St. Ambrose University Children's Campus Lead Preschool Teacher Andromahi (Mahi) Harrison '07 has an unrelenting drive to give children the tools to flourish now, and long into the future. Her skills as an educator and deep passion for the field have been nationally recognized: Harrison is one of 50 recipients of the 2020 National Child Care Teacher Award.
The award acknowledges the critical role of child care teachers in providing quality early care and is awarded annually by the Terri Lynne Lokoff Child Care Foundation, Children's TYLENOL®, and Children's ZYRTEC®. The awards ceremony is scheduled in Philadelphia in May, and one recipient will be named National Child Care Teacher of the Year.
The Children's Campus provides a comprehensive early childhood program for children of 6 weeks to 6-years-old, with or without disabilities, as well as educational experiences and resources for families. It is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
Harrison has chosen to spend the $500 award on interactive play equipment for the outdoor rock garden for all children at the center to enjoy.
Harrison is the second Children's Campus teacher to be recognized as one of the top 50 early childhood educators in the U.S. In 2018, Lead Teacher Lynn Lubben was a recipient of the national award.
"You'll never walk into Mahi's room and not see her on the floor face-to-face on the mat with the children, playing, talking or drawing," said Darla Blesz, director of the St. Ambrose University Children's Campus.
"Her ability to really notice children, see how they are feeling and relate to them, is key," Blesz said. "Mahi helps these children recognize their own emotions, helps them gain independence. I love the way she speaks to the children. It helps them become more intrinsically motivated. It's a huge skill she has."
Harrison has always had a passion for young children, something her mom instilled when she operated a daycare in their home. "When I came here as an undergraduate student, I truly fell in love with what I saw and knew I had to be in this field. I found my niche," she said.
As an undergraduate, Harrison completed three years of practicum hours at the Children's Campus. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Early Childhood Education and was immediately hired.
Her natural positivity and unbending belief that children can accomplish anything keeps her classroom of 16 three- to five-year-old children deeply engaged.
"My goal is to help them build respect for themselves, respect for each other, and to set goals for themselves," Harrison said, adding it may sound strange talk about preschoolers setting goals, but it is an important life skill, a foundation she is helping them build for their future.
She shares in their joy when, for the first time, they zip their coat or tie their shoes. And, she feels pride when she watches a child comfort another who is feeling sad or upset.
"We use the Becky Bailey, PhD, model of Conscious Discipline, and in the classroom, we talk a lot about our school family. We work on supporting each other and together, getting through things that are hard or scary," Harrison said.
The Children's Campus follows a model of hands-on, project-based learning, and teachers follow the children's lead. Here, early childhood education is sparked by interest and tied into exploration. The preschoolers in Harrison's classroom are now learning about string instruments from area violinists. They hold the instrument in their hands, pluck strings, and realize each may sound different, but when working together, they create music.
"Before that, Mahi did a car project. She had a mechanic bring a car and open the hood so the children could see inside and talked about the different parts and how everything works together. Then Mahi pulled up her own car and opened the hood so the children could see how the engine was different," Blesz said.
All of the projects Harrison creates for the preschoolers incorporate math, science, and literacy. Learning is seamless, continuous, and fun.
"A lot of people don't see early childhood education as important, but there are reasons we follow a project-based approach, focus on critical thinking, and follow the lead of the child," Blesz said. "Mahi is one who can roll with it. If the kids' interest goes a different way, she adapts. She is flexible and understands how to do that. Some educators have a natural ability. You definitely see that in Mahi first thing."
The Children's Campus also serves as a lab and a practicum placement for SAU Early Childhood Education majors, where they, like when Harrison was a student, get hands-on opportunities to use their education and creativity to spark curiosity, and confidence, in children.
Education majors often request to be placed in Harrison's classroom. From her, they learn how to create lesson plans, how to listen to a child so they feel valued, and how to ignite the lifelong potential of each child. "I want them to see how much three-, four-, and five-year-old children can do. It is amazing. When you put the right tools in their hands you get to see them flourish every day," Harrison said.
As for the preschoolers, Harrison wants them to leave her classroom believing in themselves, using what they've learned to ask questions, to care for others, and continue setting and achieving their goals.
"I believe you can pass on positivity, and the more upbeat I am, the more that seeps into our children so when they see someone is sad they can show some support. Hopefully, they'll pass that positivity on to other children, to their families, and eventually, to the world."
"It is amazing. When you put the right tools in their hands you get to see them flourish every day."
Andromahi (Mahi) Harrison ’07, Lead Teacher, Children's Campus