An Interview with Julia

December 8, 2023
Kindergarten is a transformative, transitional year both academically and emotionally. Children enter our Kindergarten program with varying levels of school experience and readiness. For some, Kindergarten is a natural extension of the emergent, child-centered approach they have already experienced in preschool here at Parker. For others, Kindergarten might be their first experience in a classroom setting and/or being in a group with same-age peers. Regardless of where our students come from, our goal at Parker is for each of our Kindergarteners to experience a year of learning that is child-centered, curiosity driven, academically motivated, and rooted in deep connection to both community and place.
This fall, Parker was incredibly fortunate to welcome Julia Cadieux as our new Kindergarten lead teacher. Julia joined Parker after nearly 20 years of working with children and families in a diverse array of educational settings. Julia has her Masters in Education from Cambridge College, and over the past 20 years she has worked in residential education, special education, family education, middle school education, and most recently early childhood and nature-based education. Prior to Parker, Julia taught PreK through Kindergarten at Bluebird Montessori in Delmar. She is also a certified, nature-based educator, with experience teaching at Flying Deer Nature Center in East Chatham.
Julia lives in the Capitol Region with her two children (ages 13 and 15), their beloved dog and cat. Her family enjoys cooking and baking, watching movies, live music, and going to music festivals. Julia loves the northeast and all the opportunities it provides for time spent in nature. Her family also enjoys camping and hiking. Please read on to learn more about our kindergarten program and Julia, in her own words.
How did you get into teaching?
I grew up in the country near Toronto, Ontario, and I had a childhood that was connected to nature and animals. I spent all of my time playing out in the woods. That is where my love of nature was born. My mom was a public high school teacher, and she definitely also played a big role in inspiring my career. She taught at the same high school for 35 years. We grew up knowing our whole community because of her connections with her students. She was really beloved, and it was a deeply satisfying career for her. I wanted to follow in her footsteps.
Can you describe your own educational journey?
I moved to the states to attend Cambridge College in Massachusetts, where I received my masters in education. From there, I got my first job as a teaching assistant working at a residential school for girls. It was really tough but also really rewarding work. I didn’t find my way into early childhood and nature-based education until I had my own kids. After having my first child, I stayed home for the first year. During this time, I began to realize there was a lack of early education options for families who valued time outdoors, connection to nature, and free play time. It was in searching for options for my own child that I discovered forest kindergarten and nature-based preschools…and I just went down the rabbit hole. I started to read books like “Last Child in the Woods” and Peter Gray’s work on play, and I realized I needed to change my whole career path. At the time I was teaching middle school special education, so I changed gears. I did a certificate program and got certified as a Forest Kindergarten teacher. Then, I decided to stay home and educate my own kids that way. I did that for a number of years. Once we moved back to the Albany area, I got back into working full time in early education.
Describe your educational philosophy?
In order to optimize young children’s development they really only need a few things: They need a lot of access to free play because that is really the way children learn; They need the freedom of unrestricted movement; And they need a teacher who is willing to serve as a guide. I believe it is my role as a teacher to support the child’s own discovery of the world. I am there to keep the environment safe for them, but I am not directing or imposing my own ideas. I allow the child to explore the world through a lot of hands-on experiences. I take my cues from what the child is interested in, and I follow their lead as much as possible as to what they want to learn. Children are already natural students of the world. This age is a constant, concentrated petri dish of knowledge, learning, and absorbing. I am really there as someone who can help put context to their own thoughts and ideas. I can help direct their learning, scaffold their skills, and connect the dots that they are already naturally putting together for themselves.
How would you differentiate progressive education from other educational models? 
There is such a strong social and emotional piece to progressive learning. Progressive education is child-centered, which means that as teachers we get to spend time building a relationship with the child. This relationship is key to helping the child discover who they are, what their strengths are, and how to form relationships not only with each other but towards other peers, adults, and the natural environment. Those relationships build confidence, motivate and direct learning, and give the child a sense of themselves and how they might begin to contribute to their community.
What do you like about teaching at Parker?
Parker has been on my radar for years. I always dreamed of being able to teach in a progressive setting that believed in emergent curriculum and this idea that children are natural learners who need teachers to follow their lead in helping them decide what they want to learn and what motivates them. Parker also offers this connection to nature and the outdoors. The school really stands out because it is so unique for our area in terms of both philosophy and what the campus has to offer. 
What role do you feel Parker’s campus plays in your students’ learning experiences?
The richness and diversity of our little biosphere here provides me with an organic teaching partner. At this age, we want our students to have hands-on experiences and connect their learning to the real world, and that is exactly what nature provides. It is also what Parker provides because it’s right at our doorstep. I absolutely love this age group because they are such natural explorers. They remind me so much of my own childhood, and connecting back to those roots feels like a really wonderful way to teach children. It feels really in line with what is developmentally appropriate for them.
Why do you think it is important to incorporate nature into education?
There is this concept in nature-based education that nature is the third teacher. Nature, the child, and the adult are all teaching one another in a perpetual loop. I look at nature as a co-teacher. It supports me in curriculum building. It supports me in giving the children an outlet for their movement, which they need to optimize their learning at this age. Nature provides constant opportunities for discovery and sensory experiences. Partnering nature with education also builds the foundation for environmental stewardship, climate change, and all of these bigger, more complex environmental issues. You have to love the earth before you can do the work of protecting it, and those seeds of love are planted early. When children have a relationship to the natural world that they love, then they can start to develop skills like empathy. There is nothing more powerful than when you are out in the woods and you come across something like a dead animal, or even a squashed bug, that elicits a natural, empathic response from a child. You can talk about those things or read a story book about them, but when you actually see it for yourself it builds experiences that you can’t have otherwise. 
What is happening in your classroom right now?
We have been on a tree theme all year long that was inspired by our early hikes in the woods. I am new to Parker, so we spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year familiarizing ourselves with the grounds. Everyone in our group was surprised to discover an apple tree and a pear tree growing right here on campus! That discovery really gripped us, and so we decided to study apples and apple trees. That was our first big unit, and it culminated in a community cider pressing. From there, we moved on to study deciduous trees in general. Then, as the leaves were changing colors and falling off the trees, we talked about what and why that change was happening. Now we have moved into evergreen trees and conifers, which we have noticed still look green! This class is really interested in hands-on, practical life activities. When we did the apple tree unit, it culminated in our big cider pressing. When we did the leaf unit, it culminated with making different teas out of leaves that we found. Now with the evergreens, who knows what we will come up with? But we are really committing to this idea of trees branching out throughout our school year.
Can you describe how this emergent curriculum factors into academic work in the classroom?
Our special themes weave into every curriculum setting. In English language arts, that means reading story books on the subject (fiction and nonfiction), finding poetry and verses on the subject, and having kids write about it in their journals. On our science and social studies shelves, we have materials to promote learning about things like the life cycle of an apple tree or diagramming the parts of a leaf. Math is similar, whether it’s related to measurement or graphing. We did a leaf count and graphed how many different types of leaves we found. We collect things from the woods and bring them in to do different kinds of sorting and pattern work. Our interest-based themes find their way into every part of the curriculum and support our academic learning.
What are your hopes and dreams for the school year?
This being my first year, I am really focused on getting to know Parker, understanding the school culture, and listening to other teachers. My hope is to learn a lot this year and figure out what the overall thread of a Parker school year looks like. I think I am already on a similar page to others here, so I hope that what I’m doing is tying in and creating a nice bridge between the preschool and older lower school programs.
My big dream over my time at Parker is to really build up our outdoor programming and classroom space. We already have spaces in the woods that we visit frequently, and we love to go there, play, and observe how the space changes. For my first year, I think it makes sense for me to really focus on getting my bearings in the classroom. Long term, I really see us striving for an even more balanced split between our time spent indoors and our time spent outdoors.