An Interview with Educator Heidi Echternacht

New Jersey early childhood educator and co-founder of #Kinderchat, Heidi Echternacht shares strategies for building a community around educators of our youngest learners, building on the power of a global connected educator community, how and why to push through the barriers to connectedness, and more…

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Q:  What do you say to educators who say they don’t have time to be more connected?

Time is definitely a precious thing! An even less talked about consideration regarding connected education is ENERGY!  I may have some time, but by the end of the day, my energy is generally running below zero!  It’s important for people to think about the on-the-job intensity of teaching in terms of “throwing an eight-hour birthday party for five, nine, or 14-year-olds at your house and including 20 -30 children, (your child’s class size)”–and then do it again tomorrow–and then do it again the next day in correlation with reading, writing and math standards, with an added backflip of integrating differentiated and personalized birthday party experiences for each child. 

On the other side, I would say that teachers, as exhausted and stretched as we are, are in need of friends, colleagues and people who know what we are going through. At the end of the day, it’s not only good practice, but also an obligation and duty to strategize, keep informed and fresh about what is happening and current in your chosen profession.

Q: What are the keys to making connectedness worth the time, even a time-saver, rather than a time-sink?

I would say that at first, there is a definite pattern in terms of the thinking, coincidentally running parallel to most any subject in school. “Why do we need to learn this? I am not getting anything from this. This is stupid.” All of those reactions are as important coming from YOU as they are coming from your student. It is the raw process of learning.

Once you persist past the learning curve of struggle, what do you get out of connection? Wonderful, generous, caring people full of fun and fight and generosity and discovery and wonder. You get a thousand great links for your students to use in the classroom without you having to personally go find them. You get global projects; push back about theory and practice, resources galore and connections with colleagues around the world whose work you are in utter and complete awe of! 

Q: How is connected education particularly valuable for educators in early childhood?

Early childhood folks are a particularly wonderful group of people. I’d say just the laughs are valuable; “did you know my students licked the bulletin boards the other day while waiting in line for gym?”  Besides great laughs and friendships, there are fabulous shared resources essential to any teacher or classroom.

Collaborations through Kinderchat have led to a new mentoring program, a fantastic collection of child-friendly websites sorted on Symbaloo, open access to articles on early childhood education throughout the world, and an early childhood blog directory. Connected education provides teachers with a place through which to actively share stories, resources and let their leadership skills shine. This year #Kinderchat benefits from the coordinated efforts of over thirty different Teacher Moderators between two continents!

Too often early childhood folks are looking down upon or their teaching talents dismissed as “cute” versus being taken as seriously as incredibly versatile and talented people we are. The frustrations, loneliness and isolation of a teacher are real things. Reaching out and becoming part of a community not only helps, but also gives an educator an unending toolbox of professional resources, strategies, colleagues and dialogue from which to draw upon. 

Q: What impact has connected education had on student achievement in your experience?  What impact do you think it can have?

I would say connected education has had a particular impact on my students’ achievement in the areas of literacy and caring for others.  Learning technology, math, or anything, requires a social approach. When I think of connected education, I imagine never being able to ask a question to another human! Learning happens socially, dynamically and most importantly, only when the learner engages, absorbs and openly accepts responsibility as an integral part of the process.

Last year, my class talked with children from Portugal, England, Canada and Japan all in one day!  A few years ago, I remember our friend Mr. Ben in Indonesia had terrible flooding. Our interest and concern magnifies because we had a personal connection with those children. Playing tic-tac toe with Mr. Fines’ class in Montana has added a new level of focus to the game. I have a bank of experts, teachers, and classrooms I can collaborate with and have access to throughout my school day. 

Q: What would you like to create or build together with your fellow educators?

Oh, there is so much to do; it is hard to keep up! I am a strong believer in form follows function and as more and more people become connected, different skills, resources and tools are needed to help connected educators become more effective. Listening is one of the most underrated, yet essential skills of folks in leadership today–we need education leaders to better understand our needs and insights.

I am hoping my little band of amazing global early childhood folks continue to make waves and influence not only other teachers, but policy makers and parents as well. I believe that teachers, sharing authentic experiences and honest reflections, can yield better policy and understanding among those charged with the politics of early childhood education.

Q: What do you think should be happening in connected education that is not yet happening?

There are divides that plague the inner workings of education. Policy, teachers, consultants, professional development, administrators, researchers, subjects and actual practices often are sorted into silos. Connected education is slowly bridging the gap between each of these islands. Publicly sharing your work and practice is at first completely terrifying. Then there comes an indescribable freedom and confidence, in addition to now having a shareable portfolio of your work! I often think of myself before becoming connected as “sleeping”. Now I feel not only awake, but like I am running a marathon! There is always something new to work on, do, or make!

I think the most obvious thing that should be happening in connected education is for connected educators to share their knowledge with schools and their administrators. That may sound easy, but it may actually be the most difficult aspect of connection. People get tired of hearing about the city of gold just over the hill. You change from a Kindergarten teacher to a Kindergarten teacher who is “networked,” but in a traditional school structure, perhaps it is viewed as irrelevant as knowing about cults in Kamchatka.

That said, I’m not sure those outside of teaching understand how little time there is for educators to reflect upon and share their practice versus curriculum meetings and nitty-gritty details of school operations within the school day. 

Know a connected educator like Heidi who has been helpful to you? Consider giving them a CEM badge to say thanks

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"...hoping my little band of amazing global Early Childhood folks continue to make waves and influence not only other teachers, but policy makers and parents as well. I believe that teachers, sharing authentic experiences and honest reflections, can yield better policy and understanding..."

About Educator Heidi Echternacht

Heidi Echternacht, New Jersey educator, has worked with young children for over 20 years, beginning her lifelong work with children at age fifteen. Heidi is CoFounder of Kinderchat, an ongoing global conversation among early childhood educators. She ia a volunteer leader as an officer in the ISTE Special Interest Group for Early Learning and Technology and a volunteer leader for Connected Educators Month 2013.  Other projects include the #Kinderchat Wiki Reference LibraryThe Play Project, and the Early Childhood Blog Directory.

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