Early Childhood Education Masters and Doctoral Program Advisor and Associate Professor at Concordia University Chicago, Chicago, IL

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Annette VanAken, Program Advisor and Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education

Meet the experienced Dr. Annette VanAken, Early Childhood Education Masters and Doctoral Program Advisor and Associate Professor, within the Division of Teaching and Learning at Concordia University Chicago.

What programs do you teach at Concordia University Chicago and what is your title? What drew you to this field of study? What keeps you excited about it?

At Concordia University Chicago, I have the honor of serving as the Early Childhood Education Masters and Doctoral Program Advisor and Associate Professor, within the Division of Teaching and Learning. In this role, I can review and teach any number of the ten masters and ten doctoral courses that concentrate on early childhood content. While each course is uniquely designed to target a different topic of focus, all courses are grounded by theoretical foundations and current research, guided by child development and developmentally appropriate practices.

My passion for early childhood education is long and vast, with over 30 years of working in this field. Fascinated by the young child’s potential, the inter-related connection to the educator, theory, and how educational leaders can support and advocate for high-quality learning environments and teaching practices, my desire to grow my depth of knowledge has never wavered. Over the years, as research and scientific inquiry have supported the critical need for highly competent educators to work with the early childhood population, I find myself driven to work with passionate individuals who seek opportunities to make a significant difference in young children’s futures.

How will your programs better prepare/equip educators for the current climate they are facing? How will it help them tackle the challenges of COVID and post-COVID teaching?

At Concordia University Chicago, our masters and doctoral programs in early childhood education prepare students to become outstanding educators and leaders locally, nationally, and globally in various early childhood-related vocations. Students have opportunities to dig into the literature to strengthen their current understandings and explore new ideas to improve early childhood educational practices, polices, programming, assessment, and curriculum, in developmentally and ethical ways.

What I love about our courses is that each student explores the content within their current environment and community, so the information applies to their situation. In addition, we reach beyond the individual’s community to make critical connections to diverse contexts and current issues both challenging and strengthening the field, bringing a more global perspective to the discussion.

What attracted you to teach at Concordia University Chicago? What sets them apart?

When I learned about the position at Concordia University Chicago, the University’s mission, vision, and values attracted me. However, beyond this, the ways the individuals making up this community are committed to students and their success led me to want to be a contributing member. In addition, I was and continue to be inspired by the opportunities our early childhood programs provide students as they grow within their vocation. My colleagues are experts within their specialized fields, have practical experiences applicable to their courses, and are actively engaged in various forms of scholarship. This environment seeks meaningful engagements with students, models best practices, and aligns with NAEYC standards.

What is your professional background (including degrees) as an educator?

My professional background includes 20 years as an early childhood educator within both private and public educational systems teaching infants through second grades and the director of early childhood centers, before pursuing my doctoral degree. I earned a B.A. from Hillsdale College in Elementary Education, specializing in early childhood education, art, and English, and a M.S. in Elementary Education from the University of Southern Indiana. My doctoral degree was earned at Liberty University, a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis on early childhood literacy instruction and the inclusion of digital technology.

Growing up in a rural, low-socioeconomic area, I did not see higher education as a possibility for me. However, a few encouraging words from individuals who saw my passion for understanding and working with young children, led to me reconsidering my options. How grateful I am to have been directed to this vocation that has become a passion for my life.

Tell us a little about yourself. Why did you become interested in education?

In addition to teaching and redesigning early childhood courses within our Concordia University programs, I consult with local and international early childhood centers to support their program development. I spend time as a profession in the field as a Peer Reviewer for the Illinois Reading Council Journal, Illinois State Board of Education Early Childhood Peer Review, as well as serve on local and international boards to support the education of young children.

While working within the field of early childhood, I have observed and worked with children from varied backgrounds and experiences, however a common thread is how the power of education can transform their lives. So, I work to deepen my knowledge and discover methods for providing each child with environments and experiences that will strengthen their outcomes in all areas of development. This requires me to do many of the things I ask of our students: engage with current research, investigate, and write. Therefore, I am currently involved in several research projects with colleagues seeking to fill gaps in the literature and contribute to the field.

What would you tell prospective students considering your program about yourself? What’s something that students and colleagues should know about you?

I am passionate about people and their desire to grow their understanding as they contribute to the lives of young children. Students choosing our masters or doctoral programs will find themselves surrounded by a group of supportive professionals that use theoretical foundations of learning as the underpinnings of their educational practices. In other words, they walk the walk they talk within the classroom.

While I will challenge students to deepen their knowledge not based on trends and fads, I also support them as individuals with lives, working in the field while earning an advance degree. Relationships are critical in life and in education. Building a professional sense of community is important to me as we spend time together. It will make the experience much more collaborative and meaningful.

What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing their graduate early childhood degree? How can people stand out in this field?

My advice to students interested in pursuing either a masters or doctoral degree in early childhood education would be to communicate, ask questions, and then enroll if you are truly interested in making a difference in the lives of young people. Choosing either of the early childhood programs here at Concordia University Chicago will open up opportunities in this growing field for students.

Our collaborative and hands-on approach has students actively engaging in their learning process rather than passive participants. Through our programs, you will move beyond using trending buzz phrases and words in education, to being able to articulate what these are in both practice and meaning. This ability and your depth of knowledge will set you apart from others as a leader in early childhood education. Come join us! You will not be disappointed!