“Ask lots of questions and stay in touch”: a Q & A with Gabrielle Stroad on becoming a trainer

Gabrielle Stroad’s work experience in the early childhood field is varied and extensive. She worked her way up from being a classroom aide to director of a child care center, and later, she opened a family child care program. She even drove a school bus! In 2022, she added another role to her resume by becoming an approved trainer within the state child care training system. In this Q & A, she shares her perspective on becoming a trainer and advice for those considering it.

Gabrielle Stroad
Gabrielle Stroad

You went from being an aide and teacher to being assistant director and then director of a child care center. Did you miss working with children when you took on a management role?

I still tried to be in classrooms as much as possible to be with my staff and the children. But I also loved managing a center, because I love connecting with people. I felt grateful that I had worked in all the positions I was managing. I had been in the aides’ and teachers’ shoes, and I could tell them, “I understand, and I am here to truly support you.” I enjoyed being able to talk with them about the “whys” of our work and help everyone focus on our purpose as educators and how we can help children and families. I do enjoy direct care though, and that’s why today, in addition to being a trainer, I am an ECSE paraprofessional in a preschool classroom.

What made you decide to become a trainer?

At the time, I was operating a family child care program, and I was working on finishing my two-year degree at the same time. Our family was starting to grow out of operating a child care program out of our home, so I decided to make a change. One of the things that I liked about being a center director and that I missed as a family child care provider was being able to work with a large number of educators and have an impact on more families. I remember running into a former employee and talking with her about her new job at a child care center. She told me, “I took everything you taught me and brought it to this new job.” It was amazing for me to hear that I inspired someone to bring even higher quality and more passion to their teaching. I feel I’ve learned so much from educators I’ve worked with in return. My hope in becoming a trainer was that I could reach people in that same way, and continue building that community of mutual support and learning.

What was the process like to become a trainer?

In my case, I would say that overall it was a little confusing. There was a hiccup because right when I was ready to apply, I learned about a change in requirements. It took me extra time to overcome that obstacle, but becoming a trainer was important to me. I believe it is important to make sure we have qualified trainers with the right credentials. However, there can be frustration when you have experience and knowledge but not credentials.

I’ve also heard from people in the field that sometimes they are put off when they see that a process like becoming a trainer has a lot of steps. What I would say to those folks is that the TARSS team and the Develop team are there for you. My grandmother used to say there are no stupid questions, and I’ve always been a person who’ll ask lots of questions. I’ll even ask questions that I know the answer to if I get the sense that others are not comfortable asking. I do feel that my willingness to ask questions helped me a lot in the process of becoming a trainer. 

You were also able to take advantage of the TARSS Trainer Observation and Coaching program. How did that work?

[Mentor FCC Project Specialist] Molly Hughes set up the observation for me and was my coach. We had met before at the Trainer and RBPD Specialist Symposium–which everybody should go to! Molly is very personable and kind. 

I had also met the trainer who did the observation before. That made me feel comfortable and confident. My observer had a positive and professional vibe. She had a couple of questions for me, then I did the training. Afterwards, the observer and I talked about next steps, and we had a great conversation about child care. I felt a sense of partnership, which I really appreciated. The observer then sent the observation tool to Molly. Soon after, I met with Molly to talk about how the training went. She picked out areas I was strong in and areas that I might want help with. She asked good questions and listened to me. I really felt heard. I’ve never felt like I was being timed by anybody I’ve talked to at TARSS. Everybody is generous with their time and very open to helping.

One thing that I appreciated about Molly was how she structured our coaching session. I’ve had coaches before who started out by asking me what I wanted to talk about. That’s a tough question, because when I’m new, I don’t even know where to start. Molly helped me figure out where to start and where to go next. Then we set a S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely) goal to work on in between sessions and planned when it was best to next meet. 

What are some of the challenges of being a trainer?

The biggest challenge is when you’re in front of people who aren’t interested in learning new things. I love to learn. I’m always the one sitting in the front row with my notebook taking notes and nodding my head. So it’s hard when I’m there to try and make an impact, and people choose not to be open to it. With that said, I’ve learned to give myself and the situation a lot of grace. I also accept it as a challenge and say, “How can I change that mindset?” 

A related challenge is building a relationship with the people you’re training, especially when you’re delivering someone else’s content. I used to love leading training as a center director, so I thought it would be a smooth transition to being an approved trainer. It’s really different, though. You’ve got to build that relationship with your audience within minutes. You also have to feel comfortable enough to deliver the content effectively so you give participants something that will better their programs. 

A final challenge is getting consistent training experience so that you can improve. Just like in any job, you get better with experience. Unlike many other jobs, though, trainers don’t train all day, Monday through Friday. Generally, I do about two trainings a month. This month I have three. But during my first year as a trainer I did 12 total. Because so much time passes between trainings, it can feel like it’s taking a long time to build skills and confidence.

What are some of your favorite parts of being a trainer?

One of my favorite things about being a trainer is also one of my favorite things about teaching children. I get a kick out of those “aha” moments, when someone makes a comment and the whole group says, “Oh, that makes sense, I’m excited to try that!” It doesn’t matter whether the idea came from the training content or from the participants’ experience. Seeing connections take place is amazing to me! I also love hearing people’s takeaways, even simple things like a new art activity they want to try. When you’ve been in the early childhood field for a long time, you tend to take certain practices and strategies for granted. It’s hard to remember what you didn’t know when you were starting out. I feel I’m most authentic as a trainer when someone asks me a question and I can say, “This is what I would do.” I love it when we’re able to make a connection between a real-life situation and the training content. 

What would you tell someone who is considering becoming a trainer?

I would say, “You’re going to have a lot of fun. Let’s do it!” But I would also tell them that navigating the process can be hard. My biggest piece of advice is to connect with TARSS staff and join the TARSS professional learning communities (PLCs). It’s really helpful to make connections with other people who are becoming trainers. I’ve done the new trainer and course writer PLCs. I made friends and exchanged numbers with other trainers so we could brainstorm together and check in with each other. The key is to ask lots of questions and stay in touch.

What’s something you wish more people understood about the early childhood field?

One of the things I often think about is how capable and smart children are, and how intentional we need to be in supporting their development. Why is it so important that early childhood teachers understand child development? Well, think of a toddler who is building with blocks. You might look at that child and say, “They’re playing,” or “They’re making a mess.” But another way to look at it is to say, “Wow, they’re picking up blocks and balancing them. They’re making stacks of three blocks.” That child is developing their motor skills, working on early numeracy, and building confidence.

Another thing I like to tell people is that here in Minnesota we have a lot of support for early childhood. Think of all the organizations that exist to improve early childhood education in Minnesota–TARSS, Child Care Aware, Parent Aware, and many others. A couple of months ago I did a training in St. Cloud. One provider who participated hadn’t heard of Parent Aware, so I was able to share things with her that could benefit her program. Recently I did a training at a child care center where they didn’t know about the free coaching that the Center for Inclusive Child Care offers. I’m grateful for what we have here in Minnesota that other states don’t necessarily have, and I try to get the word out about it. Our state government and organizations like the ones I mentioned are putting resources into child care, because child care is important, and I hope that mindset keeps growing in everyone.

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