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College of Education

Distinguished Former Faculty Peggy Cooney


Child development as a career path seemed like an obvious choice to Peggy when she graduated from high school.  The second of seven children, she not only had plenty of practice caring for young children, she had a reputation for doing it well. Majoring in child development made perfect sense as did attending hometown Cornell University, where she would learn from world-renowned scholars.

Peggy knew that a child development career would require graduate work, but she postponed that in order to explore the region of Central America.  A Cornell placement officer suggested a one-year teaching assignment in Guatemala and Peggy applied. She accepted the job teaching Kindergarten at the American School, and set off for an adventure that would not only clarify her professional direction but provide a theme for the rest of her career.

Peggy didn’t speak Spanish when she arrived in Guatemala in 1964, but school administrators weren’t concerned. The kindergarteners learned English, while their young teacher absorbed their native language.  That wasn’t the only transformation that was taking place in her classroom.   Reflecting on her year abroad, she says, “I learned that teaching was the career that I wanted.  There was no question.”  The desire to teach wasn’t the only take away from her Guatemala experience. She had a chance to better understand an indigenous culture where deep poverty impacts a large percentage of the population.  It was the first of several experiences that shaped her approach to teaching and her eventual research agenda.

Peggy returned to the U.S. and completed a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction, with an elementary teaching certificate, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Peggy taught at schools in Wisconsin, California and New York.

She moved to Laramie with her two young sons and husband David, who joined the College of Engineering faculty.  Preferring preschool programs, she accepted a teaching position at the Laramie Cooperative Preschool.  Her response to an important question – What would you do differently? – made an impression on the parent run board. They hired Peggy and helped her implement the learning center approach that she recommended in her job interview.  The change was a success with students, parents and teachers.

Peggy took the learning center approach with her in 1984, when she accepted the directorship of the University of Wyoming Child Care Center. She and assistant director Karen Williams, with other teaching staff, redesigned the UWCCC’s program into multi-age learning centers.   “Research shows that children and adults learn best in small groups, where they can interact actively with peers and materials, rather than listening passively,” Peggy says.  Most parents of the children in the center had ties to the University of Wyoming. Many were adult students returning to college. Adding to their initial anxiety were concerns about finding appropriate care for their children.    “When they saw how their children thrived, they realized they could go to school, study, and not worry,” she says. “It was very rewarding.”

Peggy left the Child Care Center in 1991 to pursue a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction at UW. Burning questions about best practices in early childhood education, and the chance to research the role of play in early education, fueled this next phase of her professional life.

Following graduation in 1994, Peggy accepted a tenure track position in the College of Education. The challenge was substantial as after one year she became the only early childhood faculty member.  Peggy regularly taught 12 credit hours per semester in addition to launching her research agenda.  In 1997, Michelle Buchanan was hired and the early childhood program gained momentum.  Support from the college administration and funding from external sources, including the Daniels Fund and the John P. “Jack” Ellbogen Foundation, facilitated program growth that met the ever-increasing need to serve undergraduate and graduate students statewide.   The Interdisciplinary Early childhood Education endorsement and the Early Childhood Special Education certification were established as distance delivery programs.

Peggy’s professional challenge expanded in 1999, when she accepted a three year appointment as chairperson of the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education.  “I enjoyed all of the program pieces,” she says of the administrative responsibilities. “The part that was most challenging was the personnel demands in supporting faculty and staff as they support students.”

Peggy returned to Guatemala in 2003 for her sabbatical year. She taught at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala while studying perceptions of children’s play in two local schools. Her research took a mixed-methods approach: surveying parents and teachers and observing children in their school settings.   

Peggy’s legacy includes an initiative that invites in-depth study around issues of social justice. Peggy and former education faculty member Omowale Akintunde co-founded the Symposium for the Eradication of Social Inequality, now known as the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice. Originally established as a college-level learning opportunity for education majors, the annual event has evolved into a National Symposium addressing the inequalities embedded in society around race, class, and gender.

As shown in this description, Peggy has strong beliefs.  In her words, “It’s very important that when a contribution is made, if it’s worthy, it becomes institutionalized so it’s not associated with a person.  It belongs to people who are involved in it now.”  This belief toward enduring contributions applies to the Shepherd Symposium, the UW early childhood online programs, the campus programs and the Early Care & Education Center, as well as the initiatives taken to integrate diversity and play into these programs.  The importance of all contributions is for those who use them now.


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Distinguished Former Faculty

Peggy Cooney
2013 Distinguished Former Faculty Peggy Cooney

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