It is a familiar trope that early childhood teachers claim that they get as much out of teaching young ones as students get out of their lessons. They do it for the love of children, the excitement of youthful discovery, and the joy of nurturing rather than a hefty paycheck. My own mom, a longtime preschool teacher, often says she gets “paid in hugs.” But for some women in Erie, PA, early childhood instruction is a gateway to a new life.
The Old Songs, New Opportunities (OSNO) program at the Erie Museum of Art creates opportunities for refugee women to use traditional skills and cultural assets from their home countries to begin to build a career as early childhood educators. This program—one part job training, one part cultural education, and one part early education—has been transformative for the both the women who go through the museum’s training, and for the students they care for.
Through OSNO, women who were expert caregivers in their home countries and are interested in learning the ins-and-outs of the American early education process are provided with over 50 hours of accredited instruction in basic child development theory, discipline and alternatives, the role of the childcare work, and how art, music, and movement aid physical and mental development.
At the same time, these women provide exposure to and instruction of their cultural traditions to fellow OSNO trainees, and create a tapestry of song and tradition that bonds teachers with students, and teachers with one another.
Kelly Armor, director of education & folk art, has seen the program grow over the years:
“It is wonderful to see these immigrant women valued as a resource, and that properly leveraging their indigenous knowledge has turned them into marketable employees. Those working in daycares have blossomed. They have more confidence, and clearly love their jobs.”
As American parents increasingly treat music making as a performance activity only, the traditional learning songs these women bring to the classroom can seem like a novelty. American parents tend to rely on professional recordings as entertainment rather than engaging children with instructional songs, but those involved with the OSNO programs have seen that instructional music making can, and does, grow children’s social, cognitive, and motor skills, and can help some children to start kindergarten at the same level as their more affluent peers.
Colleagues of OSNO trainees are thankful to see their early education song repertoire grow and expand. Armor says that the songs these women bring from their home countries “are truly a treasure to anyone who works with young children. There is a reason that they have been passed down generation after generation. They are catchy, encourage physical coordination, strengthen improvisation skills, teach co-operation, and bring real celebration and joy to any classroom.”
In the past ten years, the Erie Museum of Art has been able to host three training sessions with about 15 women at a time, and has been featured by the National Endowment for the Arts. The intensive program requires a significant amount of funding, and is also sensitive to world and cultural events that impact refugee populations.
Fortunately, the Erie Art Museum was awarded a National Leadership Grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and a matching grant from the Erie Community Foundation for an expansion of Old Songs, New Opportunities in Fall 2012.
The Museum will now be able to provide professional development at every site of Erie County’s three largest child care providers, deliver follow-up training for early child care providers and parent outreach, and offer more job training and internships for 30 additional refugee women who would like to learn to work in American daycares.
The greater Erie community is lucky that this program will be able to grow and continue, and that more early education classrooms will be infused with the gifts and talents of women who have come seeking a better life.