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Meet Nicol Russell, NAEYC Board Member-at-Large

By Vicki Balint | March 12, 2019

For Nicol Russell, NAEYC Governing Board Member-at-Large, working to raise quality in early childhood education is personal. Nicol talks about learning the system, building bridges, and what she hopes to accomplish in her new role.

Describe the process leading to your election as an NAEYC Governing Board Member-at-Large.

I was nominated and I considered running before, when I was working as a child care director. Back then when we were going through accreditation, I was learning what NAEYC was all about. As the accreditation process unfolded, I began to wonder, just how does one get to the place where those decisions are made? The process was pretty overwhelming, and I didn’t really know what i didn’t know. So…fast forward 10 years, and I became aware that NAEYC was looking again for governing board members. But I figured — who has time for that! Then, I was nominated.

This is the opportunity in my work in early ed where I often talk about diversity and equity. How to we listen to the voices who are missing or really muted? How do we amplify those voices? Even if I got on to the slate, it would be an opportunity in itself; I could talk about these issues. Instead of waiting for someone else to work on changes, and complaining about the status quo, I could ask questions. What are we doing for black and brown children?

And not only the kids, but the caregivers and teachers who are black and brown. There is a uniqueness to the need. The status quo isn’t good enough. We deserve better and our children deserve better.

When did you find out the news and what was your reaction?

I found out last Wednesday. I actually was driving and I answered the phone. And then I started screaming! They told me to pull over! I wanted to tell everybody, but you can’t announce the news right away. They told me I had to wait until it was made public on Friday. I did tell my husband because suddenly there was going to be another trip to Washington, D.C. in my future. This is a very big deal and I am so excited, there is work to be done! Let’s get this show going!

What will your role be with NAEYC and what are you most excited about accomplishing during your term?

Nicol with friends Nicole Gray (L)
Infant/Toddler Head Start Teacher and Maryhelen Hernandez, Pre-K Teacher

My role with NAEYC will be as a Board Member-at-Large. The position has a lot of flexibility. What you do depends on your skill set, knowledge, and what you are passionate about. Yes, this is about diversity and equity, and I absolutely want to be a voice for that. But NAEYC has been moving in to the K-3 space. I’d like to raise some questions.

What are we doing for 5-8 year old teachers? How do we reach K-3 teachers? They are looking for professional development that is meaningful and relevant. They want the same kinds of things as early care teachers. What I have been doing in my work at the Arizona Department of Education has given me more knowledge about this area. So working to build a bridge between the two age groupings could be meaningful and useful.

The real work will happen between the governing board meetings, where you try to affect change. The idea will be to balance what happens in those official meetings with  the decision-making. Choosing where we spend our time and resources is what makes change actually happen.

How does the position of Governing Board member of NAEYC fit with your own personal and career goals?

Personally,  it is more about me learning the system. I think of NAEYC as such a central foundational piece of the early childhood education field. I get to grow in this new way. I will learn the inner workings of the organization. That will continue to help me develop as an educational leader.

Professionally, I think this is an opportunity for me to give as much as I am getting out of the experience. I want to find ways to use my voice in ways I have not done before, to talk about things that are real to those of us in Arizona.  One more piece of the whole package to help work for children and families. I have no idea what this looks like yet —but I can’t wait to see where this all takes me!

What drives you to work in the early childhood education field, particularly in the State of Arizona?

Mikena Russell, 3 1/2.

I have a 3 1/2 year old daughter, Makena. Everything I want for her, I want for all children in our state. This work affects me at a really personal level. Decisions we make at a high level for our state for children are important. And then I go home and I’m with my daughter and it makes those decisions very, very real. Being able to afford quality, caring about the teachers —  it is very personal for me. That wasn’t always the case. When I worked in secondary education, I didn’t feel as personally connected to my work as I do now.

We are older parents, we didn’t plan on having children. Our Makena was a beautiful surprise. We have this little family! We have been in Arizona for 10 years, and we really feel a part of our state. We are so Arizona! My husband is from small town Indiana and  I grew up in Hawaii. Our baby is from Arizona, and that is the story of many families here. Sometimes we do get a bad rap about education in our state. Yet, I am proud to be able to say we are doing great things for children and families here.

What do you do in your spare time?

I have no spare time because I am also in a doctoral program. I just love studying, I guess I’m pretty geeky! I’m a big Star Wars fan. I am excited about life in general. I feel so alive when I am busy and working on all of the things I care so much about. I couldn’t imagine my life any other way.

Nicol Russell is the Deputy Associate Superintendent of Early Childhood Education, High Academic Standards Division, at the Arizona Department of Education as well as the Director of the Head Start State Collaboration Office. She was recently elected by members of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) to serve a three-year term as Member-at-Large on NAEYC’s Governing Board.