On the Ground with Vermont’s Early Childhood Educator of the Year

I had the pleasure to sit down with Melanie Zinn a few weeks ago. She wears many hats and holds many titles including:

  • Director of the Horizon Early Learning Program;
  • Regional Starting Points Network Co-Leader and Secretary;
  • VCHIP Parent Partner for a primary care office;
  • Vermont’s 2018 Early Childhood Educator of the Year;
  • Advocate and leader for early educators;
  • Advocate and systems guide for families;
  • Role model; and
  • Parent and wife

I was blown away and inspired by all that I learned, especially her vision and advocacy toward early childhood education being a we, and every caregiver being enough. Read on to learn more about Melanie’s incredible approach to her work and what early educators need to thrive.

A helping hand during a time of need

Melanie Zinn is the Permanent Fund’s 2018 Early Childhood Educator of the Year. Right before receiving the call, Mel was in the midst of several of the challenges that plague early childhood educators.

I got so far behind on the business stuff. I sat at my desk, crying, and I prayed. “God, I don’t know what you want me to do. I just don’t know if I can do this anymore and I need a sign. Am I supposed to stay in early ed? I just want to move to North Carolina with my family and just teach. Can I just teach kindergarten? At least I’d have benefits.”

And my phone rang and it was Aly Richards and she said, “This is my favorite phone call to make! You are Vermont’s Early Educator of the Year.”

It’s not necessarily the answer I wanted. I would have loved to have just been like, I’m done. But her hand reached out and I was in that moment of, ‘I can’t. I’m so sick of fighting.’ But sometimes it just takes that one person to say, ‘You matter. Your voice matters.’

And that was the end of my acceptance speech. You are enough! You are. Wherever you are, you are enough. And it’s okay to say I need help. And it’s okay to work together. Because WE is so much more effective than just me. And that’s what early education is missing.

Empowering the early educators’ community

As current co-leader and secretary of the regional Starting Points Network, the Windham Early Childhood Educators Coop, Mel is a leader, advocate, and mentor.

I think we have to stick together as early childhood educators, for what is best for the children, the families, the teachers and ourselves and our programs. We have to work as that WE. Not just what’s best for ourselves. Not our programs. But what’s best for the children, families, teachers. That is going to change society. You’re not just talking about changing early educators in programs. You’re talking about changing the way we raise humans. Together.

I am trying to make more room for the advocacy piece and for our Starting Points network. So that we feel empowered in this community.

Challenges to building strong leadership

We have a really strong Starting Points network. They are educators who are leaders and see value in advocacy and work together. We collaborate more here as directors in different programs than I’ve seen elsewhere. But it’s the same group of leaders- it’s really hard to get people to step up. Everyone in early ed is exhausted. So to have another responsibility is like adding to the 15 balls they’re already juggling.

With Vermont Early Educators United we were trying to have one voice and be heard. Just the right to be heard, and it was shut down. So after this many years of nothing happening, people feel like, why? Why try? This is just the way it is.

And the regulations. I’ve read through them a million times. The density and length alone is overwhelming. That is enough to make someone feel shut down and not empowered. So how are you going to empower people to then want to be a Starting Points leader or an advocate?

It would be great if Starting Points had funding specifically for leaders with leadership training. Training could focus on leadership and advocacy, but also how to be a voice, and how to drive and push their team. It’s like being a coach, but half of these people are going into these positions without any coaching training. How do you establish that? It comes down to funding. Time is worth money.

Opportunities at the local level

There is more awareness of the unsustainability of early ed, that we are up against a wall. If we cannot figure out how to sustain early ed programs, how are we going to sustain the job force? How are we going to sustain working parents? Even with Act 166 cost reduction for parents, the cost for quality child care is still between $600-$1,000 per month. It’s not sustainable. Parents cannot afford childcare, so one of them stays home and maybe the child doesn’t get the socialization they need. And then they might end up needing food stamps and Medicaid, instead of building our workforce.

If we get every single parent in this state to speak out about it  I guarantee that every single parent in this state can speak and say, ‘I can’t afford child care.’ Because they can’t! The reality is that even with what parents are paying, teachers still don’t have enough to live on.

Everyone can now acknowledge the importance of the first five years. But somehow it still doesn’t matter what the people are doing with the kids for the first five years?

[After the school board meeting devoted to private pre-k programs in February, the Brattleboro Town School Board] can recognize that we don’t have to wait for the legislators. We don’t have to wait for the state to get on board or back early ed. We have this school board that can be progressive and that can make decisions. We could try to fund some aspects with our partners that the state isn’t yet funding so that we have one of the most successful partnerships in Vermont.

The Business Side of Early Childhood

In addition to being the licensed teacher at Horizon, Mel has four degrees that she uses together or separately on a regular basis. 

  • The MA in Literacy and Language Arts in Early Childhood and the BS in Early Childhood Education inform Mel’s teaching, mentoring, curriculum development, professional development, and social emotional promotion for each of her students.
  • The BA in Theater and Dance is present at Horizon, but has also led to 20 years of choreographing the Brattleboro High School musical.
  • And the AS in Financial Accounting has led to shrewd business decisions and the ability to be the program’s bookkeeper. Mel does all the accounting, runs payroll, budgets, and pays all of her teachers between $14 and $17 per hour.

I have helped a bunch of people start home programs, or have just been available to ask questions when they’re getting into that or just researching how to get started. And I’ve had a couple decide no, it’s not for me. But when you start a home childcare, some don’t realize that you have a certain space percentage that you can claim on your taxes for  everything in your house. There’s all these things you might miss, like mileage or how to actually run the business.

My husband always tells me that I should write a book on how to start a childcare! Yes, [other programs can contact Mel.] I’m always willing to help.

Working with families

We live in a tough community with a lot of poverty and a lot of substance use issues. Society says to parents, ‘You do this. You do that. You do this on your own.’ And there’s so much burnout!

But when approached with kindness, and really being open to accepting them for whoever they are, then you can help families. I am the person to go into their homes. I am the person to go to bat for them in meetings. I’ve even gone to medical appointments at Dartmouth with families if they’re in need of support. I am also the VCHIP parent partner for a BMH practice. I haven’t yet found a family that we haven’t been able to help. We are all just humans trying to be enough and sometimes we need to hear that from one another!

Getting everyone connected socially and emotionally, even the parents, having a support system. Each parent needs to hear, ‘You are enough.’ But also, let’s all work together!

A Goal for Each Day

I live one life. I’d like to change the world if I can. Even if it’s one child. One family. One parent. I make them feel like, hey, I was a good parent today. I was enough today. That’s all that matters every day. And tomorrow is a new day, and I’ll see what happens tomorrow. That’s my goal.

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