Making small moments big

The road from teacher to early-childhood expert brings Rachel Giannini to the Kiwanis International convention.

Story by Tony Knoderer

If you went back in time to Rachel Giannini’s childhood and told her that she would grow up to be a nationally respected teacher of small children, she probably wouldn’t believe it. Or even want to hear it. 

“I never wanted to be a teacher,” Giannini says today. “I hated school. On my report cards, my teachers would write, ‘Rachel can’t work without disturbing other students.’”

Little did she know that her outgoing, hands-on way of learning contained the seed that would make her one of the foremost experts on early-childhood education. In fact, a philosophy of learning through play will bring her to the 2022 Kiwanis International Convention in Indianapolis. 

On Thursday, June 9, Giannini will address the Ready To Learn Kiwanis Launchpad, showing attendees how to turn small moments into learning opportunities. Then she’ll lead an interactive lab to emphasize how every moment matters in the development of a young child’s brain. All in all, her approach to early-childhood education matches Kiwanis’ emphasis on the importance of play both to children’s development and to the effectiveness of adults’ service. 

But the road that brought Giannini to her current prominence — and to the Kiwanis International convention — took some surprising turns along the way.

Rachel Giannini films an episode of the Virtual Yellow Room Half Hour Variety Hour in Chicago, IL on Saturday July 4, 2020. Photographer: Christopher Dilts

It makes sense somehow
Giannini was a college student taking a class on interpreting sign language when something clicked.

“The teacher told us, ‘Children learn best through play,’” she says. “That really resonated with me.”

It was an insight that sent Giannini’s life — from her college major to her future career — in a new direction. But even then, finding your calling isn’t the same thing as hitting the jackpot. She loved her work, but like many teachers, she also needed a second job to make ends meet. One path toward a steady income was to get an advanced degree, so she began working on her master’s in Museum Exhibiting and Education.

Then came one of those unforeseen turns.

In 2015, Giannini was teaching pre-kindergarten while a crew of documentary filmmakers were searching nationwide for classrooms in which to film. They reached out to the Erickson Institute, where a former teacher of Giannini worked. That teacher suggested Giannini.

“I got a phone call,” she says. “I knew nothing, only that people were asking to come into my room for several months. We had parents and lawyers talking: ‘Your children could be in the documentary — are you OK with that?’”

It’s not necessarily an easy call for anyone, including the teacher, but Giannini understood the film would highlight the importance of early-childhood education and its underappreciated impact on kids and society at large.

Giannini was in. And that little film, eventually called “No Small Matter,” would change her life.

“It was all very happenstance,” she says. “I was just in the right place at the right time, with the right person speaking up on my behalf. The road is winding, but it makes sense somehow.”

Reaching people
Master’s degree in hand, Giannini had moved on to the Chicago Children’s Museum when the filmmakers were finishing the editing on “No Small Matter.” Of course, a documentary about early-childhood education wasn’t destined to compete in the multiplex with the latest comic-book spectacle, so the filmmakers decided they needed a grassroots movement.

“They said, ‘How about making videos for promotion?’” Giannini says. “It wasn’t so much for the film but about supporting early education.”

She started making the videos — and then found that she had started reaching people.

“I was getting calls: ‘We’d love it if you could come speak to our teachers, speak to educators,’ that kind of thing.”

Eventually, Giannini became popular enough that she didn’t have time for both her day job at the Children’s Museum and the growing demand for her social-media and in-person appearances. She describes her current work as a “new adventure,” but for an accomplished educator, each step away from classroom settings carries a certain melancholy.

“When I left the classroom, it was a sad moment,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m not making a difference in the lives of 20 kids anymore.’ Then I realized I could reach 200 in a museum. And now, if I talk to 1,000 teachers and each of them teaches 20 kids, that trickle-down is huge. I’m giving information to teachers on why something is important — and how they can do it themselves.” 

In fact, Giannini’s latest path has led her to all kinds of people who can make a difference in young kids’ development, regardless of what they do for a living.

“You don’t have to be an educator,” she says. “You just have to care. If you have even a foot in early-childhood education, I want to talk to you.”

Rocket science
That’s what makes Giannini’s appearance at the Kiwanis International convention a natural fit. Indeed, this year’s event will be her second consecutive visit.

“Coming in and giving tactile takeaways that people can take with them — that’s huge,” she says. “It’s even better because (Kiwanians) aren’t paid to serve. It’s truly from the bottom of their hearts.”

But a desire to serve is only the beginning. Knowing how babies and young children learn — and why that learning will matter for the rest of their lives — helps adults serve them effectively. After all, 85% of a child’s brain development is complete by age 3. By age 5, it’s 90% complete.

“A lot of people don’t realize what’s happening in a small child’s brain,” Giannini says. “Rocket science is happening in a small child’s brain. I mean, they’re going from knowing nothing to walking and talking and learning things about their world in a year or two.”

In the last year or so, that knowledge and wonder has come home to Giannini. Literally. She’s now the parent of a one-year-old, and she’s found that she’s learning some new things herself.

“Holy crumbs! It’s the hardest job I’ll ever have,” she says. “I always gave parents massive credit because parents are a kid’s first and best teacher. But now I know the slack I should have given them. I really want to promote a level of understanding for parents’ need for caregivers — the people who make life a little easier for parents.”

Giannini’s sense of empathy is one key to her popularity. All that experience in making learning fun turns out to be pretty effective with adult audiences as well. For educators and noneducators alike, it leaves people confident that they can do it too. 

“Any interaction you have with a small child that’s meaningful and authentic makes a difference,” Giannini says. “What I believe in — making the world a better place — depends on getting to kids earlier. That Kiwanis also believes in that is truly phenomenal.”

This story originally appeared in the June/July 2022 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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