Years after immigrating to the U.S., a family crisis forced Ruth Ayodeji (BA ‘15), then a mother of two, to move into a shelter with her children. Yet in that moment of crisis, Ayodeji enrolled her kids in a Head Start program and found an empowering community that inspired her desire to become an educator.
Her children’s Head Start teachers encouraged Ayodeji, working as a caretaker at the time, to volunteer at the preschool program.
“I realized this is what I want to do,” she said. “I want to change the future…. You can create a better tomorrow by empowering children right now and forming how they think.”
That realization marked a profound shift in mindset for Ayodeji, who as a child came to “dread” school because she did not see herself succeeding.
In fueling her own children’s love for reading, Ayodeji found that if she could make early learning fun and relaxing for kids — and remind them that someone cares for them — then they would be more prepared for positive school experiences.
After earning her associate’s degree in early childhood education at the encouragement of Head Start staff, Ayodeji joined the program as an assistant preschool teacher in 2003, beginning a 13-year career that included serving as a teacher family advocate and education manager.
While working as an assistant preschool teacher, Ayodeji had opportunities to fill in as a lead teacher. That role helped her understand the importance of working alongside parents in early learning. For example, parents might have difficulty bonding with their kids, she said, if they face stressful situations like food insecurity.
Ayodeji later became a teacher family advocate, which combines the duties of a lead teacher and family support staff, to better support families. That work required her to have a bachelor’s degree within three years, leading her to the University of Washington College of Education, where Ayodeji enrolled in its online early childhood and family studies program (since renamed Early Care and Education).
During her studies at the UW, Ayodeji came to better understand what it meant to support the “whole child.” It goes beyond teaching children ABCs or how to count. For her, it includes helping children build positive connections with their family members.
She explained that a child might have behavioral issues in class if they experience trauma or stress at home. Thus, it became important in Ayodeji’s work to understand each family’s situation: what support the family can access, who and where they can turn to for help, and ensuring they knew that she was a resource for them. That information was critical to help empower parents, who “are the first teachers for the children,” Ayodeji said.
As a teacher family advocate, Ayodeji was more engaged in social work. She remembers one mother dealing with a difficult home situation, resulting in her child missing class and special needs support. Supporting that child involved helping the mother find housing and arrange transportation to school for all her kids. Then, not only connecting the mother to resources but also finding family activities for her to enjoy with her kids.
“Working with the whole child means going to the root of the problem, fixing that,” Ayodeji said, “and then building on what needs to be done.”
That work fits into Ayodeji’s broader goal to help families get a quality education and learning experience for their children, regardless of income. And while Ayodeji advocates for families to get quality services, she also focuses on empowering parents to advocate for their kids.
Her education at UW deepened her understanding of what it means to listen to parents and the community. “And that I don’t know it all,” she said. “Because I am not in their shoes. I don’t know what they are going through.”
After 12 years with Head Start, Ayodeji took on a new role, becoming an education manager, where she guided a team of family support staff, teachers and teacher family advocates, among others, to support hundreds of students.
“I didn’t think I even had that capability. But my education at UW gave me that courage.”
Early this year, a desire to create a larger impact on the early childhood community brought Ayodeji back to the UW College of Education as experiential learning coordinator for its Early Care and Education online bachelor’s completion program.
While she misses teaching, especially wiping away the tears of her students and brightening their days, part of her work is to help aspiring teachers experience the same rewards of teaching.
In her current role, Ayodeji is also working to provide students — who are both current and aspiring early learning professionals — with quality service-learning opportunities. She connects the College to early childhood programs and childcare centers that can give students a place to be successful while working to expand and improve service-learning opportunities for them.
An important part of that work is to help students become more compassionate educators and realize what kind of educator they want to be.
Teachers “are the foundation of everybody,” Ayodeji said. “They are the reason why everyone else strives and succeeds.”
Story by Tracy Dinh, marketing and communications student aide.
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications