Super student opens successful consulting business

York University alumna Joanne Babalis (BEd '06, MEd '13) has had a successful career as an educator. After acquiring her Master of Education degree at York’s Faculty of Education, she went on to create a blog about education that reached three million views, opened a studio and started a consulting business.

Babalis’ interest in education started at the age of 12 when she worked as a volunteer in Kindergarten classrooms. “My role model was my grade five teacher,” she says. In striving to be like her role model, Babalis volunteered throughout middle school, high school, and during her undergraduate years at York University.

Her journey into a career as an educator began at York where she completed her bachelor degrees in English and Education (BEd). As part of her BEd, she did her practicum with the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) along with 60 fellow teacher candidates. “The year we spent together we were like family,” Babalis says. “The experience was very new for all of us and we were an incredible support system for each other. I remember pinching myself as a reminder that I was actually accepted into the BEd program and was going to become a teacher!”

After completing her BEd, Babalis was hired by the YRDSB as a long-term occasional teacher where she taught grade three and was then offered a permanent contract in her first year. Babalis went on to teach a grade one and two combined class, kindergarten alternate day, and was one of the first to teach Full-Day Kindergarten in the province. Over the years she has held a number of leadership positions including Lead for the Board’s Kindergarten Network, Early Years Regional Teacher for BBFK (Building Blocks for Kindergarten Program) and Program Leader or the Board’s Summer Institute

After about a year of teaching, Babalis realized she wanted to go further and learn more. To that end, she took 14 Additional Qualification (AQ) courses at York. “I was passionate to improve as a teacher,” she says. “One professor asked me why I wasn’t doing a Masters degree given all the AQs I had. I was doing the AQs as if I was studying for something bigger. I applied to the Master of Education (MEd) program at York and was accepted.”

After completing the MEd and acquiring her Graduate Diploma in Early Childhood Education in 2013, Babalis was invited to instruct the Kindergarten Additional Qualification courses at York for five years. She continues to teach AQs at York part-time and is currently working toward her PhD in Education which she hopes to complete by 2020.

During her studies at York, Babalis encountered the Reggio Emilia approach to pedagogy that involves seeing children as subjects of rights, including the right to be listened to and heard, as well as having their identities recognized. It also includes seeing school as a place of research for both teachers and students, and supports the child’s creativity, recognizing their individuality.

To bring the Reggio Emilia Approach to her own context, Babalis opened a creative studio and learning centre and documented the process on her blog. The blog acquired three million views worldwide as other educators became interested in transforming their work inspired by the Italian philosophy. Her efforts have been featured in training DVDs for both the Ministry of Education and the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario and in articles by The Toronto Star. Babalis has also presented her work at numerous conferences and at other universities.

Although she had achieved a high level of success with her blog, Babalis wanted to take things even further. Struggling to find suitable education options for her kids, she took matters into her own hands and created an opportunity to explore an emergent curriculum for them. “Having a two and three year-old, I decided to implement the theory into practice with my kids,” she says. “I wanted to demonstrate that education can begin as early as birth and all of the experiences collectively can shape a child's lifelong learning.”

As part of her work to bring research to life, Babalis has redesigned her studio to engage parents. Her studio now offers sessions for parents and their children including opportunities and experiences in relationship building, play, nurturing creativity and inquiring into the world. Other areas include helping infants develop their independence and confidence through songs, stories and positive social interactions. Programs are also available for school aged children to pursue inquiry projects in small groups.

Her blog’s popularity also enabled Babalis to start a consulting service. She now speaks at educational conferences, and is hired regularly to conduct training at pre-schools, private schools, school boards and Ministries of Education across North America, Europe, Asia, and UAE either in person or virtually. In addition to all of this, she has completed two monographs, given eight keynotes and is presently working on three scholarly articles,.

“York University played a pivotal role in helping me to achieve all of all this,” Babalis says. “I always had the support of my supervisors Dr. Isabel Killoran and Dr. Gillian Parekh and from fellow graduate students Marlena Ochnik, Ellen Brown, and Niki Belegrinis. My experiences both theoretically and practically have helped to shape me into the educator that I am today and have exceeded my wildest dreams! I am grateful for this strong foundation to my career in education and to Dr. Carol Anne Wien for introducing me to the Reggio Emilia Approach that I have travelled to Italy to learn.”

Babalis is currently launching her own educational shop with resources for classrooms and for parents with young children. “I continue to be grateful for my roots, especially the blog, which opened up a whole new world as an entrepreneur for my continued work in early childhood education,” she says. She also advises students to find a platform to express their passion. “Engage on social media and in your community in some capacity -- for you never know what might transpire and the potential of your own reach.”