Preschool | Learn about the issues | Parenting Tools

Debra Sullivan pursues her passion for early childhood education

Debra Ren-Etta Sullivan, Ed.D., was nearly 20 years into a successful career in higher education when she discovered a whole new passion -- early childhood education.

It happened when she became the first dean of Pacific Oaks College Northwest, which specialized in early childhood education. She began to sit in on classes.

"I didn't want to be a teacher. I wanted to be boss of the world," she says. She got that chance by creating her own world -- a school whose hallmark was preparing teachers of young children in a diverse and challenging world.

Sullivan recently became the founder and first president of the Praxis Institute for Early Childhood Education. She has a doctorate in educational leadership and a master's degree in curriculum and instruction, both from Seattle University. Her bachelor's degree is in cultural anthropology from the University of Washington. Sullivan serves on the National Association for the Education of Young Children Professional Development Review Panel, the Washington Learns Early Learning Council, the Foundation for Early Learning Advisory Council and the ParentMap Editorial Advisory Board.

Her most recent book is Learning to Lead: Effective Leadership Skills for Teachers of Young Children. She lives in Seattle with her three children, Porter, 17; Aaron, 14 and Siobhan, 11. Recently, ParentMap spoke with Sullivan about leadership and early childhood education.

Q. Why did you write Learning to Lead?

A. I wanted to help people recognize leadership skills in themselves and the people around them. People see leadership only in famous people making important things happen. When I was completing my doctorate, I looked at the literature on leadership and it was like Donald Trump writing a book for Lee Iacocca. Most people don't realize the effect they have on other people. It's like that great wind blowing out there; it's moving everything whether we see it or not.

We discount our impact on other people's lives. If you see a gum wrapper on the street and there's a child across the street, you are a leader to that child. That child is watching whether you pick up the gum wrapper, put it in your pocket or kick it across the street.

Q. What is your leadership style?

A. I have an eclectic situational style. It is ever changing to meet life's challenges. I was married for 20 years and my husband died last January from a rare form of multiple sclerosis. Now I am having to develop into a whole new person for myself and for my children. My leadership has to change as my life changes.

Q. What are the qualities of an effective leader?

A. When I think of leadership, it's about generating new leadership; it's giving people everything you've got so they can do better than you did. I've had teachers who would always hold something back. It wasn't purposeful; it was just that they didn't see our roles changing. I would always be the student; they would always be the teacher. If my leader only gives me 95 percent of her knowledge, I can only pass on 95 percent; so I can't use what I don't have.

Q. How do you develop leadership skills in young children?

A. Look at what drives them. If something drives you with passion, you're going to show up in that area. If you notice that one little girl is always the peacemaker, tell her she is good at that and that there are people who do that for a living and they are called arbitrators. Look at what a child likes to spend time on. Maybe you have a boy who spends all his time playing video games. Talk to him about his skills at problem solving and strategy.

Also notice what they struggle with. Noting things they have to work on is part of developing leadership. When my son was small, I noticed he had a problem playing other people's games. His sister would invite him to a tea party and he would turn it into a ball game. She would be crying that he ruined her tea party. I told him that, in life, you have to learn to live by other people's rules, too, not just your own.

Q. Is there too much pressure on young children to be successful today? What can parents do about that?

A. We seem to be trying to professionalize childhood. Children feel that their purpose in life is to perform for others; that approval matters more than reality. When they volunteer in the community, they should do something that is meaningful to them, not just try to fill their community service hours. We should encourage them to make good grades to learn and improve their lives so that they can improve the lives of others, not just to try to get into Harvard. There are thousands of colleges. We don't have to send all our children to Harvard.

Q. Your passion for early childhood education came after nearly 20 years of professional life. How do you explain that?

A. At The Praxis Institute for Early Childhood Education, everything I am interested in converges. I majored in cultural anthropology because I was interested in how other people see the world. When I worked in the registrar's office at Seattle University, I looked at high school students as one culture moving into another culture -- college. I worked with them to help them learn the language, the customs, the rules, who the elders are. When I worked in student affairs and activities at Seattle Central Community College, I saw student leaders struggling and decided they needed a leadership class. At Pacific Oaks College Northwest, I wanted to create a multicultural college preparing teachers to work with low-income children, children of color, and children learning English. I get to be the boss of the world, deciding how to best prepare teachers for a diverse world, working with diverse children.

Of course, I work to make anything I do passionate. I am not a morning person. If I can't love my job, I am not going to get out of bed in the morning. If I'm going to do something, I'm going to make it big; I'm going to make it count.


Elaine Bowers, a freelance writer, lives in Seattle with her husband and 14-year-old twin daughters.


Originally published in the January, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.

There are no comments yet. Be the first to comment

Read Next