home so you can help them (the child) when they’re here.

A lot of our kids are non-mobile and non-verbal, so they feed off of emotions and vibes. If parents come in and they’re stressed or nervous, then you’ll see that in the child. I think it’s getting the parents to come in and feel calm, relaxed, happy and excited to see their child in an environment like this and trust that when they’re being dropped off, everything will be okay. Here, I think it’s a lot more about your approach and your personality, too – which is hard; it’s emotional sometimes.

7. How do you get families involved in their child’s development?

We do initial assessments and intake when the children come. We do our typical parent-teacher conferences, but beyond that we do a ‘likes and dislikes’ form so the parent can tell us about their child and their unique situation. As far as communication, we’re using the ClassDojo app. It’s like a Facebook page just for your classroom. You share pictures so parents can see what’s going on every day. And we have lots volunteer opportunities for parents to come in almost every month.

8. What’s something happening in your community that affects what goes on inside your program?

We work closely with the child’s school district to create learning goals and IEPs. A lot of our kids have dual programming, so they’ll come here, but they also go to an integrated program at their public school. We work closely with those teachers and special educators. Anything that’s going on in the school district impacts us.

9. Are wages for early childhood teachers a challenge for you? If so, how?

Of course, I think teachers should be paid more, but I actually feel very confident that everybody is here because they want to be. Our preschool program is only open Tuesdays and Thursdays. Some of our staff work part-time, so they can supplement their income doing in-home services; a lot of them do stuff like that. I think working in a place like this, it’s not necessarily about the money, it’s about wanting to be here. It’s different because some of our staff came from the public school system which has a para-retirement program. For a nonprofit, we have a pretty good benefit package so it’s not bad. People do what they can.

10. What is unique about your program? / What makes you different from the rest?

We serve a very specialized group of kids. Our building was built just for our population, so we have a very specialized environment. And we have really highly educated and trained teachers. Every lead teacher has a master’s in special ed. We have a music therapist, horticulture therapist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, and a speech-language therapist. We work with highly skilled professionals, not to say that other places don’t, but we’re just really lucky to have all those experts here.

11. What’s your best method for handling a child’s challenging behavior?

Choices rather than a demand is always a good approach. I call it taking the backdoor in; if you want a child to put their cane in their cubby, instead of giving them that direct demand, you have them figure it out. ‘Oh, we have your cane, what should we do with it?’ Giving them those questions and having them connect the dots – when they think it’s an idea they came up with on their own, it’s much more likely to get done.

12. How have the Quality Navigators and Specialists helped your program?

We had a really good relationship with our coaches. They had some great ideas, specifically for what materials we could put in our classroom, and really manageable, attainable goals for us. They didn’t try to change our program too much. They saw what we were doing and working with first and observed, then gave us feedback, which I think was a really nice way to do it.

13. What do you want the community to know about your program?

We want our kids to be integrated into the community and same with our school. We want our school to be something that the community knows about and knows what we’re doing here. I think often when a family has a child who was born with a vision impairment, they feel alone and isolated or may be worried that they’ll be the only one at their school like this. So here we try to make support groups for families with special needs to know that there’s a place where you can come and feel like there are other kids just like yours.

14. What’s the best advice you’re received about working with young children?

Watch first. Before you jump in to correct something, before you intervene with what a child is doing, take just a few minutes to watch where they’re going with it and let them try it on their own. That patience and wait time is so important.

15. What are your goals for the future?

To have a fulfilling year with lots of growth for the kids. I know it’s pretty typical, but I just want to have a fun year where kids are feeling like we’ve really accomplished a lot of growth. In the future, we want our program to be more days per week – we want to increase the amount of time our program is open.

Editor’s note: Interview was edited for brevity.

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