Preparing teachers involves connecting a passion for education with outside interests

A firm belief in the power of education led Gillian D. McNamee, Ph.D., to pursue a career focused on the teaching of young children — and it has kept her at Erikson Institute for nearly four decades.

Her passion for teaching began as a child with her grandmother who loved playing the piano and reading storybooks, rhymes, and poems with children. In the 1960s, her grandmother volunteered as a teacher in the early days of Project Head Start, and to this day, Dr. McNamee keeps a certificate recognizing her grandmother’s efforts to help launch Head Start in Boston signed by Lady Bird Johnson and Sargent Shriver hanging in her office.

“I’ve always wanted to understand how education could provide everyone with the opportunity to achieve their life goals,” Dr. McNamee says. She seeks to share that passion with her students and help them understand how children’s individual cultural backgrounds lead them to experience the education system differently.

Diverse Sources of Inspiration

Since joining Erikson’s faculty in 1979, Dr. McNamee has channeled her love for teaching to guiding students who are pursuing graduate degrees in early childhood education. She is also a leader in developing the research components of Erikson programs like the New Schools Project, a prekindergarten through third grade initiative with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). She also serves as Erikson’s director of teacher education, a role in which she designs courses for students learning on campus and online.

Students in Dr. McNamee’s classes can expect discussions to be informed by a range of diverse readings, hands-on activities, and films and documentaries of teachers. Some of her teaching materials are directly related to early childhood education and others come from unlikely sources. For example, the book “Sacred Hoops” by basketball coach Phil Jackson has been on her class’s reading list, because she can connect its underlying themes about understanding group psychology and winning as a team with classroom teaching and educational achievement for all. She encourages students to find influences and inspiration from a broad range of life experiences and interests.

“The goal is to connect teaching to our students’ interests and what is meaningful and important to them,” she says.

Learning from the Best

Dr. McNamee’s courses also are informed by her community-based research, which she says helps her keep up with changes and trends in education, enabling her to find new ways of supporting and preparing teachers. As the principal investigator for Erikson’s New Schools Project, Dr. McNamee examines the impact of professional development related to oral language and literacy development in the early years on teaching practices in prekindergarten through third grade classrooms in Chicago. The goal is to promote high-quality education in Chicago’s diverse communities by working closely with classroom teachers and administrators to increase their knowledge and skills.

She regularly publishes scholarly articles on early childhood education and presents her work at conferences. She also has authored three books, the most recent of which is “The High-Performing Preschool: Story Acting in Head Start Classrooms,” published 2015. In the book, Dr. McNamee looks at the lives of three- and four-year-old Head Start students and focuses on why a particular part of their curriculum, story acting, is such a powerful learning tool.

Dr. McNamee is quick to note that her research doesn’t occur in a bubble. She is constantly looking to other educators and researchers for ideas and collaboration, including those who are Erikson students today, and she hopes her students take a similar approach to their own work.

“We all need coaching and mentoring from those who are the best in the field,” she says. “In my teaching and research, I offer my own thoughts and knowledge, but it will always benefit from discussion with my students and mentors. It’s like tennis. You don’t improve if you aren’t playing with people who are better. This is what helps us all improve – challenging ourselves against the thinking of those who came before us and who will follow us.”

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