'Born a teacher': Milford early education coordinator learned from her mother

Liz Gaffney brings nearly 30 years of experience as a professional educator to her post in as early childhood coordinator.

Liz Gaffney brings nearly 30 years of experience as a professional educator to her post in as early childhood coordinator.

Milford Public Schools / Contributed photo

MILFORD - Liz Gaffney believes she was born to be a teacher. But that doesn’t mean the new Coordinator of Early Childhood Programming didn’t have a long and challenging road to her current position.

“I look at my career as this incredible journey. Everything I’ve done has led me to be here,” Gaffney said. “Along the way I’ve had incredible mentors to help me. Being a teacher is hard. There are daily struggles and it is important to have those mentors that you can go to and I’d like to be that here in Milford. You learn from the teachers and you can help them. It is a give and take.”

Milford Superintendent Anna Cutaia said she was excited to have Gaffney join the school system’s leadership team. Her first day is scheduled to be March 8.

“She brings a wealth of knowledge with her particular experience in the areas of executive functioning and intentional play,” she said. “These are key areas of focus as we move forward to continuously improve our early childhood experience in the Milford Public Schools.”

Gaffney was previously the director of New Haven’s Head Start program. She said she is above all else a teacher.

“I was that girl that set up her stuffed animals in front of a chalkboard and played teacher,” Gaffney said. “And then when I was in fifth grade, my teacher Sister Geraldine said that I should be a teacher and started pairing me up with first grade teacher to work with kids. That got me on this trajectory.”

She credits her mother for opening her eyes to education

“I had an amazing mother who fostered in me that children are so important to us,” Gaffney said. “She only had a sixth-grade education, so she saw the value of education and hit that home with me.”

Gaffney said she believes her mother’s belief in education had passed down to her in her DNA.

“I was once asked if teaching is an art or a science? I think it is an art. I think you are born a teacher, or you are not,” she said. “It can be perfected through research and data, looking at trends and how children process information, but ultimately it is who you are: a teacher to your core. I like kids, they make me laugh.”

In her new role, she said play-based learning and executive function are top priorities.

In addition, Gaffney said she and the administration will be looking to revise the entire preschool curriculum.

“I know in Milford we want to work forward in this area of play-based learning with a focus on executive function skills in kids,” she said. “That is an area of thinking outside the box, creative thinking. Sometimes educators don’t like to be asked, ‘Why?’ by kids because it pushes us out of our comfort zones, but that is what we need from them: to ask those why questions and then allow them to find out the answers.”

Gaffney also said her experience working with federal and state officials on securing education grants would be a benefit to the city.

“One of the greatest challenges with Head Start was working with grants,” she said. “A lot of early childhood programs are usually grant funded in the state. Head Start was federally funded, so I think my experience there will help because I have those connections with both federal and state grants.”

After starting her career as an elementary teacher in Estancia, New Mexico, Gaffney came back to Connecticut and continued teaching at the elementary level in the East Haven and Woodbridge public school systems. Her experience with early childhood education specifically began in 2010, serving as the lead teacher in the Head Start program at the Helene Grant School in New Haven. For the next five years, she developed, planned, and implemented specific lesson plans for use with students ages 3-5.

Does she miss the one-on-one with kids?

“I do. In my current position as Head Start director, I don’t get the one-on-one daily,” she said. “I do make it a point to get out into the classrooms. In New Haven we have one big building with 374 kids and then we have 10 classrooms in community schools. I ride the buses in the afternoon to spend time with the kids.”

She said spending 10 minutes in a classroom with students could pick her up even on her worst days.

“It puts everything into perspective of why you are doing what you are doing,” she said. “They make you smile. They call my Miss Liz.”

Building a relationship with students is crucial, as is challenging them to learn, she said.

“An essential element to being a successful educator, whether in be in early childhood, middle school, high school, an even adult learning, is establishing a relationship,” she said. “I’ve gone from district to district in my career and every switch I’ve made has made me a better educator and I’ve been able to share both my struggles and my celebrations with teachers.”

The best learning, though, happens when students are pushed to try something new and fail, but can be confident that they are in a safe place to fail, she said.

“That allows you to develop those critical thinking skills of ‘what can I do better,’” she said. “Students, no matter what their age, need to feel safe and know that you have their best interest at heart, especially when you are trying to get them out of their comfort zone to learn something new.”

Gaffney looks forward to working side by side with fellow educators.

“I must give a shout out to our teachers working through this pandemic. Kids are naturally drawn to each other, so it is hard to keep them away (remote learning). They just want to love you,” she said. “You always hear about a child having trouble separating from a parent. It is hard not to be there as a teacher to give them that love or that hug. Teachers are nurturers.”

She wasn’t surprised when told about the caravan of cars filled with students last spring that went to their teacher’s homes and waved through windows and showed off banners.

“That is one of the good things that have come out of the pandemic. I think kids need to associate school with fun and that it is exciting and that they want to be there, especially across the country with the pandemic,” she said. “I think we have to engage kids and get them in classrooms.

For years, people have been saying that teachers could be replaced by computers, Gaffney said. But the pandemic has demonstrated that teachers aren’t going anywhere.

“It is that human connection that is so important in education. It is so much more than knowing letters,” she said. “It is knowing you are cared for. You need all have needs that must be met to learn. That is what a teacher and student bring to each other.”

william.bloxsom@hearstmediact.com Twitter: @blox354