Q&A: A Preschool Teacher in Yoncalla, in Her Own Words

Q&A: A Preschool Teacher in Yoncalla, in Her Own Words

Q&A: Preschool Teacher in Yoncalla
This summer Children’s Institute is highlighting the important work of early childhood educators teaching preschool through third grade. In this series of profiles, teachers from across the state tell us why they teach young children, what they wish people knew about their work, and what they’ve learned in their jobs.

Megan Barber Shares Her Work Creating a Playful, Safe, and Loving Preschool Classroom
Megan Barber is the lead teacher and director of the preschool program at Yoncalla Elementary School. Yoncalla is a town of just over a thousand people in rural Douglas County, Oregon. The program is a Preschool Promise site offering publicly funded preschool to children in low-income families living in the district. Yoncalla Elementary School is also part of the Early Works initiative, a prenatal through third grade learning lab demonstrating a new approach to education and healthy development for young children and their families.

Why do you teach preschool?
Most things that have happened in my life have not been planned out but have been more like tripping over buried treasure. I chose my professional path for my undergraduate work by chance, I got involved in preschool work at the Family Relief Nursery (a child abuse prevention agency) by chance, and even finding a home within the community I now work in was not necessarily a part of the plan. Since preschool is not actually part of the elementary school system in Oregon, I never looked at it as a viable career path. However, when a part-time preschool teaching position came up at the Relief Nursery (something I found out by chance when my dad was doing a water damage job at the facility), I said, “why not?” and applied for the job—not thinking much would come from it. My life forever changed when I took that position. Through this work, I got to take a close examination of the families within my community, developing a love and empathy for their unique situations and challenges. I quickly realized that these marginalized families were invisible within the community and lacked any voice or ability to advocate for the needs of their children. I decided from that moment on that no matter what future teaching position I took, the families (especially the invisible families) would come first. I love preschool because I have the opportunity to be the first educational experience for the family as a whole within the community and I will do everything in my power to help it be positive and welcoming—starting parents on their first steps towards being leaders in the school and advocates for their children.
Q&A: Teachers in Their Own WordsI will also admit, I’m deeply in love with preschool because I get to play. It was shocking to me that I had forgotten how to play—silly, crazy play—like children do. Learning real play again became a study of mine, something I practice and invest in. You see, play is where the magic is. Anything can happen for children in play! And when I can help provide children with opportunities for good, hardy, messy, ridiculous, wild rumpus kind of play, I feel like I’ve accomplished my goal for the day. What was so strange to me was realizing that some of the children coming into the classroom forgot how to play. That is all the more reason why play is an absolute necessity, because it creates a space where children bloom and come into their own. We teach children how to use their imagination, how to think deeper about what they are doing and seeing, and how to engage with peers to make their experience more fun.

The other thing I love about children at this age is that they really don’t remember anything about preschool. When children grow up, they cannot recall the letters they learned, the numbers they wrote, and they may not even be able to clearly remember the faces of the teachers they had. What is left behind is this feeling, whether it was a great feeling or a not so great one. I hope my students will feel in later years that they were all a part of something that helped make their childhood a little bit special. Maybe we can all walk away with the feeling of being touched by a little pixie dust.

What is one thing about your job that you wish other people knew?
I wish people could really see the work that my staff and I do together. Not only do we train together, purposefully build our skills and philosophy together, and communicate frequently—we work like a well-oiled machine. Rarely needing to actually say a word about what is needed, we can pretty much read each other’s minds in order to be where we need to be, identify a need of a student, assess what is to be done when a situation arises, or how to be flexible or change plans on the fly. My three teacher aides are what makes the program work as it does. They invest in the mission just as I do, they see it work, they are honest about what needs to change, and they give everything they’ve got. For us, this is not a job—it is something we are called to do. And when you have a group of people who are dedicated to children and families, I just don’t think that there is anything we can’t do!

On the same note, I think it is only logical to state that we work so well and push so hard to do our best because teaching preschool is much harder than many think it is. Yes, we get to play—but play is actually hard work. We are right alongside the children, helping them plan, problem solve, engage, be responsive; we are scaffolding, observing, and assessing. When children come in, they have their own anxiety and stress that they bring through the door and we work so hard to download our calm, to make their burdens light. Our days feel long sometimes, our feet are tired, and we are probably pretty gross when all is said and done. Working in preschool is not for everyone because it is some intense, powerful work when done right. In other words, we should all give props to the preschools and their staff. The work is hard but rewarding.

“Teaching preschool is much harder than many think it is. Yes, we get to play- but play is actually hard work.”

Can you describe a learning experience you’ve had that has impacted your teaching?

I have been very fortunate to work in the field of trauma, which has opened my mind to better understanding my community and the children I serve. Through my education, I have learned so much about best practices, how to refine my work to best meet the needs of all students, and how to provide an inclusive environment. It feels like everything I learned was tied together last summer, when I took a week-long training in Arkansas to learn about Dr. Becky Baily’s work in Conscious Discipline. (She is now my personal hero.) I knew that her work in social and emotional development was the key that had been missing in my practice. Even though I had the education behind me regarding trauma, special needs, best practice, therapeutic language, brain development, etc., I had been missing the practical application of this knowledge in a way that works best for children. Though there’s still so much more for me to learn, I couldn’t help but dive in the moment school started. I designed a safe space within my classroom that was a purposeful place for me to talk with students about our emotions and how they can co-regulate. I trained my staff on what this looks like, so we can all engage with children in a way that is nurturing rather than punitive. I made sure that each child has a choice in how they want to be greeted and engage in “I love you” rituals for children walking into the classroom with anxiety, stress, fear, or sadness. We bond each morning with a unity song that emphasizes how we love and care about each person in our school family and how we will keep it safe for each other. The students now know how to show empathy for each other, leading their own “Wishing Well” experience for children who are upset or needing help. The students themselves have become the nurturers for each other and have truly embraced the idea of family. I love the concept of creating this family and unit within the school because it fills in the gaps that children experience within their home life—fully meeting the needs of each child.

What I especially love about Conscious Discipline is how appropriate it is for all children (heavens, it meets our needs as adults, too). Many autistic children learn specific facial expressions so that they can better identify what another person’s experiencing emotionally. Children with behavioral issues (who are frequently kicked out of preschool programs) learn how to be able to calm, use their words to express their needs, and have “loving eyes” for others so that they see from their perspective. Children who have experienced trauma (which is more of the norm than the exception in my classroom) can have their fragile hearts addressed and cared for and are provided the safety of being able to express themselves in a way that is safe but also meets the needs of the child and the family. Conscious Discipline also engages parents to take part in the school family and practice the language and purpose of the method to benefit children when at home. It is a healing experience for families. There is no way to experience the practice and not walk away unchanged. Conscious Discipline is a heart thing. It is a love thing. This is how we raise children to change the world.

Q&A: Teachers in Their Own Words

In Yoncalla, Oregon, Community Comes Together to Build a New Preschool Playground

In Yoncalla, Oregon, Community Comes Together to Build a New Preschool Playground

In Yoncalla, Oregon, Community Comes Together to Build a New Preschool Playground
According to Eric Gustafson, “schools are the heart of rural communities,” providing a place for all members of the town to come together. Eric should know. He lives in Yoncalla, a town of just over a thousand people in Douglas County and serves on the school board. Yoncalla’s preschool program operates in the town’s elementary school and has become an in important community resource and gathering place.

So when the time came to design a new playground for the preschool in December 2016, the first step was a listening session with parents, not a top-down directive from the administration about what the playground would look like. Jessica Smith, a substitute teacher for grades preK–6 and mother of a preschooler and second-grader, explained that the approach gave parents a sense of ownership: they went from believing that education is something that’s done to them to seeing it as something they can contribute to.

During the listening session, parents were asked what their hopes were for their children’s access to play equipment and their goals for outside play time. They were also asked to reflect on their own childhoods and what they remembered most about play. For participating parents, the process highlighted how much of their own playground memories focused on unstructured playtime. The listening sessions also helped them realize the value of a naturescape playground, which provides a more open-ended, hands-on learning environment than a traditionally designed play structure.

Once plans for the playground were finalized, work began in November of 2017. Eric secured roughly $10,000 in donated supplies and labor from Delta Sand &Gravel where he works as an estimator.

Parent involvement in bringing the new playground to life didn’t end with brainstorming at a listening session. A Yoncalla father who works on stream restoration in the area and whose children love venturing into the wilderness with him to play while he works helped to design the log structure in the playground. And a group of parents, including Jessica and her family, donated their time and construction skills to complete the playground last month.
In Yoncalla, Oregon, Community Comes Together to Build a New Preschool Playground

Yoncalla parents, teachers, and administrators are all excited by the results of the community’s hard work, though watching the preschoolers explore their new naturescape, it’s hard to imagine anyone as enthusiastic as they are!

Community Health Needs Assessment 101: Yoncalla Early Works

Yoncalla Early Works takes a comprehensive approach to preparing kids for success in school and life. For the last two years, the project has combined early learning, health, and family engagement strategies to set young children on a path to third grade readiness. Third grade readiness is important because reading proficiently by the end of third grade is one of the greatest predictors of high school graduation. In fact, kids who don’t read at grade level by the end of third grade are 25 percent less likely to graduate.

Community Health Needs Assessment 101: Yoncalla Early WorksIn the summer of 2016, the rural southeastern Oregon communities of Yoncalla, Drain, and Elkton joined together to gather critical information about how to improve the health of young children in their communities. With assistance from Children’s Institute and Portland State University, community members conducted a “Community Health Needs Assessment.” The term Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) may sound confusing, but the assessment is a way to determine a community’s needs and address them effectively.

First, What is a Community Health Needs Assessment?
The assessment involves working deeply with community members to collect and analyze detailed data about a community’s greatest health needs.. Through the CHNA in north Douglas County, parents of children up to age 8 were asked a series of detailed questions. The questions ranged from demographics to how far the family must travel to access healthcare and whether they’re suffering food insecurity or a lack of housing. Parents were also asked to rank the health and family support services that they would most like to see brought into their community.

What were the results?
The survey of about 130 families showed that many don’t have their most basic needs met. Only one in eight parents agreed that there was a sufficient supply of affordable housing and one in five experienced housing instability in the previous year. Only one in five parents said they could get affordable, healthy food near where they live. And two in five parents say they couldn’t afford to eat balanced, healthy meals in the past year. And because health care services aren’t available in the community, children often don’t get the care they need to be healthy. Parents also noted a lack of family support services like job training programs and breastfeeding support.

What’s next?
The assessment includes focused next steps for these rural communities to address each of the prioritized needs. Recommendations include partnering with health care providers in Roseburg to bring health services into the community. In addition, the assessment encourages increasing access to healthy foods via community gardens, increased SNAP and WIC benefit enrollment, and more classes and resources on cooking healthy, balanced meals.

Why is it important?
Armed with detailed information about the health of each community, residents, city governments, and state leaders are now able to make more effective and informed decisions to improve the health of everyone in the community. The CHNA also helps Children’s Institute and partners prioritize interventions that will address the social determinants of health most affect young children’s ability to be successful in school.

News and Updates from Yoncalla Elementary School

News and Updates from Yoncalla Elementary SchoolYoncalla Early Works (YEW) began in 2012 as a partnership between Yoncalla Elementary School, Children’s Institute, and The Ford Family Foundation. The Early Works initiative brings parents, schools, and communities together to improve school readiness and academic success for children from birth to third grade/eight years-old. It is designed to identify best practices that can be translated into policy at the local, regional, state, and federal levels to better support children and their families.

School Board Recognizes Preschool Student of the Month

A key strategy of the Yoncalla Early Works project is to embed early learning in the K-12 system. By connecting preschool to elementary school, kids and families recognize that education begins before kindergarten. The Yoncalla community is dedicated to Early Works and Preschool Promise. The Yoncalla School Board keeps preschool and kindergarten readiness in the public consciousness by featuring updates on early learning and Preschool Promise as monthly agenda items. Last November, the school board began recognizing preschoolers as nominees for the student of the month awards.

Oryan Kokos, age four, was the first preschool recipient of the student of the month award. He displayed remarkable composure as he received balloons and praise from teacher Megan Barber, “Oryan has grown so much over the past few months. As a class, we have been working on self-regulation, using our words to enter into play, and asking our peers to join in play with us. It has been so exciting seeing Oryan catch on to these concepts and begin to grow special friendships in the classroom!” Each student was asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Oryan’s response: “Batman.”

Renovations at Yoncalla Elementary

News and Updates from Yoncalla Elementary SchoolWarm-toned wooden bookcases line the walls below casement windows and house books and toys in the newly renovated Family Room in Yoncalla Elementary School’s B4 Early Learning Wing. The Family Room is a dedicated space for high-quality early learning programs for children birth to five and their families. The freshly painted room decorated with bright area rugs and colorful activity stations is a relaxing and welcoming space. Chairs are arranged for conversation and stuffed couches provide comfortable reading spaces for families and kids.

The Family Room is used by Yoncalla Early Works and a variety of community partners. Family Relief Nursery and North Douglas Prenatal to 3rd Grade (NDP3) hold three weekly playgroups and Umpqua Valley Breastfeeding Coalition meets there monthly.. Librarian Jill Cunningham also hosts story time in the space. Childcare is provided for Yoncalla Early Works and other parent education events. Children enjoyed the Family Room after an Early Works hosted family dinner for the first-grade class in the cafeteria. The kids played in the Family Room while the parents met to build relationships with their child’s teacher, explore effective communication strategies, and discuss their hopes and dreams for their children.

Community Café Sparks Discussion

When Yoncalla Early Works hosted a well-attended Community Café in November the discussion inevitably turned to the future of the community’s library services. In November 2016, Douglas County residents voted down a bond proposal to create a library district. There are no longer funds budgeted for the library after this fiscal year and it is unclear if the Yoncalla Library will continue to operate at all.

This affects community services like Jill Cunningham’s much valued weekly story time, a cornerstone of Yoncalla Early Works.

Attendees broke into small groups and discussed the benefits of having a local library. The consensus was that the library is a vital and essential public service and gathering place. The public library is also a safe place, accessible for free to all people. The library not only provides a diversity of books and summer programs for kids, but Internet access and a host of other services as well.

News and Updates from Yoncalla Elementary SchoolPeople then brainstormed ideas to continue providing these services should the library close. Ideas included running an all-volunteer library, continuing similar programs in the Family Room at Yoncalla Elementary, and operating a family lending library in B4 Early Learning Wing. Further discussion and development of these ideas is on the agenda at the next Parent Leader Group meeting.

Callie Lambarth, research associate from the Center of Improvement of Child and Family Services at Portland State University, provided information from a recent parent survey. The survey showed positive improvements for building parent-child relationships through reading and getting more books into every home.

That segued into a conversation on how parents can make sure reading activities stay fresh and interesting. Elizabeth Briggs, a YEW parent, started a family story time and is reading “Little House in the Big Woods” to her four kids. She sets the stage by turning off the lights and burning candles, just like in those olden times.

  “A library is a hospital for the mind.”


The strength of Yoncalla Early Works is in the community’s commitment to providing their children with high-quality learning experiences. Stay tuned for more updates as the work progresses!

Yoncalla Strives for Long-Term Change

In the fourth installment of the Early Link Podcast, and the last one for 2016, I visited Yoncalla in Douglas County to learn more about the community, our Early Works initiative, and Yoncalla Elementary’s new preschool funded by Oregon’s Preschool Promise program.

I spoke with teachers Megan Barber and Cassie Reigard, as well as parents Crystal Sampson and Kevin Hoyt, all of whom have deep ties to the Yoncalla community.

Listen and enjoy!

Segment Highlights

0:19 Yoncalla is a rural community and less than one square mile

0:30 Yoncalla High School and Yoncalla Elementary School

1:02 Going outside with the class

1:19 Megan Barber discusses the High Scope curriculum

2:49 Working on transitions throughout the day                                  

3:36 Cassie Reigard on the Early Works initiative

3:58 Megan and Cassie describe their kids as problem solvers

5:38 Crystal Sampson and Kevin Hoyt describe why they love the school

6:33 Kevin discusses his plans for a group for fathers

7:54 Megan sees the work as transformative