How I realized the importance of early education as a teacher in the city of Chicago

I was an extremely lucky child. I grew up with two well-educated parents who had typical 9-5 jobs and minimal money stress. My mom read to me every night, from the day I was born until much later than I’m willing to admit. I assumed that this was the norm in the wonderful bubble my parents had built for me. My world included supportive parents, daily foundational skills practice and after school assistance with assignments.

Although my experience was wonderful and safe, I now know that my formative years were much more privileged than some. This became clear to me when I began my career as a special education teacher in the city of Chicago. 

It was my first day as a kindergarten teacher, and I felt completely prepared for whatever the students threw at me. I came equipped with my alphabet letter games, leveled bookroom and a talking bear that taught the vowels. Within the first week, I realized I didn’t account for the fact that many of my students didn’t have access to early learning programs. I assumed that at the very least they would know most of the letter names and a few letter sounds, but I quickly realized that many didn’t even know what a letter was. When I began my first read aloud with the class, one student named Julio* raised his hand and asked me what I was holding. Julio had seen books before but no one had ever read to him, much less told him what ‘book’ meant. 

I spent the next year trying to pack as much information as I could into their 5-year-old brains. I introduced them to letters, words, books, poetry, fairy tales, equations, numbers, friendships, collaborative play and kind words. Although some of these topics resonated with some students, many still left my classroom without completely mastering their basic foundational skills.

When children aren’t given the tools to learn prior to kindergarten, they are then expected to retain all the information they might’ve missed in one year. This puts an incredible burden on the students and their teachers. The stress of catching students up limits their time to enjoy friendships and make healthy peer connections. Instead of spending breakfast having conversations with his classmates, Julio read with me every morning so he wouldn’t fall even more behind when he advanced to first grade. Students like Julio shouldn’t have to miss out on social-emotional learning due to their circumstances prior to kindergarten.

Providing high quality early education to all children will not only assist students like Julio in fulfilling their academic potential, it will also allow children to have more time to develop friendships and grow in their relationships in the classroom. The more positive experiences we can provide to students, the more they will be willing to strive for growth and excellence in the future. We have the power to provide every child with the early childhood education they deserve.

If you agree, pledge today to vote for a candidate who will prioritize children and their right to a successful and beneficial education. Together, we can make sure every child has a strong start in life.

* Names have been changed to protect the children’s privacy. 

Sign today: I pledge to support presidential candidates who prioritize early childhood education

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Annie Di Paola is an intern with Save the Children Action Network and a Special Education teacher at Goudy Elementary School in Chicago. She graduated with honors from DePaul University in 2017 and is currently attending grad school at the same university to pursue a masters in Non-profit Management.