Karen Taylor becomes first staff member to graduate from the CEEL program
Karen Taylor’s time at the University Child Development Center began when she was just an undergraduate student at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
“I was a student in the early childhood department, and I started working at the center part-time – my first job on campus,” she said. “I worked for about a year part-time and then a full-time job became available in a classroom as a teacher’s assistant. I took that job and kept going to school, which was great because it helped me pay for my education.”
Taylor has never stopped caring for the children who come through the doors of the UCDC since then.
She earned her bachelor’s in early childhood education and, shortly afterward, began working full-time as a teacher at the center. Eventually, she advanced to become the program coordinator. Now, 23 years later, she’s reached another milestone.
Taylor is the first UMSL staff member to graduate from the Character Education for Emerging Leaders program in the College of Education. The yearlong professional development program for school leaders is housed in the Center for Character and Citizenship.
CEEL is designed to promote servant leadership and to give educators the knowledge and skills necessary to make schools true learning communities where everyone is valued. Taylor said she was aware of the Center for Character and Citizenship and CEEL because of Marvin Berkowitz, the co-director of the center and the Sanford N. McDonnell Professor of Character Education.
Berkowitz – an advocate for early childhood education – would often stop by the UCDC to talk to the staff and read to students. Through those interactions, Taylor became more familiar with the Center for Character and Citizenship and CEEL. She was interested in applying but was a bit hesitant at first. Berkowitz gave her a needed push.
“I intentionally recruited Karen as a participant in CEEL because of both who she is and because of the nature and philosophy of the UCDC at UMSL,” he said. “Karen is a completely child-centered and thoughtful early childhood educator who thinks deeply about what kind of educational experience and what kinds of educators would serve the best academic and developmental interests of the children entrusted to the UCDC. I knew she would work hard to digest the CEEL experience and leverage it to better serve the kids of the UCDC, and the UCDC’s philosophy already resonates so strongly with an evidence-based child-centered approach to nurturing the best in each child.”
It turned out to be a perfect fit, as the program aligns closely with Taylor’s education philosophy and the environment she tries to create in her classrooms.
“I had my own interest in character education, and I had my own interest in helping kids, even young kids, think about how they’re part of a community and how what they do helps the community,” she said. “Those are conversations that we were having and that I have had a personal interest in, which really lends itself toward character education and CEEL.”
Taylor added that the UCDC has practiced character education in some form over the years, even if it never used that formal term. Teachers prioritize children’s interests, building relationships and social-emotional development.
“We have always been play-based, and we have always been developmentally appropriate,” she said. “The whole time I’ve been here, we’ve always been child-focused and interested in the child’s voice and what the child is interested in learning, which I think is different from what the general population does – specifically when it comes to early childhood. We have always held that philosophy, and it’s been interesting because 20 years ago it was hard to explain to parents.”
This philosophy differs from traditional early childhood and elementary education models, which are more rigid and rely on a top-down approach where the teacher dictates everything in the classroom. However, Taylor believes education trends are moving in the direction of character education and parents are starting to be more receptive to the benefits of the model.
“If children are given a voice in the classroom and given the opportunity to express their opinions about what they want to learn and what they’re interested in, they are much more likely to retain that information,” she said. “They’re much more likely to have a high level of interest and engagement because they’re excited about it. They’re going to drive the research, and they’re going to drive the project. They’re going to get their friends excited about it.”
One of the most fulfilling aspects of the CEEL program for Taylor was the emphasis on being reflective as an educator. It involves educators regularly taking the time to think about why they did or said something in the classroom.
“I think it forces you to take a step back and look at who’s in control in the classroom,” Taylor said. “Can we co-create the curriculum here? Can we do this together? Instead of me dictating what’s going to happen all the time.”
Taylor also enjoyed the servant leadership aspect of CEEL. The program is designed specifically for aspiring school leaders, such as assistant principals, and it teaches them how they can give teachers a voice in starting character education programs. Graduates of the program also have access to mentoring for two years. As the program continues, she’s hopeful that it will start to affect change in the region.
As for the UCDC, Taylor’s experience will help formalize some character education concepts in the classroom.
“I think now what we need to do is create a shared language that we’re all using across the whole school – from the youngest children all the way up to the children who will leave us for kindergarten,” she said. “ We will also write a more formal mission statement that talks specifically about character education.”
Taylor is grateful for the continued support she’s received at UMSL – from part-time student worker to CEEL graduate.
“We’re so lucky that we have the Center for Character and Citizenship, and we’re really lucky that we can use them as a resource,” Taylor said. “They’re very supportive of the Child Development Center and early childhood education. Dr. Berkowitz is a big proponent of early childhood education. He emphasizes that we should start this work with kids when they’re really young, so I’m thankful for the experience.”
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