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Burned Out And Broke : Early Childhood Education Needs Recognition And Funding

I was somewhat alarmed at the recent report by ChildForum that many New Zealand publicly funded Early Childhood (ECE) Centres are performing on a somewhat below par basis. I am a fully qualified early childhood education (ECE) teacher but am not currently teaching in a centre. Nevertheless, I do teach at tertiary level, including ECE initial teacher education. I have spent some time over the last three years teaching in ECE centres in New Zealand.

My reaction to the above report is somewhat divided – probably much like the quality of education ECE centres in New Zealand. I know that there are many high quality ECE centres and dedicated teachers in New Zealand who are quite frankly doing a fantastic job educating and caring for our children – despite significant challenges.

These challenges include low pay and very tiring working conditions. There are vast pay differences between privately owned and community centres and the Free Kindergarten Association. There is also no pay parity between the ECE sector and primary and secondary sectors. Sadly, as a society we do not value ECE teachers enough.

In addition (and as reflected in the report by ChildForum) teachers also often have little noncontact time to complete essential tasks such as teaching preparation and assessment of children. It is standard for teachers to have between one to three hours a week to do all the necessary behind the scenes work. This is not nearly enough time to write individualized assessments for each child, attend staff meetings, plan learning opportunities and set up the environment. Stressed teachers often take work home and do it on their own time.

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The ChildForum report also stated that a quarter of the teaching staff did not endorse the quality of ECE in their centre. They cited insufficient time to develop individual relationships with children and concerns of adult-to-child ratios not being met.

When these things happen teachers burn out.

A whopping 50% said that they had to clean the centre while caring for children. Wait, what? So that means that their employers don’t have to hire a cleaner, but instead use the teachers. This does not happen in primary or secondary schools. And you don’t see a university lecturer polishing the ivory tower. It would be weird. So why are our ECE teachers made to clean when all their attention should be on the children in their care?

Is it perhaps because undermining and sexist discourses still pervade society and ECE teachers are regarded as doing little more than ‘babysitting’ and housecleaning? Is it that those roles considered the work of women are undervalued and marginalized?

There is incongruity here on so many levels. Most of us know how significant the early years are and how they shape all aspects of our lives. It takes highly specialized knowledge and expertise to educate under five-year-olds.

We should all be standing up for our tamariki and mokopuna. They deserve unstressed teachers who can develop strong nurturing relationships with them and their families. They need to be in centres that provide a sense of belonging and community connection. Their cognitive and socio-emotional competencies are being shaped and they need an environment that fosters this.

For the under twos this is particularly important. Current research indicates that the first 1000 days of a child’s life are a time where optimal health , growth and brain development take place. It is a window of opportunity that once closed stays closed.

The early years matter.

The whole situation is entirely unfair on both children and teachers. ECE teachers are highly qualified and have spent years at a university. They have left university with a big student loan and are now chained to a workplace environment that undermines them, exploits them and undervalues them.

They might just leave.

When the odds are as bad as this it is difficult for the ECE sector to retain and attract qualified teachers. And so it is a circular road to nowhere. Burned out teachers in busy centres with low teacher-child ratios and insufficient support does not lead to quality teaching. Yet quality teaching is the single most important factor (apart from sufficient funding) to make an ECE centre tick over happily. It can lead to good outcomes for children whose wellbeing and developmental needs are being met. Isn’t that what we all want for our children?

Let’s be clear about one thing – ECE teaching is not child’s play. ECE teaching demands a high level of professionalism and expertise. This should be recognized and teachers should be supported and rewarded for their work.

Pay parity and recognition of the importance of the ECE sector in New Zealand is long overdue. Many of our children are getting lost in a broken system and it’s not good enough.

Stand up New Zealand and speak out for the teachers of our children.

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