University Child Development Center Teachers Keep Pitt’s Youngest Students Connected

 Christopher, the 8-year-old son of UCDC teacher Ammie Ribarchak, holds a storytime over Zoom.Mary Beth McCulloch and her team of teachers at the University Child Development Center (UCDC) provide approximately 120 families at Pitt a community where their children can learn and grow during the workday. And with many families moving to a new normal and working from home as a result of the University’s steps to reduce the need for staff and faculty to work on campus, the UCDC is still keeping the sense of community alive.

As UCDC director, McCulloch leads a staff of approximately 40 teachers, with 12 classrooms separated into groups for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers have provided support to their Pitt parents and helped them stay connected, if they so choose.

“There is just so much information out there, and we don’t want to overwhelm our families,” said McCulloch. “We’re just giving them the option to engage with us so they still feel supported—and their kids still feel connected.”

Using Yammer

To pivot to online engagement, McCulloch and her teacher team established two pages on Yammer, a Microsoft social media and collaboration tool that allows people in an organization to engage in private conversations on the internet. The first is a private Yammer page for only UCDC families, where UCDC teachers posts storytime videos, host singalongs and share activities for families—many times, resulting in a Zoom meet-up. The other is a Yammer page for members of the Pitt community who are parents.

“The pages have been wildly successful,” said McCulloch. “Especially for the UCDC page, it’s important to know that families can join if they want, but they don’t need to. But I do know that for some families, there’s a real need to have consistency in their new day-to-day life, and we’re hoping the teachers can support that.”

The pages are full of activity and learning ideas—and parents are also posting supportive websites and ideas, McCulloch said. She added that even the teachers’ kids are conducting storytimes, reading stories to the UCDC classroom groups.

An especially heartwarming moment for McCulloch was during a Zoom video chat session with one of the UCDC classrooms. “It was a singalong, and the entire class joined with their families. The kids cried when it was over and they had to hang up. They didn’t want to say goodbye to their teachers,” said McCulloch.

Robyn Coggins sitting with her infant son Henry looking at her phoneFor the infant UCDC group, McCulloch said that the class is learning all about Charlie, a new puppy of one of the teachers.

“Twice a week, the teacher is offering an update about Charlie: showing the puppy going on a walk, teaching them about caring for a puppy. We’re calling it ‘Adventures with Charlie.’ They love it,” said McCulloch.

Robyn Coggins, Pitt staff member and senior editor for Pittwire, has used the private Yammer group a way to stay socially connected with other UCDC families. She said she and her 8-month-old son, Henry, especially enjoy seeing the snapshots teachers and families are posting of their daily lives during social distancing.

“When I posted a video of Henry chattering in his Pack ‘n’ Play, one of the other parents commented that it brightened her and her son’s day,” said Coggins. “Even though we’re apart, we can still make each other smile and keep up connections, you know? I figure that if I get to video chat with my friends, so should he!”

McCulloch said that UCDC is also in the process of coordinating group times, virtual playdates, more singalongs and story times for each age group.

Professional development and virtual support

Like the families they serve, the teachers of UCDC are also adjusting to working from home. While teachers are planning ways to keep their families connected, they’re also working on their own professional development during this time at home.

“Like so many groups on campus, we’ve had to shift big time to make sure teachers can still work at home,” said McCulloch.

Mary Beth McCulloch, director of UCDC, holds up a sign during a Zoom video chat with families.She said that teachers are attending webinars, having group discussions and writing article reflections to sharpen their own skills and put them to use when it’s time to return to the classroom. “We may even do a book club, too,” said McCulloch.

McCulloch said proudly that the teachers’ creativity during this time has been through the roof.

“They’re truly inspiring. It’s been amazing to see them step up and be impactful, but not intrusive,” she said.

McCulloch said she’s also been overwhelmed by the amount of support the families are showing for their teachers. 

“That need to stay connected drives so much home for me. I always knew how much we had meant to the families, but knowing how so much can happen when we’re not all together and how we can still support them, really emphasizes that fact that it’s so true.”