The Image of the Teacher

The Image of the Teacher
By Beth MacDonald
September 2014


Beth MacDonald is the founder and director of MacDonald Montessori School in St. Paul, Minnesota, a Reggio-inspired school celebrating its 29th year in early childhood education. She has been a NAREA board member from 2002.


The educators in the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy have spoken often over the last 50 years of the strong image of the child that is at the heart of their philosophy. This image of the child is one of the three protagonists of their approach—parents, teachers and children. I have also observed a change in their choice of words in the last few years—the word “teacher” is being substituted by the word “adults”. I surmised they might feel the word “adult” is stronger and it includes all adults who partner with children. I also thought perhaps the word “teacher”, which includes the word “teach”, is inconsistent with their thinking about adults as co-learners with children rather than “teaching” concepts to children, which is a much more interactive, inclusive approach to education—another core value of the Reggio Emilia approach.


With all this focus on the image of the child, I wondered: Do we, as early childhood educators and directors, have an equally strong image of teachers—the adults who partner in learning with young children every day? Do we see teachers as strong, competent, and rich in possibilities, or do we see them as needy, weak, and wanting our support? Do we see early childhood teachers who care physically for very young children—infants through school age—as professional babysitters or nannies? Do the parents in our schools view them that way as well? Do our salary and benefits packages reflect a weaker, lesser view of teachers? Is there an industry salary scale and view of early childhood teachers that ranks them lower than elementary or secondary teachers?


I am amazed each time I interview new staff for our program and hear their description of previous early childhood employers, who:

  • offer no lunch break away from children—teachers are asked to eat with children and are offered no time to eat together as adults, sharing stories of their day or their individual lives and building a community of professionals who support each other;
  • routinely send teachers home from their employment if enrollment drops for the day—consequently, the teachers do not work a consistent 40 hours per week or have a predictable pay check;
  • do not offer free or greatly reduced tuition for children of staff, thereby enticing mothers of young children who are currently most involved and knowledgeable in this special developmental time in the lives of children;
  • do not offer flexible hours and generous sick and vacation time;
  • do not offer adult areas away from children for working and planning together, taking breaks or having lunch;
  • do not offer adequate health and dental insurance;
  • do not hire extra staff so teachers feel comfortable staying home when they or their children are ill;
  • do not offer in-house paid planning/collaboration time on a weekly basis during their work day so that their time in their personal lives can be devoted to just that—their personal lives;
  • do not offer professional development opportunities for teachers—in-house consultants and out-of-town conferences—at no cost to the employee;
  • do not provide college tuition reimbursement for further education.


Over and over, the parents in our program say, “The most valuable aspect of your program is the joyful, committed, quality teachers who care and educate our children every day.” Do early childhood programs see and support the most valuable part of the program—joyful, committed, quality teachers? Do early childhood programs have a strong image of its teachers—an image that embraces and supports competency, complexity, creativity, experience, and expertise? Do we embrace an image of teachers who are listened to, respected, supported, and encouraged and who are also critiqued and held to high level of responsibility and dedication to improving the life of children and families?


The benefits of embracing a strong image of teachers in our programs is directly appreciated by those teachers and those same qualities of joy, commitment, competency, creativity, community, and collaboration are magnified and infused into our early childhood programs affecting children, parents, and families. Responsibility, respect, encouragement, listening, shared decision-making, inclusion, and professionalism create more of the same. These values then deepen and enrich the lives of our teachers, and loyalty, ownership, pride, joy, and enthusiasm return to our programs tenfold.


Your support will help us advance the quality of every child's one childhood.

Together, we are empowering exceptional education.