Updated: Jan 31, 2022
Listen time: 17 minutes
“I didn’t need anyone to judge me at that moment because I was criticizing myself enough.” In the latest episode of Tiny Big Moments, a podcast from ParentCorps, ParentCorps Educator and mother Regine Dunn reflected on some of her busiest, hardest days as a mother, and how her relationship with her children’s preschool teachers — grounded in love, understanding, respect, trust and connection — supported her.
The following is a full episode transcript. Want to catch up on previous episodes of Tiny Big Moments? Listen here.
Regine Dunn: You know it’s all a blur. I was working full time. My partner’s working full time. Got both kids in school. It was just so busy and I had very little flexibility at work. If I could get them to school on time, and pick them up on time, I did good. And I remember how great just how both of their teachers were. Whatever I needed they would support. They were like an extension of my home. And I needed it so bad.
Lisa Ellrodt: You’re listening to Tiny Big Moments by ParentCorps — true stories about how early childhood’s tiny moments teach us big lessons. And that was Regine Dunn, a ParentCorps Educator, reflecting on her experience as a working mom with two young kids, Jordan and Joy. I’m Lisa Ellrodt, and I’m also a ParentCorps Educator.
Being a parent of young children — and a working parent at that — is no small feat. For Regine and many of us out there, strong relationships with our children’s teachers can make a critical difference on some of the hardest days. But relationships — built on things like mutual respect, trust, and connection — aren’t built overnight. My colleague, Cindy Gray, a former early childhood special education teacher and now a ParentCorps Educator, talked more with Regine about how her relationship with her children’s teachers evolved over time.
Cindy Gray: Hey Lisa!
LE: So tell me more about your conversation with Regine.
CG: Yeah, so, like you said, I’m a former preschool teacher, I also have no kids. So throughout our conversation I was learning a lot about Regine’s experience as a working parent engaging with her children’s teachers.
RD: My partner and I traded off — one of us would do drop off and the other one would do pick up. And sometimes because of work I ended up not doing either one and he did both. And I felt bad about that. There were so many things I missed. I know I felt guilty about it, and as a result, I think I pulled away a little bit at least in the beginning. Because I missed so much and then they would say “Oh hey. We sent you a message about blah blah blah. We didn’t hear back.” And I’m like oh my goodness, did I... did I forget? So I just kept pulling away because I felt like I wasn’t a good enough mom. That’s really what it was. I think I was judging myself. Like, “I really suck as a parent.”
LE: Totally relatable.
CG: Yeah it is really relatable. And actually in our work at ParentCorps with families, we actually hear this kind of thing a lot. Families are worried that others are judging them, but really they’re judging themselves, too. It actually kind of reminds me of a professional development activity we do called “mousetraps.”
LE: So for our listeners, in a nutshell, we create kind of a chaotic experience where the teachers are trying to give each other handshakes and make eye contact while keeping balloons in the air, like real balloons. At one point, we put mousetraps on the ground — introducing an element of danger. So then, they have to avoid stepping on the mousetraps while still doing all the other stuff and basically trying not to run each other over. For me, this activity is about bringing us to a place of empathy for each other. Everybody’s got mousetraps, right? Everybody has aspects of their life that feel dangerous or threatening. It really doesn’t matter if it’s real or perceived.
CG: Yeah it’s a really fun activity, but it’s also really powerful. When you do this activity, Lisa, is there anything that comes up for you?
LE: You know, it always brings me back to what it felt like to be running around NYC with my two small kids and an enormous double stroller trying to look like the Cool Mom, or at the very least the Not Officially Crazy Mom. I totally get the feeling of judgement that Regine is describing. I kind of often felt like I was two seconds away from losing it. And it felt like everybody else was watching and rolling their eyes. I felt like I was the only one who was stressing out and everyone else was doing it better than I was. I was really judging myself, just like Regine described.
CG: You and Regine have similar — have had some similar experiences because you’re moms. Like I said before, I’m not a mom yet. And I think that’s one of the most powerful things about our mousetraps activity is that we get to hear from many different people and many different perspectives. And every time we do the mousetraps activity, it’s especially eye-opening to hear those perspectives that are different from my own because it’s not part of my lived experience.
Regine also told me about how, in the Haitian culture she was raised in, the home-school connection just looked different, and so she came in with some assumptions about how educators and families have distinct roles from each other that don’t overlap at all.
RD: I’m Haitian, so the teachers are very important. You know, a friendship or relationship is not expected. I just came in with the sense that, you know, I parent. This is teacher. Teacher works. I work. I leave. You know? And I was nice, I was polite, but they really bring you in.
LE: So, Regine pulled away from her children’s teachers because she perceived judgment about her struggles as a working mom. She also had different values and beliefs about the role of the teacher and the role of the family based on cultural norms she grew up with as a Haitian woman.
CG: Yeah, exactly. Differences between educators and families of their various values, decisions, and behaviors. If they’re unexplored or not really talked about, it can all lead to disconnection. Educators can’t change what families bring to the table. But what they can change is how they receive what families are bringing to the table.
LE: So, Cindy, I’m curious — you said initially Regine kept her distance from her children’s teachers. Did that dynamic ever shift over time?
CG: Yeah, actually, it did. Regine described how the teachers tried so many different ways to communicate with her — sometimes even sending the same flyer home over and over again, and stopping her at pick up or drop off to remind her about special events.
RD: I didn’t need anyone to judge me at that moment because I was, I was criticizing myself enough. When they approached me, it was like out of love and there was such a sense of understanding.
I remember now, it was Joy’s — those productions, you know, those holiday productions. And she was whatever character she was. And I was late, as always. And then I showed up. And my partner is running around getting her outfits together and talking to the other parents and I just show up. I felt bad but, it was like “Okay, this is what part Joy’s at. Joy is doing this, da da da da da.” They caught me up. “Here’s whatever you need to sing the songs. And then go.” And I was like “Wow. They get me.”
LE: I can say from personal experience when you don’t feel like someone gets you, that’s really hard. When my daughter was in preschool, she did a lot — she had a lot of separation anxiety. She was crying a lot, and I was really stressed out. And I remember the message that I got from her teachers was like, “Chill out, relax.” I did not feel seen. I did not feel heard. I didn’t feel like they got me.
When she was in kindergarten, her kindergarten teacher was fantastic, but also, just, right from the start, interested in connecting with me, got everything that I was anxious about, got everything that my daughter was anxious about. I struggled so much with feeling like, um, I was supporting my kid in the right way in pre-k. And in kindergarten, I felt like I was a partner with her teacher. I just felt really welcome and really seen.
CG: You had that experience before in pre-k. And then like, with kindergarten, it was so different. And you said it happened — it felt like it happened almost immediately?
LE: I mean, I guess I had — probably was hesitant in the beginning. I probably didn’t trust because of my previous experience. Kind of like what Regine’s saying, though. My daughter’s teacher, just - she kind of didn’t give up on me. I think her teacher really worked at kind of winning me over.
CG: So what Regine was sharing was that it took until like the winter production for her to finally feel like, “Wow, they get me.” And for you, too, initially, you had some hesitation, even with your kindergarten teacher who was immediately welcoming and open. And at the end of the day, it takes time to build trust. For Regine it was not until the winter production. So what, like, three months into school? It takes time for families to pick up on that open and non-judgmental approach. But that really lays that strong foundation for a trusting relationship to grow.
LE: Yeah, I think what you said about not having any control as educators with how our families show up, that really resonates for me, because my daughter’s kindergarten teacher — she had nothing to do with why I came into that classroom feeling judged and feeling insecure, and feeling worried and anxious.That all happened way before her. Basically she just had to kind of get curious about it and try to support me. And hang in there. And she did.
CG: Regine had some observations, too, about what supported her to feel like she was a partner.
RD: I think it was the constant attempt to draw me in. They would always talk to me and say “Okay, this is what’s happening in the classroom with Jordan or this is what’s happening with Joy. And I would always — the door was just always open for me to just walk through it and say, “Hey.” It came to the point where I didn’t feel uncomfortable asking a question, I didn’t feel uncomfortable saying, “Hey, I missed this” or saying “I can’t be here until six.” I think they just wanted to understand what worked for me and what didn’t. But they would always try to meet me halfway, and gradually I started talking to them more. Once we were able to talk honestly about what I could and couldn’t do as a parent, what my limitations were, once I felt comfortable doing that, then it set the stage for the relationship with the teachers.
LE: Reflecting on what Regine’s been saying, you know, it’s so clear to me that this could have easily gone the other way. Regine was going into school with all of this judgement about herself. The teachers were invested, though, in coming from a place of acceptance in whatever way Regine was able to show up. That made the relationship able to grow and become more collaborative. They didn’t pile on to what she was already doing to herself. They just assumed the best — that this person is trying her best, whatever that is, and I don’t think we do that enough. And I think it’s really hard.
CG: Just thinking back to my time as a teacher, and I don’t know that really I was always so empathetic and understanding to my families. I remember distinctly one time where I was printing out flyers for parent teacher conferences and the copy room was all the way across campus; I did not want to walk over there again. When I realized that I had — I had miscounted, I needed three extra copies and I was like, you know what, I know that this kid’s family, this kid’s family, this kid’s family, is never going, they’re not going to show up for parent teacher conferences anyway, so what’s the point. I mean eventually I did, right, eventually, I did make those copies, because I was like you know what, I have to at least try, but, if I’m being totally honest, I waffled back and forth on whether I even should go make those copies, and I was just so… That day, I leaned into my judgment of these families. And I did not have any space in my head to think about, ‘well, maybe they could show up’ or ‘maybe whatever.’
LE: Listen we all do that: we all lean into judgment sometimes. I don’t think the goal here is for educators to be empathetic or understanding one hundred percent of the time. That wouldn’t be very honest or realistic or genuine. Educators are allowed to have feelings, too. Some days we lean into our judgement, hard. And that’s real. And the ultimate goal is, when we can, to be mindful about creating an environment where all families feel welcome.
CG: Yeah, because ultimately, when families feel welcomed — and not judged — by their teachers, that’s when the real partnership is possible to support their children’s health and development. As we kept talking, Regine started to describe to me when she started to notice how her son, Jordan, might actually need additional supports at school, and how Jordan’s teachers were there for her.
RD: We were having a lot of issues with Jordan. He just exhibited so many behaviors that were difficult for us to understand. We’d take him to the park and he’d be screaming under the bench for no reason. I mean, he just yelled and screamed a lot and we didn’t know what to do with him. And then there are, there are some parents like me who — that at the time I didn’t — understand what certain behaviors meant. It was helpful for me to have teachers who were willing to explain things to me or point things out that they noticed. And then say it without any alarm in their voice, and to normalize it a bit. And that [special education] process is crazy, okay? And to help you navigate that process. It’s like a second job. But it was a life-saver for me.
It wasn’t like my partner and I decided “Hey, we need to get him evaluated.” People who watched him were the ones who said - who so gently said and advised. You know?
CG: I mean, when she shared this story with me, it was just so powerful to hear that one of the more difficult conversations that she would have as a parent — like, she was able to do that with the teachers, and that’s not always the case. Sometimes that relationship just isn’t there for these conversations to be able to happen in the way that they did for Regine.
LE: As educators, we know that family engagement is all about relationships. But, building trusting, supportive, and reciprocal relationships with families can be hard work. It takes time. And it requires us to lean into our curiosity instead of judgment. Regine’s kids’ teachers knew that if they wanted to build a real relationship with Regine, they would have to see her and treat her as a real person that deserved real empathy. No small feat, but in the end, so worth it.
CG: Absolutely, it’s totally worth it. I’ll leave us with my favorite story that Regine shared with me during our conversation.
RD: I remember picture day, just dropping everybody off. And then I’m like all right whatever you look like for picture day is whatever. And I came back to pick them up, and Joy’s teacher did her hair, put ribbons in it. Her name was Ms. Shaquam. Ms. Shaquam was the best. She was like Joy’s second mom, and she looked adorable. Her pictures came out perfectly, and they had them [Joy and Jordan] take their pictures together. So all the things I couldn’t think about, they thought of, they thought about for us. It was a challenging time, but having that extended family, it meant a lot for us.
CG: That’s it for this episode of Tiny Big Moments brought to you by ParentCorps. Thank you to Regine Dunn for taking the time to share her stories.
LE: For more information about ParentCorps and this episode, along with the transcript, please visit our website weareparentcorps.org. While you’re there, you can read many more stories on family engagement, social-emotional learning, and racial equity in early childhood education.
CG: This episode was written and edited by me, my co-host, Lisa Ellrodt, Blake McKay and Jennifer Vargas. Thank you to all ParentCorps staff who made this episode possible, including Shanika Gunaratna, Kai-ama Hamer, and Kat Rosenblatt.
LE: And Tiny Big thank you to you, the listeners. We hope you enjoyed this episode. Do you have a Tiny Big Moment you’d like to share with us? Let us know. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s P-A-R-E-N-T-C-O-R-P-S at N-Y-U L-A-N-G-O-N-E dot org. Make sure to include “Tiny Big Moments” in the subject line so we know it’s for us.
CG: I’m Cindy Gray.
LE: And I’m Lisa Ellrodt. Thanks for joining us. Bye!
CG: See ya next time!