The power of teachable moments

By Bill Knief

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On March 3 two small rooms hidden in the back of the Presbyterian church next to Kit Carson park will magically transform into the new UNM-Taos Kids’ Campus for Early Learning.

Why the big name? According to Martha Montoya, manager of childcare operations at UNMN-Taos, it’s a way to get away from the notion some people have that child care is something akin to baby sitting.

“Of course four and five-year-olds require a lot of basic care, even with a staff of seven, but this is truly a learning center. It is important to have early education because of the way your brain develops, and the way you can improve social skills, have better cognitive skills, better motor skills at an early age. You can see a lot of improvement in the right kind of environment. And these are the skills children are going to need later on in life.”

The March 3 grand opening will host a dozen children, and there are still places available for additional children. Interested parents can call 741-1494 for information about the 8:30 to 2:30, five days a week program. It costs $20.00 per day, but there are programs available to help defray costs.

“It’s a commitment, really,” Montoya maintains. “A contract that involves parent involvement. Not homework or anything like that, but a willingness to promote quality early child care for their children. When we have that, we can increase the power of teachable moments.”

A child may be doing nothing more than making mud pies or learning how to drink from a cup, but Montoya sees a rich learning experience under the right guidance.

“Every child is going to develop at his or her own pace. We assess and observe, but we don’t assume what is going to take place. Instead of directed teaching, it’s about allowing the child to teach us what he wants to learn or is ready to learn. We don’t tell parents what to do—we model, we suggest, we propose in a respectful way. That respect for the child, the parents and the teachers is the pattern for our entire program, and I believe that it will be transmitted to the whole community.”

To say that Montoya is passionate about her work is an understatement. In 1998 she began attending Highlands and UNM-Taos simultaneously in order to obtain her master’s degree. She developed her interest in early childhood education and special education because, “what you are really studying is human behavior: the way we think, the way we act and the way we learn.”

Personal experience became a motivating force as well. She says she started out as a “professional mom” because she raised her family before going to college to learn about early childhood education. She is trilingual in English, Spanish and sign language, because two of her three children are hearing impaired. She feels these challenges have made her more sensitive to the need for support many of today’s parents experience.

“It’s not like I’m the teacher and you’re just the parent,” she smiled. “A lot of time parents are doing a lot, and they just need to know they’re doing a great job. We suggest and share.”

A lot of the credit for the success of the Kids’ Campus, according to Montoya, goes to Margaret Mactavish, UNM-Taos early childhood education projects coordinator and longtime childhood development advocate. That includes the $600,000.00 HUD grant for the new childcare development center now under construction on the UNM-Taos Klauer campus. The current location at the Presbyterian church is temporary, until the Klauer building is completed in the fall, and is funded by a grant from the Daniels Foundation.

“Margaret Mactavish is my hero and my mentor,” Montoya maintained. “I feel so honored to be able to carry out her dream. She transmitted to me her passion and energy along with her respect for children, families, parents, and our local cultures. Along with support from the likes of Nadine Vigil, vice principal of E.G.M.S. and Molly Martinez, kindergarten teacher, we can offer excellent school readiness for four and five year olds who because of their birth date did not fall into the regular school schedule. And Brandy Corry, program manager at the Taos Family Resource Center, another UNM-Taos agency and the backbone of family services in Taos, has been invaluable in helping us with licensing.

“Margaret Mactavish had the dream that we would one day have an early childcare facility like Valencia, Gallup and main campus—and now we do!”

Major funders for the project, along with HUD and the Daniel’s Foundation, have been the McCune Foundation, the Town of Taos and Taos County. And just recently Montoya purchased a thousand dollars worth of supplies at Walmart, attracting the attention of store manager Alvin Berry. They talked a while, and the next day Montoya got a call from Berry asking her to come down to Walmart, and when she arrived there were nine gift wrapped boxes of supplies donated by the store.

“He said he wanted to be a part of what we were doing, and the Unicorn store has the same attitude. We were actually able to purchase all our supplies right here in Taos.

“When someone asks me why early childhood education is so important, I tell them one thing: it makes us better people.”

About The Bill Knief