Mary Watson Avery: Making Meaning in Early Childhood

Aspir(e)ing Profiles  is a series where we feature leaders in education, child and human development and health and wellness connected to the Wheelock College Aspire Institute. Look out for our monthly profile. You might be next!

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Mary Watson Avery, Program Manager of C onnected Beginnings Training Institute had studied education alongside studio art in college, but she didn’t realize her passion for working with very young children until her first job after her graduation. “When I got out of school, I needed to support myself with something other than my art so I got a job in a child care center in Allston. There were openings to work with infants, toddlers and preschool age children. I told them I was flexible so they put me with the toddlers, and I fell in love with the age group.”

Mary’s interest in toddlers, children 15 months to 3 years old, continued to deepen during her time at the center. “There is something so immediate about their wants and needs. They have a constant monologue going and really big feelings. Compared to preschoolers who have a pretty developed understanding of social roles and dramatic play, toddlers are about exploration. I remember one girl I taught – all she wanted to do was put anything on her head and call it a hat. To me, it’s the purest human age.” Even though Mary doesn’t work directly with children today, she still tries to interact with them every chance she gets, whether it’s keeping an eye out for any child who seems lost or helping a new parent take care of a crying infant on an airplane.

During her time as a teacher and Assistant Director at the Gilday Center , a Roxbury family preservation program working with families involved with Department of Children and Families, Mary saw many cases of child abuse and neglect involving infants and toddlers. That experience combined with obtaining her Masters at Wheelock in Infant & Toddler Studies, have been two of the most influential experiences in her professional life. Both confirmed that she was not only passionate about young children, but also about working in urban settings and with families facing challenges.

Mary’s interest in pre-service and in-service professional development came into focus while supervising interns from the Harvard Graduate School of Education at the Gilday Center.  “I realized that the interns weren’t getting the opportunity to reflect on their work and get the support they needed doing a pretty difficult job.” HGSE invited Mary to develop an early childhood seminar and co-teach a child development course, designed to bridge students’ experience between their time at their practicum sites and what they were learning in class. While transferring learning from knowledge to skill can be difficult, Mary continues to teach what HGSE Professor, Bob Selman, taught her: it is meaning that moves us from knowledge to skill and it is up to the individual to find that meaning.

“Make meaning of  your  behavior and then make meaning of the child’s behavior. If you acknowledge your feelings as a teacher, then you can recognize your personal  reaction  and separate it from your professional  action . Professional development means change!” 

It is this idea that Mary brings to her professional development training through Connected Beginnings. She asks students if they have relationships with the children and parents they serve or merely interactions. Maybe they don’t know a child well enough yet if they are confused by what is motivating that child’s challenging behavior. “Make meaning of your behavior and then make meaning of the child’s behavior. If you acknowledge your feelings as a teacher, then you can recognize your personal reaction and separate it from your professional action . Professional development means change!” One of the shifts Mary sees in the professionals she trains is the growing ability to describe a child as exhibiting a behavior rather than being something – lazy, spoiled, etc. The key is to understand that what is going on with a child and a family is often more complex than one feeling or one behavior.

What Mary values is at once simple and powerful. First, parents need to be honored and treated with as much care as children need. Second, early childhood teachers/caregivers/professionals deserve the respect that any educator of any age group has. “I would not begrudge public school teachers a penny of what they earn or an ounce of the respect they do receive, but its mountains compared to what early childhood teachers get.”

Those values define Mary’s vision for the future of the field. “What we believe is good for kids – a highly trained workforce, high quality extended day care, year round learning, people to stay in the field for years and years – is a mismatch between the level of funding, respect, appreciation and understanding we have for the early childhood workforce. We want them to be these imaginary people who can do it all, and we give them so little to get there. That has to change.”

Connected Beginnings and Aspire are especially meaningful to Mary because they bring training directly to the front line and make it real and applicable to what these teachers see on a daily basis. She presses that we need to continue to expand our understanding about who can be a great teacher and/or early childhood leader.

As we all know, social change takes a long time, and after 25 years in the field, Mary feels like she’s finally seeing small pieces of progress coming together. “I feel like I am seeing change in Massachusetts. We really do want a cohesive structure for professional development — moving from this idea of a professionalized early childhood workforce to actually creating a structure where it can happen.” The field has seen an increased number of teachers getting advanced degrees, creating programs to accommodate English language learners, and honing important skills, such as writing and data analysis. There is still a lot of work to do and room for so much progress to be made. It’s clear from Mary’s passion for children and families that she’s in it for the long haul.

Getting to know Mary:

Quote to live by: Einstein “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Person you’d like to meet: Gloria Steinem – I have met her, but I want to take it to the next level. I want to be adopted as her niece. Also, I’d like to meet poet and musician Patty Smith, because she is so completely original.

Reading right now: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathon Lethum

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