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"The Glorified Babysitter..." Or not. The Truth about Early Education.

**Special thanks to Amanda and Rachel, a former co-worker and my former director at a center, for allowing me to post pictures from when I taught their beautiful girls.**

A few years ago, I got into it with someone--mistakenly, I assumed we were kidding around as I laughingly made up stupid insults, whereas he was seriously lobbing verbal grenades my way. One cutting remark he made sticks with me. "You teach preschool kids because you can't handle being a real teacher."

Re-reading those words now still makes me want to throw a chair at his head...and I'm someone who feels bad killing spiders! As a now-former preschool teacher, I, nor the millions of other early childhood teachers out there, chose that profession because we couldn't handle anything else. Let's be clear: very few can handle it. Sixteen children in a classroom bawling all at once because a fire alarm terrified them out of nap? Corralling fifteen children under the age of 18 months to participate in activities designed weeks in advance? Potty training, teaching the alphabet, singing nursery rhymes (oh...the nursery rhymes...) and building basic life skills? Many grown adults can't handle it with one child let alone more than ten at once.

At first glance, early childhood centers often look like magically colorful places where children play all day, and a glorified babysitter changes children, feeds children and naps a child according to a parents' wishes. It's like a kid spa. The truth is far less simple, and often overlooked because parents and the general public simply aren't there during working hours to see what happens behind the scenes. Comments like the one hurled at me all those years ago are woefully mistaken and ignorant reminders that early education (and, in all honesty, all educators of all levels) are under-appreciated, undervalued and not understood by the outside world...which is part of the problem with the education system.

So let's have a quick glimpse into the background of early childhood centers, shall we?

Lesson plans, by high-quality centers, are often designed with state standards in mind--and various accreditation requirements in place. Experts in education have developed specific goals for age groups split by months, for cognition, sensory activities, art and music, mathematical and logical skills, science talents, and verbal expression. These experts have windows for typically developing children where certain goals should be met, and targets they should meet before early intervention services are recommended.

As a teacher, not only do these standards mean designing your classroom to be the most optimal learning environment (no reading area next to a music area, for example, but both are required), it means setting up lesson plans for age-appropriate developmental goals. What does THAT mean? Basic life skills--everything from picking up a fork and spoon appropriately to being able to sightread letters. It means being able to handle textures so that when a child turns thirty, they aren't avoiding major food groups because they can't handle the way it feels. It means raising a future adult who can hold their spoon the right way and not look like the Beast in Beauty in the Beast circa dinnertime. The critical learning years are between 0-5. The brain grows exponentially and children do more learning during that time frame than any other phase in their lives. In order to capitalize on those precious years, early education teachers bust their bottoms to cram in as much learning as possible from eye tracking in infants to math skills in pre-k. We (the general public) often forget that children are essentially blank slates when they are born, armed with genetics and environmental factors that need to be nurtured. Even the most simple of tasks for an adult (tummy time, anyone?) needs practice and dedication for a child to develop properly. That art project your child brings home with a handprint? It's probably also serving as a textural experience with cold, sticky, wet substances. That funny little shaker in a water bottle? Sounds, visual stimulation, and textural. The description from your toddler about the "slime" he made? Not only textural but a great lesson in mixing substances together to see what kind of gunk forms. What often seem like silly, fun, creative activities are also serving as lesson plans drawn out from manuals of what needs focus in a child's development at the right age.

Those report cards that come home from a preschool may be seen as a humorous rite of passage--after all, can a one year-old really earn a full grade?--but they're critical insights into what a child is missing in their development and what areas to focus on. They are also tough on time--each teacher pays individual attention to the needs of every child in their classroom to fill out evaluations about their learning, often with no planning time and during times of play from observations jotted down. These markers are such good signs for whether a child needs early intervention services--studies have shown that the earlier you target a problem, the better the results will be. By catching a child's patterns in speech, cognition, learning, spatial reasoning, and movement, early educators are often the first people to notice if something isn't typical...not because parents don't notice--but because in a classroom of 16, it is often to catch the little duckling that might not be learning to their potential. And the best results ever come from parents and teachers working together to make sure all these goals are met.

In addition to the lesson plans come requirements from outside the centers. Preschools meet state and local standards for learning, as well as Department of Public Welfare (DHS, DPW, the title varies by state) standards to be sure equipment is safe, products are cleaned, germs are at bay, and food is served properly. The number of requirements, documentation, protocols and policies are staggering and these teachers follow them gracefully though at times, they conflict even with each other.

It's impossible to address education without addressing governmental policy. In today's age, it's a tragic truth that education funding is being cut further and further from early ed to high school. High school teachers are already underpaid--early education teachers often make minimum wage or, at max, a few dollars more, through no fault of private centers or public schools but through the funding these schools receive. The money to decorate classrooms or fund art or science occasionally comes from teacher's pockets. And not a single teacher I know has ever complained about it because they deem it worthy.

And what is the impact of high quality early education? Let me tell you. The Perry Preschool Study followed a group of adults through the age of 40. The study found that adults at age 40 who underwent a high quality preschool program had higher earnings, committed fewer crimes; were more likely to hold a job, and were more likely to have graduated from high school than adults who did not have a quality preschool education. THAT is what early educators do--provide a high quality learning environment with long term benefits.

One of the kindest things I've ever heard a mom say (thanks, JH!) was, "You're as much a mother to my children as I am because you spend all their waking time during the week with them." It was a compliment that not only bonded me with her two beautiful girls more, but reminded me exactly the level of influence these teachers play on children's lives under their care. Because outside of lesson plans, protocols about safety, and meeting a thousand requirements, teachers are also the kissers of boo-boos, the singers of lullabies, the soothing hand when a child has a fever from teething, the provider of Cheez-Its, and the dance party throwers for eight hours a day--a large majority of a child's week.

Early childhood educators are not glorified babysitters. "Early education" is not a magical term to disguise being the changer of diapers. It's a challenge, one that only the able rise up to, and manage with grace. While I've left the field, my utmost respect goes out to my peers who teach early age groups or ANY age groups because of the magical influence they hold over children for their lives, the investments they make in their classroom so a child can succeed and the incredible work they do despite a lack of resources. It was my privilege to work with them then and they hold my admiration now.

So what are some things to remember?

  • An early childhood educator is not a babysitter. They are, however, a fantastic informational resource (think about how many kids they've seen!), a friend to talk about a child's development with (and to get reassurance for all that mom/dad competition!), and a team member to make your child the best they can be.

  • Parents and teachers make amazing teams--TOGETHER. During my six years, there were quite a few children who had delayed speech or motor skills that weren't quite as developed as we'd hope for. When we discussed with their initially scared parents, and we went through it as a team with early intervention services, working on those goals together, the children made remarkable strides. A teacher spends 8 hours a day with a full-time child. They make observations constantly. Combined with a parent's observations, you can nab a problem before it ever gets out of hand. And those children who needed services? Almost every single one of them ended up right on par by the following year.

  • Early educators love those children. When you think about school tragedies in the last twenty years, teachers have often been victims while protecting their students. I have spoken to teachers during emergency trainings and information and we have all unanimously said to each other, "We'd do anything to protect them." Teachers may not be mothers and fathers to the children they teach but they love them similarly.

  • A "thank you," goes a long way. Every teacher has had a parent or two who strolls in, picks up their child without a word, and leaves. Sometimes, teachers and parents are at odds about a child's development. But at the end of the day, however, early educators still love these children, take care of them and nurture their learning for a relatively small paycheck, and not a whole lot of appreciation in the government. A thank you, a gift card, a word of appreciation...they go a long way in reminding early educators of their value.

  • Open the line of communication! Lesson plans, educational trajectories, what a parent thinks is best versus what the teacher thinks is best...communicate! At the end of the day, everyone has the same goal: raise a child who has reached their potential. The best way to do that is to do it together.