I grew up in a small white town where diversity was limited, and the sod fields were in abundance. This limitation in my experience with cultural education and interactions with more than just my own family then translated poorly when I moved to Lansing and began teaching. My first week was terrifying and a cultural shock as I was thrown into interactions with all different families of different socio-economic status, ethnicity, and race. I found myself in a work environment that embodied more diversity than I had ever experienced and then going home at night and questioning whether I was in the right field or not. I felt that I did not have a place at the center where everyone felt comfortable and interacted naturally with each other. I felt that there was something wrong with me. This cycle continued for weeks.
One day, I was sitting in the book nook with a couple of children when the head teacher, whom I have had minimal interactions with, walked over and asked if I could help her with setting up an activity. I joined her at the tables and as we were setting up, we began to chat about different aspects of the classroom, the children, and ourselves. As I was engaged in this interaction, it felt like a part of me that I was unaware of had opened up and it began to feel natural. As the days ensued, we continued our conversations and I eventually spoke with her about how I felt uncomfortable at first because being in such a diverse community was a complete shock to what I was used to. Instead of getting upset, as I feared she would, she was understanding and spoke with me about her experiences with similar situations growing up as she was one of the few African American families that attended her school. We spoke on this the entire nap time and that night I felt that I was not as alone as I had felt prior and that I had found a place within a world that was new to me.
Through this experience, I learned how important interactions and environments can be and how they shape a person. Without the help of the lead and a safe space to explore, I very well could have found myself leaving that position and finding a place where I felt less affronted by my lack of cultural knowledge and experience. Because of this, I continued my education of my community, families, and the surrounding cultures and found how it affected my work in the classroom. I felt more connected with the students and the colleagues than I had at any place before that.
I believe that a critical part of being an Early Education Professional is to foster an environment of belonging. It was so impactful that the lead teacher when I started teaching had created a space where everyone, children and adults alike, were able to be their authentic selves, which then created a safe space for growth and learning. Just as we create a safe space for the children, it is important to also remember that we are learning and growing along side them. Meeting children, and peers, where they are and bringing a sense of belonging to them is more powerful than we can every imagine. When we all feel like we belong, we are all able to enjoy our experiences and build relationships that create the foundation for lifelong learning.