You learn many things while completing a graduate degree. One of the most important things is that even though you may think you are done learning, you are not. Learning is truly a lifelong process. I have also found that sometimes you learn the most when you are not expecting to learn anything.
Last week, I had the privilege of attending the New York State Association of Education for Young Children (NYSAEYC) conference in Verona, N.Y., and this two-day conference proved to be much more valuable to me than I had originally thought.
As I sat at home before the conference, I looked through some workshop names that I thought would be interesting to attend, such as "Yogapalooza," which was all about incorporating meaningful movement into a morning routine. It ended up that I could not find the room where this workshop was being held due to the plethora of workshop offerings scheduled at the same time - but I am actually happy that I didn't.
I ended up in a workshop titled “Using Common Classroom Materials to Support Problem Solving in Toddlers.” The name was long and intimidating, but I entered anyways. As I walked in the door, the presenter yelled, “You are the last person, the workshop started 15 seconds ago, anyone else can just leave!” She meant it too! She sent away every other person who tried to come in after me. This gave me the sense that it was not where I wanted to be and there was no way that I would enjoy it but, surprisingly, it ended up being my absolute favorite workshop and I even exchanged information with the presenter to stay in touch. This quickly set the tone for the entire conference, a friendly atmosphere where I went not knowing anyone, and left with three new friends that I would go on to attend a few more workshops with.
Throughout this conference, I met many new people. I would walk into a workshop and sit down at a table not knowing anybody and learn all about education in infant and toddler classrooms. During one session, I was at a table with a woman with 25 years’ experience, a retired woman who directed a daycare center for 50 years, and a few female students (I emphasize that they were all women because I only saw four or five other males the entire time). This environment provided me with some very interesting insights.
During every workshop, at some point, I would hear, “Let’s get the male perspective!” As sure as the day is long, it was inevitable that I would have to speak in every workshop I attended. This did show me one thing, though: As a young male in early childhood education, my input is valuable, even to those who have been in the classroom for years. I didn’t realize just how rare it is for these professionals to see a man in this setting. In fact, as I learned in a later workshop, only 2.5 percent of all early childhood caregivers and educators are male. This is when I realized, whether I like it or not, I was overwhelmingly among the minority in this environment.
In addition to attending workshops, I also had the opportunity to host an information table for Niagara University, where I talked with people about how amazing the university is and how much I love it, so much so that four years wasn't enough and I am back for my master's. Once again, when people asked me what I am studying, I would tell them I am pursuing an M.A. in early childhood and special education, birth-grade 2, and the response was always the same: jaw dropping to the floor and… “That’s amazing, we need more men like you!”
When the two-day experience was over, I had emerged a changed man (and I am not just being cliché). I went in not knowing what to expect and knowing absolutely no one except Dr. Mary Ellen Bardsley, and I left having attended six workshops, created 10 new friendships and learned more than I ever thought I would. This conference not only taught me a lot about the field of early childhood education, but it has also shown me what unique opportunities I will have as a male in this field.