Who are early childhood educators? What do they exactly do? How did they get into the field? What are their qualifications? All of these questions are essential to truly understanding the workforce that supports our Nation’s youngest learners. Sadly, these questions often go unasked. People outside of the field have little or no understanding of the importance of early childhood education and tremendous work that early educators engage in. This is why we hear people referring to early childhood educators as “babysitters,” “teachers,” “daycare workers,” or “educators.” There is no unified title to support those working in the field. Early childhood educators are not even sure what to call themselves. There are a multitude of names for educators in addition to various types of early education settings. For the purpose of our series we will refer to ourselves as educators, as that is what we are. We should also clarify that using the term “daycare” or “babysitter” does not indicate the form of respect that early educators desperately deserve. Early educators are just that – educators supporting the development of children from birth through the age of five.
This of course brings up another set of questions from the public: why should we care about the educational opportunities provided to children from birth through age five? Don’t they just play? Or the most dreaded of comments: they will learn when they go to “real” school. However we now know that the period of development from birth to age five is essential to providing positive outcomes for children. Ninety percent of the brain is developed within the first five years of life. Research has shown that what a child learns in the first five years of life will affect the trajectory of their lives. Early educators teach children by providing learning opportunities through play and nurturing environments that build essential connections in their brains. Play IS learning for children in the early years and should never be diminished.
Early learning environments vary greatly and there are an abundance of different types and categories of settings. Within each category there are many different philosophies and variations of these settings. Diversity of environments for early learning allows each family and child to choose what is best for them. No options are better or worse as long as they are providing high-quality care. We will start to define high-quality early education later in this series.
One of the most important goals for the field of early childhood education is the professionalization of the workforce. We must begin to define the standards and qualifications for early educators in order to bring the respect that this field needs and deserves. Just as there is no unified title for early childhood educators, there are no nationally unified criteria for those working in the field. The state of Vermont recently rolled out a set of new childcare regulations that increase the educational requirements for those working in early childhood education. Coupled with the Act 166 funding, which requires childcare centers or home-based providers to have a licensed teacher for preschool education, Vermont is seeing in influx demand for highly qualified early educators. However, the education requirements are not reflected in the compensation, benefits, and reputation that plague the field. Early education businesses struggle to pay their employees a livable wage and many do not offer any benefits. Public education teachers have recently had their moment in the spotlight as they advocate for their own livable wages both locally and nationally. According to app.com, Vermont teachers make an average salary of $58,578 (https://www.app.com/story/news/investigations/data/analysis/2018/04/12/teacher-salary-2017/508703002/). The Vermont Commission on Women and Let’s Grow Kids white paper report titled Women, Work, and Child Care lists the annual average salary for a childcare worker in Vermont as $25,080, below the livable wage. This salary disparity is one of the root causes for the frequent turn over and lack of high quality educators in the field, proving that simply increasing the educational requirements will not alone professionalize the field. Instead, it creates a “top down” approach, where regulations are forcing workers into costly professional development situations that are not publicly recognized nor compensated. This isn’t to say that there are no programs that support professional development in the early education field and help to carry the cost burden. However, this cannot be a one directional approach. Early educators, in collaboration with other supporters of the field, need to find their voice and speak for their own needs. The community needs to truly understand and value the contributions that early educators provide our society. Professionalization of the early education workforce will assure more children can receive a higher quality of care and learning during their most formative years of life. Working together to create an appropriate path for professionalizing the field will foster respect for the educators and, in turn, increases in income, hours, and benefits will follow.
Currently, there are many organizations that are working to pave the way for professionalism of early education. Nationally, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, or NAEYC, is engaging in this task through their Power to the Profession initiative. Locally, Vermont Birth to Five is investing in the continued development of the profession. The state recognizes the need to offer continued professional support to advance the quality and quantity of early educators in the field. Other initiatives, such as The Empowerment Project (a professional development series hosted by Positive Spin, LLC and sponsored by Let’s Grow Kids) work to engage the workforce community in advocacy, collaboration, and brainstorming on a local level. Early educators who see the professionalization of the field on the horizon should be strongly encouraged to join movements at both the local and national levels. As graduates of The Empowerment Project, we highly recommend this series to kick start ideas and momentum toward effective advocacy. Aside from the skills and mindful approaches addressed in the series, participants gain knowledge of the colleagues and agencies that are working to support them. The series also provides a forum to share innovations and desired outcomes with those who can provide a direct impact. Recognizing the importance of each persons voice in this advocacy movement is essential to ensuring an achievable plan for the professionalization of the field.
Join the conversation!
If you are an early educator or support the early education field in any way here are some resources to help you become involved:
If you are a parent, grandparent, or community member who is interested in learning more about the early childhood profession and advocacy: