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‘What Do You Want To Do When You Grow Up Some More?’ Advice For Aspiring Leaders In Early Childhood

Lea Austin is executive director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment
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The children who live in this state are increasingly diverse.

In the 2017-18 school year, 76% of California kindergarteners were African American, Native American, Asian, Filipino, Pacifc Islander, Latino or multi-racial.

But while that demographic breakdown is often reflected in the early childhood workforce, leadership in the field is not nearly as diverse.

“The people that look most like the kids are usually the assistants,” said Mary Anne Doan, director of the California Early Childhood Mentor Program. There’s research that shows students can benefit from teachers that look like them and Doan believes this is true of leadership as well.

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Much of the problem, researchers say, is lack of access to higher education for early childhood workers. But there are other obstacles to moving up in the ranks -- and we asked people who’ve worked in the field for decades to share their advice on overcoming them.

It’s geared toward people who want to work in child care and education, but chances are, if you’re looking to make the next step in your career, you might find something useful here.


About five years ago, Delia Vicente’s son asked her, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

“Well, I'm already grown up,” the UCLA Early Head Start executive director answered.

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“And he's like, ‘No, no, When you grow up some more.”

Vicente thought about it and realized she wanted to teach and create more programs.

Now, she often asks her staff, “What do you want to do when you grow up some more?” to get them to think about their goals.

“When somebody asks you that, then you go get it,” Vicente said. “Then you’re like, OK I’m motivated now. Now I know where I’m going.’”


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Lea Austin, director of the UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, says it’s been important for her to connect with other women of color in the field.

“We can also be intentionally thinking about how we're mentoring and the incoming generation of people doing this work,” Austin said. “But it's also just as important that we have a space where we can talk and where we can support each other… I have a group and colleagues and trusted confidants that I can go to and say, ‘Did I just hear what I think I heard?’”


Tashon McKeithan, executive director at the nonprofit Child Educational Center in La Cañada Flintridge, said she does daily affirmations. “I look in the mirror and say, you know, I could do this today,” McKeithan said. She also looks to the words of Maya Angelou and gets an email newsletter from the Happiness Project.

“I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual,” McKeithan said. “I pray and I find comfort and that there were people before me that did this and had success and failure and I'm continuing the line of very powerful people.”

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This was one I heard from multiple people.

“A coach often is set up to definitively help a person through a certain practice, but a mentor is someone that really is building all the skills of the individual, the strengths they already have, and building on those skills, and really bringing them up to the next level,” Doan said.

Mentors can be found through professional development programs or informal networks, they can be older than you, or younger. Doan said look for a positive role model, someone with innovative ideas.


“That is what keeps me going, has kept me going,” said 28-year home child care provider and union organizer Tonia McMillian. She said you don’t always get along with the parents, the pay isn’t great, but then there’s the moment when a kid says their ABCs for the first time.

“If it's not valuable to anybody on Earth, it's valuable to this little person,” McMillian said.


“There's a lot more people for you than against you and a lot more opportunities than you think there are,” said Wassy Tesfa, executive director of Head Start and Early Head Start at Pacific Clinics. She says she’s found allies from other Black women and white leaders in the places she’s worked at. “I grew up in Africa, where everybody looked like me, whether they be on top or at the bottom,” Tesfa said.” So I think that made a difference in how I saw myself, whether people saw me that way or not.”


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