If you're in ECE and you have a Facebook account, you probably know Richard Cohen.
The early childhood zen master is loved for his candid posts and memes exposing all aspects of early education—the good, the sticky, and everything in between.
But before he was everyone's favorite ECE infuencer, he was a policy-shaper at Child Care Aware (working with the likes of Michelle Obama), associate chief officer of the Council for Professional Recognition, and a Hollywood film producer.
Oh, and did we mention he's writing a book?
Yep. Richard is basically unstoppable. We crashed in on him in the backyard of his Connecticut home to talk about tech in the classroom, the real problem with mobile phones, and how to stay hopeful in an uncertain political climate.
Check it out!
"I had gone to New York University Film School back in the '80s. I wanted to be the next Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. That was my big goal," Richard smiles.
And in typical Richard style, he reached it.
After scoring a Hollywood internship, he packed up and moved to LA. Though Richard was lucky to score some dream gigs working on movies and TV shows, the income was anything but consistent. So, he found a position at a place called My Gym Children's Fitness Center singing songs, doing somersaults, and working with parents on infant massage.
It was a welcome change from the Hollywood work culture.
"There was a lot of drugs, a lot of backstabbing. And then I would go to my other job and just play and sing and laugh and my heart would fill up. I thought, 'What am I doing? This is what I should be doing with my life.'"
As a teenager, Richard had been a camp counselor and a babysitter, so it felt like a natural leap. He went back to school, got a bachelor's, and later a master's degree in early childhood education.
"I chose joy," he says simply.
As you might've guessed by now, Richard is the type of person who follows things through.
After a decade on the ECE frontlines, he landed the role of senior director of professional development for the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.
He was living the DC life.
"I had really thought that that was my goal, to move up to the tip top of the profession and be in these high level national leadership positions. And they were great. I did a lot of great things there, but it took me away from what I loved most, which was direct service to young children, families, and teachers and caregivers of young children. And while that was all happening, my mom got terminal cancer."
It was time for another life shift.
Richard packed his bags once again, this time for his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.
He decided to give up life in the capital and take care of his mother during the last three years of her life—it was a decision he'll never regret.
While he was back home in Missouri, he took a position teaching ECE at a community college in Ferguson. And that's where he was the day Michael Brown was shot.
The fatal shooting of the unarmed 18-year-old led to citywide riots and drew national attention to an issue that has been disproportionately impacting members of minority communities for centuries, and still is to this day.
"All of my students were right in the middle of that whole nightmare. They were already living it long before that day, and continue to," Richard says. The silver lining for Richard was that this was the job that led him to his passion for adult education.
And according to him, teaching young children and teaching young adults have more in common than you might think.
"All the skills that I have as an adult educator came from my work with young children, which are to listen to them, to become keen observers, to build relationships with them, to follow their lead, find out what they're passionate about, what's sitting on their minds or on their hearts. That's what I did with two- and three- and four-year-olds. It's what I did in my last job as a supervisor of twenty one teachers and administrators, and it's what I did at the community college in Ferguson," he explains.
"The way that I facilitate their learning is exactly the same way I'd facilitate a two-year-old. Developmentally, they might be in a different place, but the skills and strategies are really similar."
It's that sense of heartfelt engagement Richard hopes to bring to the future generation of ECE professionals.
We live in an age of all the tech, all the time.
And with teacher burnout rates on the rise, we wanted to know how Richard stays balanced in today's age of info overwhelm.
"I know this sounds simple and sort of woo woo, but I spent nine years in Southern California, so I'm allowed—and that's breathing," says Richard.
“Just breathe” is advice that almost all of us have received, but few of us apply. And for ECE practitioners who are under more pressure than most, it's crucial.
"You have to slow down. You have to take a deep breath. You have to separate yourself from your thoughts and not be run by your emotions, but choose the ones that serve you."
Teachers aren't the only ones who could benefit from a long exhalation. For directors, mindfulness should be more than a breathing exercise—it should be a leadership style.
"As a supervisor, I've always subscribed to the school of servant leadership, which basically means that as a leader, I'm not above you. My job is to be in service to you, to support you. And so if I can take good care of you, and if you feel taken care of, then you can go about your job, which is taking care of other people's children," Richard explains.
Case in point: During Richard's previous role as a center director, he came into an environment where teachers were on their cell phones all day, looking at Facebook when they should have been with the kids.
Tech was getting in the way of teaching—even despite the center's lengthy policy banning mobile use.
Here's how he approached it:
For Richard, mobile phones in the classroom should serve to boost teacher-student engagement, not diminish it.
Here are just a few of his suggestions:
"If a parent says, 'Oh, I wish I had your job and all I had to do was play all day,' that tends to increase the stress of teachers. But if we can educate the parents about the unique skill sets, strengths, dispositions, and responsibilities it takes to do this work well, teachers will feel more valued, not just by a supervisor who sees him or herself as a servant, but also by the families they're serving. So, you know, everything is very interconnected. If I educate parents, my teachers may become less stressed."
That's the kind of virtuous circle most teachers (and students!) crave.
What started as a play on the 1970's classic title, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, turned into a manuscript, a retreat on mindfulness for early childhood educators, and a day-to-day way of living.
And Richard has zero regrets.
But even he admits it's been a challenging time for teachers and caregivers of young children.
"Funding streams for early childhood education are based on policies, which are based on data, which are based on testing children in ways that are often unquantifiable. Math and reading are important, but if that's where you put your focus, then you start teaching to the test," he explains.
"Even with two-year-olds, if you start drilling them with flashcards and having them write the same letter over and over again, that might produce what appears to be positive short-term data, but in the long term, it's not producing a society of human beings that know how to address life's various problems when they appear—when they're teenagers, when they're adults, and all throughout life. And it's not helping them enjoy their lives and their time on this planet."
Despite his progressive stance on changing the way the ECE industry ticks, Richard's guiding philosophy centers on the same “get out and play” way of living that many of us were taught by our grandmothers.
"MomentPath is great because it sets teachers and administrators up to do those very things. Yes, log your data. Get all of your important information documented, but then go be with the kids and laugh, and play, and love them, and build relationships with them—follow their lead and see where it goes."
In his new role teaching the next generation of early childhood educators, Richard coaches his students to follow that instinct—that sense of play—above all else.
"For me, there's nothing more important than giving and receiving love… and sort of being that conduit for love to flow back and forth. It's really important that I have the ability to understand myself so that I can make healthier choices and stop the obstacles, the barriers to letting love flow between me and this child, or this mom, or this dad, or my co-worker. So, that would be my final thought. Know yourself. Heal yourself. Love yourself."