The first inaugural Diversity and Equity Champion Award was presented to Dr. Claire Schonaerts, Professor Emeritus of Northern Arizona University College of Education at AzAEYC’s Annual Meeting on September 29, 2018.
We asked Dr. Schonaerts to answer five questions about her career, her work in the field, and to reflect on the value of the pursuit of diversity and equity in early childhood education.
Why did you enter the field of early education?
Teaching was always my calling. I have been in the field of education for 50 years and every day, of every year, brought moments of deep satisfaction.
I was blessed to have encouraging teachers throughout my education, from kindergarten through my terminal degree. Making connections with others while learning something new about myself, others, or the world around me has always been a strong desire. As a life-long-learner, I had the responsibility to grow in my knowledge. One of my mantras is to tell others that, “What we learn adds to what we know; what we know changes how we think; and what we think changes how we act. We can always make a difference.”
What is your current role in the field?
I am currently retired (Professor Emeritus) and spend my time doing volunteer work. I support the Dream Center at St. Vincent de Paul where children who need extra support due to poverty/homelessness come for tutoring and adult supervision. I also hold a leadership role in the Valley of the Sun Chapter of AzAEYC. Along with other Valley of the Sun Board Members, I provide opportunities for professional growth. I am dedicated to the ideals of diversity and equity, fully understanding that these principles must be intentionally pursued. What we feel is important fuels our energies. Meeting the needs of our community is important. Supporting young children and their families is vital.
Reflections on how the field has changed over the span of your career?
In today’s overwhelming information-age, it is important to provide young minds with the opportunity to champion their creative/critical thinking skills. Early childhood professionals play an important role as eager young minds seek to learn and grow. Our response to the early learner is as important as theirs is to us and to the work we do. When we fully understand how important we are to children, we will begin to understand why our work is monumental.
Talk about diversity and equity within the early education profession.
During my entire career in the field of education, which spans over five decades, I have felt that persons who feel diminished in any way, whether it be their age, religion, ethnicity, culture, their cognitive abilities or the language they speak, must have an opportunity to express themselves and be respected while doing so. As a second language learner, my research has given me a first-hand sense of the challenges our young students face in this ever-changing environment.
Inclusiveness is an invitation to learn from others. Focusing on what we all hold as common threads, such as achievement, respect, and appreciation, provides much more equity than focusing on how we are different. The insights gained from truly recognizing others as valued contributors for our common ideals raises the dignity of all.
We are challenged on every level of our society to be inclusive. Disrespect has become an accepted refrain rather than finding ways to build bridges of reciprocated respect. It is a worthy fight to combat the expressions that ignite disdain or derision. Our commitment for positive interactions must be lived. My Northern Arizona University students would tell you that I often say, “We teach who we are.” Young children deserve the very best examples. They deserve the best of who we are.
I am humbled to be recognized as this year’s Diversity and Equity Champion. This recognition is a reminder that our work to appreciate the contributions of others is far more important now than ever before. We must never stop sharing who we are while inviting others to do the same in safe and caring ways.
Looking to the future, what are your hopes for early educators?
Teaching is so much more than the art and science of helping others learn. Teaching is “heart work.” When we are rooted in well-grounded theories, proven practice, strong academics, and a desire to connect with every child, it is then that we begin the process of effective teaching and learning.
The Diversity and Equity Champion award recognizes an individual who actively promotes diversity, respect, and inclusiveness. This individual has worked to improve opportunities for the diverse communities served, enhance inclusion through positive communication between persons of different backgrounds, and demonstrates outstanding efforts to promote an environment free from bias and discrimination.