It was a packed house at the 37th Annual Early Childhood Winter Conference on Saturday, January 28, presented by Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Educator Success (CES).
Eight hundred early childhood educators from our area gathered in southwest Houston for a day of professional development around social and emotional learning. Held at the Kingdom Builder’s Center, the event marked the conference’s return in person.
“This is a very rare opportunity in the state of Texas for this very talented group of educators to celebrate early childhood and the importance of it in our community and school systems,” said CES Senior Director Cynthia Brunswick, who oversees the event.
During opening remarks, Superintendent James Colbert Jr. and conference namesake Raymond T. Garcia addressed the crowd to emphasize the day’s purpose.
“We’re in a weird time in public education right now where people have questioned our profession, and they don’t see that there are 800 people who will go out of their way in the rain on a Saturday to come to a venue just to sharpen their craft because they care so much,” Colbert said.
“I sometimes think that not all of you really appreciate the impact you have on lives and kids,” Garcia said.
The day’s lead keynote speaker, Marc Brackett, a respected psychologist and researcher, set the tone for the conference with his presentation, “Permission to Feel: How Emotional Literacy Fuels Learning,” named after his new book.
“The central message that Marc conveyed is the importance of social-emotional learning and why educators must put that front and center alongside academic learning. Sometimes in education, we tend to separate them,” said Brunswick, the event’s organizer. “There’s a lot of focus and emphasis on accountability and the academic side of learning. Marc helped us understand what social-emotional learning really is. I think sometimes that’s one of those big, cavernous buzzwords that we don’t often really know how to unpack.”
Throughout his presentation, Brackett spoke of educators’ impact on young children. Brackett shared his evidence-based, systemic approach to emotions while weaving in personal anecdotes about his childhood struggles and the people who helped him cope.
“The keynote speaker, Marc Brackett, was absolutely amazing,” said Ann Cook, a preschool teacher at Enchantment Kids Fine Arts Learning Center in Katy, Texas. “He was so engaging and entertaining, and his content just spoke to me. He made me stop and think to just have that time to ask each kid on an individual basis how they are feeling.”
The event’s other keynote speakers included New York Times bestselling author Tami Charles and TIME’s 2021 Kid of the Year, Orion Jean.
Charles spoke about the importance of representation in children’s literature and how self-doubt impacted her ability to see that she could be an author. Twelve-year-old Jean uplifted educators and urged them to continue propelling students forward.
“Sometimes it may not seem like it, but the work that you do is crucial to creating the next generation of kind leaders and kind people,” said Jean. “We need you to be our rock and our guide and continue to lift us up.”
Returning featured speakers included early childhood educator Mary Jo Huff, author Dan St. Romain, and educational consultant Charlotte Watts who offered various resources and ideas to educators.
During the midday break, educators had the opportunity to participate in hands-on, skill-building activities at a “Make It Take It” room where educators learned a new teaching skill or adopted a new tool they could apply in their classrooms the following Monday.
“It was amazing because it gave us a really good math kit,” said Heights Preschool teacher Christina Williams. It’s always great to learn new things, especially when you’re trying to sharpen your skills in something that you actually love to do.”