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Experience is a great teacher, and it taught Linda Cusack that she could benefit from a different kind of learning.
So after nearly 35 years as an educator, Cusack returned to the classroom herself to earn her master’s degree in child development.
“I always wanted to pursue an advanced degree for more formal training, but the timing never worked out,” says Cusack, the director of Bethlehem Preschool Center in St. Charles, Illinois. “But the longer I stayed in the field, the more obvious it became that the field changed; the theory and practice changed.” Faced with the challenge of guiding her teaching staff and 165 full- and half-day preschoolers, she knew she had to update her skills.
The knowledge she gained at Erikson made a clear impact in her current job, and opened up new career options as well. “I feel I can branch out into other areas — perhaps teach community college, or network with other organizations to offer more parent education programs,” she says.
Cusack was aware of Erikson’s reputation and expertise, so the choice of where to get her degree was easy: “If I was going to do it, I wanted to do it right,” she told herself. Still, embarking on a rigorous three-year degree program after many years out of college was intimidating. “I went to an information session, and hearing from students there was enormously helpful. They made me feel that I could do this,” she recalls.
The Erikson experience “absolutely met and exceeded my expectations,” she says. “Personally and professionally, it was everything I hoped it would be.”
Cusack started her career in the 1970s as an elementary school teacher, and then took eight years off to stay home with her two sons — an education in itself, she recalls with a laugh. In 1985 she returned to teaching, but in the early childhood classroom this time; she discovered that teaching preschoolers was much different.
At the same time, she noticed that the difference wasn’t acknowledged; too many teachers were trained for elementary teaching and tried to simply scale down techniques that worked with older children. “From raising my own boys, I knew that wouldn’t work,” she observes. So when she was named director at Bethlehem in 1999, she used strategic hiring, staff in-services, and the preschool accreditation process to make sure her teachers were focused on early childhood development.
“We are both a preschool and a daycare. Everything we do is focused on turning children into learners,” she says. “Still, it’s important to honor children’s play and let them learn in appropriate ways.” She resists occasional parental pressure for academic achievement too early. “We know that’s not the right goal. If we push for that, we could be creating frustration and damaging confidence when a child needs to experience competence.”
At Erikson, Cusack pursued a specialization in administration. “That gave me practical tools for management tasks, but the really useful element is Erikson’s emphasis on reflective practice,” she says. “There’s not a course here that doesn’t bring it up — and it’s so important in administration. If you want people to understand your job, you have to take a step back, look at what you’re doing, and how it affects others.”
That has made her a more effective manager. “As I gained knowledge at Erikson, I began to be more confident about setting firmer, higher standards. I’ve changed what I’m willing to accept,” she says. She leverages the skills of her best teachers to boost the overall knowledge of the staff, and encourages continual professional development. For Cusack, a teacher at heart, the quest for knowledge never ends.