'These Children are just looking for Someone to Anchor their Rocky Boats' - Dr. Poyner
(March 2, 2017) -- At only 6 years old, Kevin challenged everything she knew about good teaching practices. The most trying child in her classroom, he exasperated her, and was infamous throughout the school for his difficult behavioral and social-emotional needs, said motivational speaker Nefertiti Bruce Poyner, Ed.D. in her keynote address to MHSA’s 26th Early Childhood Learning Conference in Troy.
Over time, Kevin’s personal story emerged. She learned that the boy -- who was dropped off early every day, was the last to be picked up, and never, ever stayed home -- was a foster child in kinship care whose mother struggled with a crack cocaine addiction. His family consisted of 13 siblings he barely knew and lived in different places. Learning the details of his sad life, Poyner resolved she would use her time with Kevin (not his real name) to make a difference in his life.
“The person standing before you struggled as a teacher before I found my way. It was hard to work with the Kevins of the world,” she added. “These children are just looking for someone to anchor their rocky boats. To be a good teacher means to reach their spirits.”
Poyner’s story served to illustrate her point that a profession that serves the most vulnerable children and families in society requires one to develop resilience. Resilience is what helps you maneuver the bumps in the road of life, she said. In her speeches and writings, Poyner famously describes increasing one’s resilience as “building your bounce.” Working to help young children become school-ready is hard work. To be successful, one must develop the art of self-care, she added.
“In Head Start, we have to work together,” she told the audience of 250 agency leaders, educators and parents. “Everything changes; (federal) Administrations change. Now we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got to fight for the children.”
A former preschool and kindergarten teacher from Philadelphia, Poyner worked with Kevin more than a decade ago. Today, she is an early childhood specialist and national trainer for the Devereux Center for Resilient Children in Villanova, PA. After years of studying research in the field, Poyner concludes that becoming resilient involves three key elements.
• The first is optimism -- the ability to look at the bright side of a circumstance even when things get hard. Optimism creates energy to deal with life’s problems, she said. “It’s hard to run your program when you’re running on empty,” she said.
• The next necessity for the journey of life is a sense of humor. Humor increases one’s creativity and improves problem-solving abilities. Laughter allows one to step back and look at an event from a different perspective. Research shows it works for kids, too. Children as young as 14 months are able to identify humor in a situation, she said.
• Thirdly, social connections are critical for resilience. She advised individuals to identify one or two people who really understand you and can spot when something’s not right. “Be that for your students, too,” she said. She also encouraged the audience to resolve differences with the people that matter in one’s life, before it’s too late.
As she made a promise to herself to become a positive person in Kevin’s life, Poyner said she created intentional changes in her approach to him. She wrote upbeat notes to him whenever she found him on task. Sometimes she’d simply write, “You’re fascinating to me.” She invited him to walk down to the school office with her as a treat, especially when he wasn’t in trouble. She called home to say she enjoyed having him in school. When he once asked why everyone in the school knew his name, she cheerfully replied, “Because you’re a cool dude.”
“Since I found this body of work, things have really changed around,” she said. “My only regret is that I didn’t get this way before I left the classroom.”
Poyner encouraged the audience to practice self-care so that they could better support the children in their care and do what they love “a little bit longer and a little bit better.”