Dr. Debbie Lee
Assistant Professor in Curriculum & Instruction
Education was always highly valued in Debbie Lee’s family. Her grandmother, born in 1896, was a woman beyond her time. She had a Master’s Degree, taught at the college level and inspired Debbie, who planned to teach geometry someday. But along came marriage and children, and Debbie’s dream took a back seat. After working retail, she taught in a daycare center and discovered early childhood was a good fit for her. After attaining her Associate’s Degree in Psychology from Black Hawk College (Illinois), she received her Bachelor’s Degree in Early Education from Marycrest College (Iowa) in 1979.
For the next 20 years she gained experience working with hearing impaired children, teaching kindergarten, opening her own home day care and working in a variety of positions for the Moline School District. Meanwhile, she was also attending Western Illinois University in the Master’s program and raising three daughters. “I’m proud I lived through it,” she says. When she had taken all the courses offered in the Quad Cities area, she commuted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and in 2003 received a Doctorate of Education. She taught at Scott Community College for several years and moved to Western Illinois University in 2008.
Why did you select the early childhood field?
Many years ago I was working in retail and knew I wanted to work with children (though I was unsure what age level). I left my retail job and started looking for something I could do with children with only one year of college under my belt. I found a job teaching 2-year-olds at a day care center in Iowa and was hooked. After that I went back to school with the intention of getting a degree in early childhood. I did not know at the time that I would end up with so many degrees!
What do you love about teaching students entering the field? What’s most challenging?
I love seeing the enthusiasm for facilitating young children’s learning. Just like when the eyes of my preschoolers or kindergartners lit up, college students have a similar (though usually more restrained) reaction when things start to “click.” While I no longer directly affect young children, I have an influence on those people who will be working with them. Neil Postman’s quote “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” is very important to me.
The biggest challenge is requiring high-quality work (because I want the best for future generations) AND understanding that many of my students are also juggling work and family. I can empathize with them because I received all four of my college degrees while doing such juggling. However, it is also important that I require that their work meet certain standards. If children are the living messages, my college students are the phone line through which those messages are carried.
What is your philosophy of teaching?
I am definitely a Constructivist. I strongly believe that children—and adults—construct their own knowledge through their experiences with the world around them. Anyone can memorize facts and regurgitate them. However, we have no idea what problems society will face in 20, 30 years. We need to raise children who can do more than recite facts—individuals who can apply, analyze, synthesize, and create with those facts. In order to have those skills, we must facilitate their development in young children. I also strongly believe that learning takes place in a social context. That was not always the case. For much of my life I was pretty much a loner. I preferred doing work by myself. However, I now recognize that when I work with others I see different viewpoints, that I am challenged to think things through more thoroughly, and that the final product of any group work is better than if I had done it alone.
How do you stay current with all the new research and information?
Because of my job, it is very important that I be aware of new research and information in my field. My college students need to be up-to-date and that can only happen if I am. To this end I read articles and books, attend professional development opportunities for college faculty, and share information with colleagues. Learning should always be a life-long endeavor, and I hope to be doing that right up to the end.
Why is quality education so important in a child’s future?
Even before recent brain research we have known that the developmental foundation built during the early years has a major impact on a child’s future life. Brain research has just strengthened the proof of this. How a child views learning in general is formed during these early years. Does the child see learning as boring, challenging, enjoyable, or frustrating? Is the child eager to learn more or eager to avoid learning opportunities? How those questions are answered affects how a child will do later on in school and in life.
It is also important for children to learn HOW to learn. To develop a “filing system” that organizes what they know so that such knowledge can be retrieved when needed.
Lastly we are well-aware that skills such as reading and mathematical computation do not develop full-blown overnight. There are many foundational skills that are needed before these more academic ones can be acquired. It is during these early years that such foundational skills can be developed, thus providing the base on which later academic skills can be built.
What 3 traits do you feel are most important for working with children and their parents?
Celebration of Diversity: Early childhood educators need to recognize that there is no “one size” of child or family. I have a saying hanging in my office that says “Each child is a unique and unrepeatable miracle.” Instead of bemoaning that there is a wide range of abilities in a class, teachers should see this as a positive – children can learn from each other as a reflection of the world. This also applies to a celebration of race, language, and life-style differences among children and families.
Patience: If you are an early childhood educator and have a week all planned out and it goes just as planned, you have probably stepped into another dimension and the Twilight Zone should be playing. There is no way with a classroom of young children that everything can go just as planned. It is important to have patience when things change – be it a schedule change or a child who needs extra time to get herself together. Young children’s brains may take a little longer to process things, and we need to give them the time to do this.
Curiosity: Any teacher who reaches a point and stops learning has also stopped true teaching. Teachers need to be life-long learners to model for their students what this is. Teachers should be learning constantly about new things. This might be a new teaching strategy, a new fact about something in a study unit, or a new way to communicate with others. It is curiosity that fuels this learning and it should never die.
If someone doesn’t want to be in a classroom, how else can one serve in the profession?
In the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part C, children with identified disabilities are eligible for services. These services are usually provided in the home. A person with an early childhood bachelor’s degree could work with such children one-on-one in the home, helping not only the children but also instructing the parents how they can help their child.
Many state-funded preschool programs require a parent involvement component. Someone with an early childhood degree could work with the parents of preschool children, if not directly with the children.
An individual could also help develop learning materials for preschool children. This could be the types of materials you find in a school supply catalog, books or apps for iPads. With the strong influence of the internet and social media, someone with a background in early childhood could host a website to help parents and/or teachers or have a blog with information for either of those groups.