Early Childhood Literacy Matters
Dinah Shepherd was a middle school teacher in Roxbury for 11 years. Her two kids had a head start in their early education; having a math teacher dad and an English teacher mom gave them a strong foundation in language and problem-solving skills. As parents, they believed in the power they had as their kids’ first and most important teachers and advocates. Dinah’s two young sons had a vocabulary far ahead of their peers. As a teacher, she knew that this was not due to their natural ability or capacity, but rather due to their white privilege and opportunity. They had access to resources and opportunities that their peers did not.
Two critical factors led her and the other co-founders to the conception of First Teacher, an organization that today partners with more than 250 families: the importance of early childhood experiences, often, the children of low-income households and children of color don’t get the early learning experiences that prepare them for school, currently 33% of children entering kindergarten in Boston are unprepared, and the educational access disparities that black and brown students and families face every day.
In 2013, she left her teaching job to partner with other parents on creating a parenting support group. They wanted parents to have spaces where they could understand the importance of their role as their children’s first teachers and advocates, where they could come together to support each other, share knowledge and resources with each other to help their children succeed in school and life.
She, Shantae Toole, and other parents with young children in Boston launched a collaborative model pilot in the basement of a school in Roxbury. The First Teacher founders were natural connectors and were able to get four families to attend. They were initially discouraged by the low turnout, but they remained positive and focused on getting the four families who had attended to come back. “Nothing is a failure. If they bring people, we could have eight families by the end of the pilot.” Shepherd said.
Dinah, Shantae and the other co-founders clearly wanted to grow the program slowly and organically. They believed the only way to build a successful program was to build genuine relationships with the families. By the end of the pilot program, they had successfully engaged 12 to 15 families. “We need to create spaces where parents can work with each other. It needs to be parent-to-parent not top-down,” Shepherd said.
“We need to create spaces where parents can work with each other. It needs to be parent-to-parent not top-down,” — Dinah Shepherd
Built by the People.
First Teacher was founded in 2014 with the primary goal of school readiness. However, they soon realized that the most important goal was community building. “Once you truly have a trusting network, not a judgmental community, there is nothing we have been unable to do. We’ve all raised our kids together; the staff is almost a mini-first teacher,” said Shepherd.
They are far from being a social service. Since its inception, First Teacher has been a parent-led organization that fosters parents’ confidence and capacity by creating safe, non-judgmental spaces where parents and caregivers can come together to teach, learn, connect, and commiserate. Some of this happens through their programming, playdates, workshops, and community fairs, to name a few. Most are parents and caregivers of children between 2 weeks and 6 years old.
First Teacher started small, with 15 families, 6 staff members, and 10 activities. The first 150 families heard about the program through word-of-mouth from friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. Today they serve over 250 families, 12 staff members, and 147 activities throughout the year.
15 → 250
6 → 12
10 → 147
They are committed to creating a welcoming and inclusive environment and engage families from all over the world, speaking 14 different languages. They recruited Spanish-speaking staff members who advocate for Spanish-speaking families and provide them with a genuine connection with First Teacher, not a translated one. “I am raising my daughter Spanish speaking, so coming into an environment where she would play with other kids in her native language was big for me because I wanted to preserve that language for her,” said one staff member who was also a parent participant.
First Teacher is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Over the past decade, the organization has grown because of its focus on building genuine relationships with families and its commitment to early childhood education. The special sauce of First Teacher is to put parents and children at the heart of its work. It does not position itself as a savior or expert, but rather as a facilitator that creates spaces where parents and caregivers can share resources and support.
The Need for Resources.
They are most proud of the way they do things and their culture. Winning the United Way Community Action Grant was a team effort. The entire staff sat down and wrote it together. This shows its collaborative approach where everyone is valued and has a role to play. Dinah believes that the partnership with UW will bring them visibility and connections. Winning this grant validates First Teacher’s work, builds relationships, and provides resources to do more. The organization’s flexibility and responsiveness come at a cost. It requires more money and more capacity to implement new projects.
Despite these challenges, First Teacher is committed to being a responsive and growing organization. A Boston-based organization, they have been getting calls from people in other cities, such as New York and Atlanta, about scaling their model. However, they are cautious about expanding too quickly. “If we go to Springfield, there need to be families from Springfield building with us. It would not be us to go into any other community and expect that we know anything about how they wanted to have first teacher there,” expressed Dinah.
Power to the Parents.
First Teacher is devoted to hiring and training parent participants to become staff members, parent leaders. They have a professional development and succession planning program providing the support parents need to grow in their roles. Naomi Garcia, Latisha Burns, and Latoya Johnson are all examples of parents who have grown and thrived at First Teacher and are now part of the organization’s staff.
Naomi is bilingual in English and Spanish and has a degree in economics. She worked in another city for several years and moved back to Boston to be close to her family to raise her child. After giving birth to Nina, her priority became being the best mother and daughter she could be.
Naomi is a lifelong learner who always strives to be her best version of herself. Being a mom made her more focused on self-improvement, as she wanted to be a better role model and mom for Nina. “I want to give my daughter the best example,” Garcia said. She was always seeking out new information and resources about parenting. One day, she went to a community center and saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that said, “Power to the parents.” This message caught her eye; the shirt intrigued her. She saw it as a sign that there was a community of powerful parents, just like her.
Naomi was inspired by the woman in the shirt. She joined First Teacher in January 2020 as a parent participant when her daughter was a year and a half old. She joined Spanish-speaking play dates, later joined parent centered activities to connect with more families and partnered with First Teacher to lead a family fitness activity.
“First Teacher does not empower parents; First Teacher reminds parents of the power they have”
When Naomi became a parent leader in July 2022, it was a natural entrance back into the work world. “First Teacher does not empower parents; First Teacher reminds parents of the power they have. And It’s that power to the parents that drew me initially. They reminded me that I’m still human and that while I’m raising this child, I am still growing, have passions, interests, and goals that I can pursue.” Naomi feels powerful as a person, individual, and parent and calls First Teacher a great part of her “village”.
First Teacher has become a haven and a critical asset in family stability for participants and parent leaders. For Naomi, in addition to giving her parenting tools, First teacher has been a source of support and guidance. “Sometimes parents in our communities just need a hand, not a handout. First Teacher is great about facilitating a conversation; it’s really the input of everybody at the table, everybody in the room, that makes the experience what it is,” affirmed Garcia.
For Latisha Burns, it is connection and compassion, “First Teacher has created spaces to better not only my children but to better myself,” she affirmed. Latisha is a first-generation college graduate; she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from UMass Boston. She was determined to make the most of her education and excited about the possibilities ahead of her, even though she had not been encouraged to think critically or explore different options in her childhood. “It was basically, this is what you’re doing, and that’s it. I don’t want to hear your opinion, and I’ve never had an opinion. When I became an adult, I didn’t know how to have an opinion because I was never given a chance to have one. When I was going to college, what did I want to be? I’m like, I get to choose what I want to do,” Burns recalled.
Shortly after graduating from college, she became pregnant with her daughter. She decided to stay home and raise her daughter full-time, wanting to be a part of every stage of her life. And a couple years later, she had her son, who was diagnosed with autism at 2 and a half years old. “The hardest part of parenting is recognizing that my children are two different individuals, and I can’t raise them the same,” she affirmed. She felt overwhelmed by the demands of parenting; she struggled with the pressure to be a perfect mother and needed to find learning resources to better support the different developmental needs of her children. She tried to access resources in her community but could not find a suitable learning environment for her children, and she was starting to lose hope.
“First Teacher has created spaces to better not only my children but to better myself,”
— Latisha Burns
One day, a friend of hers told her about First Teacher and described it as a place where parents were reminded by each other of their power to be their children’s brain builders, advocates, and teachers. She decided to join them on a playdate. Pizza, fruit, and a supportive community were all it took for her son to connect and finally feel comfortable in a different space than home. Latisha was amazed by this and quickly became involved in the organization.
She has been in First Teacher since 2019, spending two years as a parent participant and working three years as a parent leader. She has run the well-attended book club for adults for the past three years. Last year, she launched the “all-abilities group” in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury, an inclusive space for black and brown parents with children with different-abilities (First Teacher prefers the term “different abilities” to “disability” because they believe and want to focus on that everyone can learn and grow, regardless of their abilities). This group has been well received, with 10 families attending so far. “Society can be unforgiving sometimes, and how you respond to that plays a big role in raising your children and yourself,” she explained.
Latisha is excited to see this group grow and is already planning for the next step. Her son is hard of hearing, and she knows there is a need for a space for parents of children with hearing loss. She sees First Teacher as a steppingstone to a career in advocacy for kids with different-abilities. “Before I had my son, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to use my psychology degree, but now I know exactly what I want to do, developing a solid support network of other parents and helping them find their strength,” she affirmed.
First Teacher has been like a second home for many families. Latoya and her son are one of those families. Latoya Johnson was a shy and introverted child who struggled to keep up with her peers academically and socially. When she had her son, she wanted to be a resource to help him reach his full potential at school, trying reading programs and taking him to any community center that offered educational programs.
Latoya attended a Fist Teacher parent workshop by chance. She was amazed to learn how a child’s brain works, how its 100 billion brain cells need help to connect, and the parents’ role in wiring up those connections. She realized that the first five years of her child’s life would be critical for his son’s brain development and that her role as his first teacher was crucial for his social-emotional and cognitive development. She was motivated to learn more about First Teacher and continued participating in its programs.
In addition to learning about the science of early childhood, Latoya also found a strong sense of community. “First Teacher is the place that I thought didn’t exist that exist. A place where you can feel free, vulnerable, and open. We feed off each other,” Johnson said. She also learned that there is no right or wrong way to parenting and that everyone is doing their best.
“First Teacher is the place that I thought didn’t exist that exist. A place where you can feel free, vulnerable, and open. We feed off each other,”
— Latoya Johnson
She struggled in school as a child and never thought she would go back to school, but First Teacher gave her the confidence and support she needed for her professional development. She overcame her fears of failure and enrolled in college. This year, she graduated with a business management degree in 2 and a half years. She is now using her knowledge and skills to support First Teacher’s business financial team. She has set goals to improve the organization’s financial management in her annual performance plan.
Latoya’s story is a testament to the power of education and the importance of support. Latisha Burns, Latoya Johnson, and Naomi Garcia are just a few of the parents that are part of this powerful network of families who believe they are a child’s first and most important teacher, brain builder and advocate.
POWER TO THE PARENTS INDEED!!!
For more information about First Teacher please contact Dinah Shepherd email@example.com