We’re posting weekly transcripts of David Plotz’s Working podcast for Slate Plus members. This is the transcript for Episode 12 featuring Dannae Sewell, a day care manager in Arlington, Virginia. To learn more about Working, click here.
You may note some differences between this transcript and the podcast. Additional edits were made to the podcast after we completed this transcript.
David Plotz: What’s your name, and what do you do?
Dannae Sewell: My name is Dannae Sewell. I am the director of the Virginia Hospital Center’s Bright Horizons. I am in charge of ensuring that the children and teachers get as much training and as much of an enriching experience as they can get, both individually and as a group.
Plotz: What ages are the kids?
Sewell: Between 6 weeks all the way up to school age.
Plotz: What is the first thing you do when you get to work on Monday morning?
Sewell: When I get in, of course, I clock in. I go around and I say hello to all the staff, “I’m here, how are you? How was your night? How was your weekend?” Any teachers may have been out the day before, I check how their day was if it was a vacation. I check in with anyone maybe who was sick or their children were sick. I just kind of go around and of my rounds, and make sure everything is all right when I get there.
Plotz: What are the things that tend to happen after that? I’m sure days are different but generally what happens?
Sewell: Lots of kids are screaming my name: “Good morning, Ms. Dannae.” They are happy to see me and wanting to show me their new outfits. A lot of times people are needing my attention too, whether it’s looking at a child to see if, “Is this pinkeye?” Do they have those symptoms? Or wanting to confirm a question that a parent has. They may have the answer, but are just wanting to confirm. Checking my emails, but my morning really consists of saying hello to the teachers, the kids running in and running past my office. I’m the first thing that they see in the morning once they get in around that timeframe.
Plotz: You have mostly been a teacher at the center you’re working at. Now you’re an administrator. What is it that you used to do as a teacher that you don’t do anymore?
Sewell: I don’t really get to sit down and do circle times with the kids as much, because I am of course managing the center. I used to do lots of cooking experiences, lesson planning—so, if I saw children who were engaged in building in the block area, our curriculum is an emerging curriculum and so we base it off of the children’s interests. “I see you guys are loving to build these blocks and knock them over—build them up and knock them over.” I make observations of these children, and then I take those same observations and implement them in the lesson plan. So, we may learn about cause and effect. We’ll start learning about gravity based off of the observations I’ve done with the children. So, then how can I include this? How can I make this an enriching experience?
Then we start getting into science. “What do you think will happen if I roll this bowling pin into these blocks? How many of you think it will hit the blocks and knock them over?” I start asking those questions and graphing. So, I don’t really get to a lot of the lesson planning and the enriching activities with the children as much because I’m kind of on the administration end.
Plotz: When did you decide that you were going to work with small children?
Sewell: I actually got into early childhood education because I was a teen mom myself, and so I wanted to be able to take my child with me and work with children. Initially when I was in college, my major was Spanish and secondary education. I was going to teach high school children how to speak Spanish. Once I got into this field, out of necessity it turned into something—hold on a second, I’m really good at this. I like this. I was able to take, like, reflective experiences, remembering how I was treated as a child and how I would want to change that, and taking the perspective of how a child may feel.
Plotz: Let’s pretend that I’m a new dad and I’m bringing in my 6-month-old to Bright Horizons. I’m really—“You know what? I’m just concerned about little Jacob being around all these kids, and all this illness, and, you know, we have a wonderful baby-sitter at home. You know what, I’m really not sure this is the right thing for me?”
Sewell: So, Jacob will have an opportunity to be around other children who are at different developmental stages. We can’t of course keep him from getting sick once he gets engaged and around with other children, but, you know, with the sanitizing and things that we do at the end of the day, it kind of cuts down on a lot of that. But, we can’t prevent it. You can always call the classrooms. Ms. Magda has been here for six years since the center’s opened. You can call at any time. I will go in and check on them, or I’ll send you some pictures throughout the day just to let you know what he’s doing. We may not be able to stop your first-day fears, but these are some of the things that we’ll do to help both you and Jacob know that we’re here, that we can be trusted, letting him know that mommy and daddy are going to pick you up at the end of the day if he starts looking for you in the window. And anytime you have a question or concern you can always come to me. My door is always open. My email address, here’s my card, you can call it anytime.
Plotz: How is your relationship to the children in your care when you’re working different from your relationship to your children when you’re not working?
Sewell: The only difference is, I didn’t birth these children. I try to—as a mom, I try to treat all of the children as if they were mine, because I believe in putting that good karma out there. If I’m going that one step further, if I take that “why not?” approach when it comes to interacting with your child, answering their question, interacting with you as a family and having your child observe me interact with you, I’m believing that that same thing is happening out there for my boys as well. It’s always a “why not?” approach, whether I have to run out to the curb, to your having a morning or you’re running late and we try to assist you in that way, or you need to have some paperwork faxed to your, you know, physician. We work with the families no matter where they are. So, the only difference is that I didn’t have these children each individually, but the care, and the concern, and the passion and heart I have towards them is very much the same. I wish for their success, I wish for their best, and I want them to have the most enriching experience while in my center.
Plotz: You’re seeing all different kinds of parents and all different kinds of children, and surely there are parents whose parenting style and interests are very different from what yours might be, or the way they treat their children is different from the way you would treat your children. How do you accommodate the different styles that parents have with their children and work with that?
Sewell: I think parents have an opportunity to see how we interact with children verbally, how we get down on their level. I have teachers who—I’m not just saying this—they’re modeling these things from the moment that the family comes in for a tour. Getting down on his level. “Oh, I like your hair.” Using words that I won’t go outside of here in the Giant and say, “Oh, that was so, you know, you filled my bucket when you gave me my cash in my hand.” We don’t talk like that with the cashier, but we communicate like that in the child care. It’s like, a culture, it’s a Bright Horizons way, a quality child care kind of way, when we show and not tell.
“Don’t talk to your child like that.” We would never say that, we would show them, you know, “Michael, are you listening to your mommy? I hear her using her words. If I can hear her, I know you can hear her.” “Oh, look, you’re listening! High-five, way to go! I like it when you use your walking feet.” We try to support the families. If we’re noticing—children love to run out the door—“Oh, my mom’s picking me up. I’m gone.” So, we may put a couple stickers or some fruit at the end of the table, so if you have your walking feet you can grab a clementine on your anyway out or grab a sticker on your way out.
If I see a parent that’s screaming at her child or, you know, if I see a dad that’s kind of grabbing him, that would be a conversation that I’d have with them kind of personally. Or, if I feel like other children might be unsure or nervous, like, this child is getting yelled at by his dad, I’m nervous, I would just say, “Mr. So-and-so, your voice is a little loud. Is everything OK? How can I support you? Did you need help this morning? Did you need a minute outside of the classroom? Just because I can hear you from over here and I think you might be scaring the kids a little bit.” So, I would say that quietly just for him to hear, but kind of for him to know and understand or her to know and understand, that I understand that children—you know, sometimes you do get frustrated and sometimes you do have to get to work, and they don’t want to put on their shoes, and they don’t want to leave you. I’m here to support you. You let me know if you need me to step in.
But what won’t be acceptable is humiliating a child or making them feel less than, or any kind of screaming, or grabbing, or things that of course our teachers are not allowed to do with the child. If it’s different to where it affects the center or I can see that it’s affecting other children, I do address it. I would address it. And in my six years of being there, it’s only happened a couple of times.
Plotz: How do you deal with the fact that parents may not live up to your schedule? What’s the mechanism that you have for dealing with that?
Sewell: We have late fees. But if I’m trying to build a community and we’re all in this together, our hours are actually 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. I have families that work in D.C. I have families that are surgeons, that are doctors. I don’t want to add any more stress. I don’t want to add any more stress to you or to your child. I can see that if you were late every day then we’d have to kind of talk about some things and work things out, but if it’s once in a while and you’re “Ms. Dannae, I’m running late, it’s just that … ” I always say it, I say it to my teachers and I say it to my families—“Do not worry. Take your time. Drive slow. Put on your music, and get here safely.” That’s what I care about. Then I turn to the child. “Mommy and Daddy are coming. Can you believe that they’re still stuck at that stoplight, that silly stoplight?” And because I’m sure they’re stuck at a stoplight somewhere, so I’m not exactly being dishonest. But I don’t want them to, “I’m the only one here.” “Oh, lucky you! You get to hang out with Ms. Dannae! Do you know that if we take off our sneakers we can kind of slide on the linoleum a little bit?” Or, sit down and read a book together. “No one else gets to do this, so when you come in tomorrow you have to tell your friends how we read this book or how we maybe hid something in your classroom while everyone else was gone.”
I could just deal with it, like, “You’re late, you owe me $15,” or I could have something that Bright Horizons talks about, which is “heart principles,” taking a “why not?” approach. Being square in a sense and cut and dry with the family who’s typically consistent—what is that going to benefit them or the child? No, I’m going to have some snacks ready for when you pick up so they can eat it on the way home. “I’ll see you, don’t worry, I’ve already clocked them out for you at this time. I see you’re here. Have a good rest of the day. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Plotz: One thing that I didn’t quite understand with that is, so someone who it happens once and it’s not—they wouldn’t pay a late fee because you’re—or they would still pay the late fee, but it was still a nice experience for the child? Or does it depend?
Sewell: Don’t tell my boss, but they would not pay a late fee! They wouldn’t pay a late fee. Now, if it’s every day, if it’s a habitual problem—the goal—I have to think about, what is my goal? Is my goal to make $4 or is my goal for you to know that I get that things happen and I don’t want you to be stressed? That’s more valuable to me than your late fee. You’re going to be OK. I want you to drive home safe. I don’t want you to think about, how are you going to get me these $4? I want your focus to now be on your child. You got here, you’re good.
Plotz: What are the hours you work most days?
Sewell: I’m—so, let’s say 8 to 5 or 8:30 to 5:30, but I am typically there from opening to close because I want to just make sure everything is going good. And our team, we kind of tend to hang out together. We have lots of activities going on, so—but typically 8:30 to 5:30.
Plotz: And what do you do at lunch?
Sewell: At lunch I am supposed to eat lunch and take some time to myself, but being new in this role, that’s something that I learn to do, that work-life balance. So sometimes when I really want to have a lunch, I’ll close my doors. So, I’ll hit off the big lights and put on a YouTube video, and try to seriously eat and take some time for myself.
Plotz: So, you’re a young woman. You work with children. You have a lot of energy. Do you think this is the kind of work that you can do until you’re 70 years old?
Sewell: I do. If your heart’s in the right place, your body may not be able to keep up at 70 years old, but if your heart is in the right place you can’t take that away no matter how old you are. You can’t remove the quality of a teacher or an instructor. I think—I hear this a lot—you can just tell. You can tell a good teacher. She may be at the grocery store and explaining, like, oh, “How many cherry tomatoes do you see?” When talking with her child. Or that person who smiles at a baby that doesn’t have to smile at a baby and—standing in the line—that could just have the grouchy face and figure out how they’re going to pay their bills.
Or, when a child sees my hair, my big hair, “What’s going on with her hair?” Smiling at them to say, “Yes, my hair is big, yes, I have a gap.” Or, you know, just answering their curiosities. I definitely don’t think there’s an age limit in terms of your spirit, when it comes to being engaged with children.
Plotz: Think of the best moment you’ve had as a teacher.
Sewell: I might start to cry a little bit. Just getting the opportunity to see the kids grow and see them learn. They come in as babies, and the next thing you know they’re saying your name. The moment, like, a child who I just had the tour with says, “Hi, Ms. Dannae,” or seeing the parents get together and form their own relationships. And you feel like, I had a part in that. The Doughnuts for Dads that we did that brought all the dads in, and now they are hanging out and having barbecues together.
When I was teaching in the classroom we did things like positive affirmation, like, tomorrow I’m going to need everyone to bring in a mirror and you’ll keep your mirror here. And at circle time we’re going to say, “I’m beautiful, I’m special, I’m unique, I love … ” and name one thing that you love about yourself. What it means to fill a bucket. Everyone walks around with an invisible bucket, and the things we do or say either fills that bucket or it dips in that bucket. And how do—what do you want to do?
So, a lot of times kids are running home saying, “You’re dipping in my bucket,” if their mom is trying to make them eat vegetables or something. It’s just really awesome to see how children grow and how they remember things. There was one time—because you can’t always control turnover—where a teacher left, and I’m here with the children and I need to explain to them, “Of course, it’s nothing you did. Sometimes teachers go. They get different jobs, or so-and-so moved to North Carolina. And we try to keep in contact.”
But there was this book that we read, My Splendid Friend Indeed, and it just talks about this goose and this polar bear. Initially the polar bear is like, this is getting on my nerves, like, why is he—but then ultimately he’s a splendid friend indeed. And I want to eat sandwiches with you, and I want us to write together, and having those moments, knowing that you may not always able to control—of course they don’t think in their head, like, I’m going to control and make that teacher stay here—but what you can is the friends that you have and the friendships that you develop. That was a pretty awesome experience. One of the kids got me a necklace that had a pearl on it, and it said, “Splendid Friend Indeed.”
Seeing the siblings of the children. I had their brother, like, two years ago! Or I had their sister! Seeing them grow up through the program. Still having relationships with people like Dan and their children, even four years later as they’re going to third and fourth grade. Those are, like, it’s the best. It’s the best. The cards, the kids that come back to see you on a day where it may be, like, oh my goodness, this is our third pinkeye. “Oh, you’re here to see me!” Yeah, I think that’s it.