Appleton Grad's Epiphany Leads to ECE Degree
A classroom full of kids bouncing off the walls can sound like a nightmare for some, but it’s exactly where Appleton, Wis., early childhood education grad Kathleen Pynenberg wants to be.
Pynenberg knows that commanding a classroom of children can be a bit like herding cats; however the energy and exuberance of children is part of the appeal.
“They make me happy—I don’t have any other way of saying it,” Pynenberg says. “I tend to pick up on the energy of others so when I walk into a room full of excited children I can’t help but smile and think it’s awesome.”
The idea of working with children wasn’t always awesome in Pynenberg’s eyes—it took years of life experiences and a strangely significant offhand suggestion for her to realize the appeal of a career in education. Here is how she found her calling.
Lead up to Rasmussen College
If you told Pynenberg that she’d be an aspiring preschool teacher 15 years ago, odds are she would have laughed in your face. Her ambition when she first attended college at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley in 1996 was to be a writer. But, two years into her schooling Pynenberg had a change of heart and left school after earning an associate degree in English.
Though Pynenberg left school, the stability in her life came from her job at McDonald’s, where she was a manager. Time passed, and with it came big changes—marriage, kids and a new employer in Culver’s. Things were going well enough for Pynenberg, but while volunteering at her daughter’s preschool one day, a comment from a teacher’s aide about how she’d be great working with children planted the seeds of change in her mind.
“It was kind of the spark I needed to have someone say that this is what I was meant to be doing,” Pynenberg says. “I love working with children … heaven knows why I didn’t recognize it earlier.”
The thought of working in ECE simmered for a few months, but after talking it over with her family Pynenberg was ready to return to school. The choice to attend Rasmussen College was simple for Pynenberg as it was the only school in the area that offered an ECE degree and the flexibility of online classes. Her associate degree paid off in an unexpected way as well, as she was able to transfer the vast majority of her credits
Changes bring challenges
There are always a few growing pains and issues that need resolving when making a major change in life, and Pynenberg had her share. She says her first quarter was very tough to manage, as striking the right balance between schoolwork, her two jobs and raising a family took time to fine tune.
Pynenberg admits there were times her emotions got the best of her and she contemplated leaving school, but the support of her family and the Rasmussen community helped her get through that rocky first quarter. Weekly tutoring sessions with the campus librarian plus a few well-timed words of encouragement from her first ECE instructor helped her settle down and find a rhythm.
“That first quarter hit me like a ton of bricks,” Pynenberg says. “If it hadn’t been for their support I don’t think I would have made it.”
Pynenberg eventually created a system where she would print out a weekly to-do list for all of her classes in order to make sure she didn’t miss a discussion post or assignment. Her family also helped by taking on more household chores, something Pynenberg advises other students to take the time to work out with their own families.
“You can’t go in thinking you’ll be able to do it all on your own,” Pynenberg. “Ask for help and figure out where your family can make it easier on you.”
Once she got past the feeling of being overwhelmed, she faced another challenge. Part of the ECE curriculum involves student teaching and Pynenberg had her heart set on teaching at the preschool her daughters attended.
Things didn’t work out the way Pynenberg hoped but she completed her student teaching experience at Haven of Hope, a preschool for special needs children. The experience was frustrating for Pynenberg, as she had built relationships at her children’s preschool by volunteering there and didn’t expect to work with special needs children. In the long run, Pynenberg says it did ultimately benefit her.
“You really learn how to communicate in a different way,” Pynenberg says. “I’ve grown to appreciate what the parents of special needs children go through and I think I’ve become a better person because of the experience.”
Pynenberg’s experience as a student teacher at Haven of Hope transitioned into an on-call substitute teaching job after she graduated in 2013. Her ultimate goal is to teach at the preschool her children attended, but for now she is content to continue helping special needs children on a substitute basis while she waits for a position to open.
Parental influence & her motivations
Pynenberg’s experience as a parent has proven valuable in her ECE career, especially when it comes to talking with the parents of students who may be having issues.
“Being able to say what worked or didn’t with my kids and making suggestions from the perspective of a parent, not a teacher, made it easier to get my message through to them,” Pynenberg says.
That’s not to say parental experience trumps what she learned in the ECE program, in fact, Pynenberg admits there were several times she’d learn a technique and wish she would have known it when her children were younger.
“I’ve really learned to be more patient, even when you’re frustrated, and take a step back from the situation,” Pynenberg says. “When you do that you can find positive ways to correct negative behavior.”
Seeing the mental, emotional and physical growth of her students provides Pynenberg with all of the motivation she needs.
“Money isn’t the motivator for me, it’s the emotional aspect that fills my bucket,” Pynenberg says. “You can be silly and off-the-wall and the kids will love you more for it. That’s what I love about it.”
Looking for a rewarding career?
Education is important. Not just for young children, but for adults as well. If you’d like to start a rewarding career providing a positive nurturing environment for children, an early childhood education associate degree could be your ticket to a lifetime of fulfilling work.