Opinion: NZEI Te Riu Roa (New Zealand Educational Institute) reports more than 500 vacancies for early childhood education (ECE) teachers despite the government’s recent and welcome decision to raise their income.
But the problem with early childhood education (ECE) is not just money going into teachers’ pockets. It is the toxic working conditions that have become endemic across the education sector that has a Faustian agreement with commercial service providers.
The expansion of the sector can be attributed to the entrepreneurs who have come forward and created services and provided a service for parents that enables them to be more than parents to young children.
It has created jobs, especially for women.
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With affordable early childhood care available, parents, especially mothers, can contribute to their family’s income. They can follow jobs. They can study.
However, the system requires parents to also be critical and intelligent consumers of early childhood education services, who are adept at masking dysfunctional indicators in the pursuit of commercial survival.
The emigration of experienced teachers out of the sector is a canary in the coal-mine pointer behind the facade of Happy Days, the human experience of frustrating, demanding, and deadly early childhood environments.
Many parents believe that the sector is regulated and audited and that regulators ensure compliance. What some parents don’t know is that regulations look very poor in most areas, reviews are poorly implemented, and monitors are teachers who are often afraid to report, have few places to report, and are often ignored when they do.
Some teachers became ill, injured, and morally unable to continue in their chosen profession. With far fewer student teachers in training, replacements are not easily found, adding to the burden on those who remain.
This often leaves children in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions where their physical, emotional and cognitive needs are not being met.
Large groups of children, from 30 to more than 50 children, may include any number of children from 2 to 3 years of age, as well as children up to 6 years of age.
Children under 3 years old need extra physical and personal care. Their emotional development depends on safe, reliable, and constantly available adult interactions. When the lineage is an adult to 10 children, this is impossible.
This percentage requires children to try to build strong relationships with three, five or more adults, in a sea of other children who also want to connect with adults.
Routines in the center take up most of the teacher’s time and attention when the number of children is very high.
Imagine the times for snacks and meals. Preparation, hand washing, supervision, ensuring nutritional requirements are met, and disinfection. Noise alone usually harms everyone in the environment.
It is common to have in one large room, mat time for the older kids while the younger ones are eating.
It seems logical for two teachers to manage groups of children, until you notice that the management includes children who have their own interests, motivations, and passions.
Routines, which seem very reasonable to manage, may not make sense for children. Their teachers have to deal with the center’s need for order, as well as the drive of individual children to be individuals.
These are kids who may or may not speak English very little. They may refuse to come for small mattresses, or Kay’s time. The role of a support person can be very challenging.
Even with the concept of mat times being phased out in many centers, it appears to be a control mechanism when there are not enough teachers.
Forced breaks are often a way to allow the teacher to take lunch breaks. Some lunch breaks are taken in the teachers’ cars as there is no room for the staff. The available space is sometimes cluttered, hot, cold, chaotic, and noisy—nothing more than a closet with one chair in it.
Changing a nappy for children 2 to 3 years old takes one milestone and reduces the percentage of adults available for the rest of the children.
A child who is badly distressed or injured, or a child who is prone to injuring others, takes another teacher, bringing the ratio down even further.
There is a misconception of many managers at ECE, that the ratio of adults to children is calculated at the center level. Teachers may be in a desk, which reduces opportunities for children to interact.
Teachers are entitled to a break of at least 10 minutes in the morning and afternoon. They need it. This is one teacher while everyone sits down, drinks, snacks, and relaxes their ears and bodies.
Carrying, carrying, undressing and undressing young children several times a day, every day for years, causes injuries. Educators know this, but very little research is being done in this area. A 2018 study on the well-being of early childhood teachers showed that 44 percent of them had experienced an injury in the past 12 months. Many people tolerate and exacerbate long-term progressive conditions.
I know the teachers came home and broke down in tears from exhaustion and back, hip and foot injuries. I’ve been there myself.
The negative mental health of the teacher negatively affects the mental health of the children.
Everyday tasks in an early childhood center are by no means the only tasks teachers perform. Documentation of activities, rationale, planning, self-reflections, and evidence for parents of their children’s experience and development is required.
This should happen at a time of no contact. This allotment of computer time is at the discretion of employers. It cannot happen if there are not enough teachers. Most of it happens in teachers’ time.
Early childhood educators arrive at work every day holding the expectations of the Department of Education, the Education Review Office (ERO) and the Teaching Council.
They must comply with the expectations of the employers..
Children 2 to 3 years old need their own proportions and group sizes. The current conditions are inhumane, and they were allowed to stay even as the centers’ licenses were increased to 150 children.
Early childhood educators need parental support, just as parents need our support.
When the common people are fully aware of the conditions of many of their children, and some of their teachers are broken in mind, body, and heart, they may demand the best of their services and of the government. It is already too late for many.
Susan Bates is an educator, researcher, advocate, author, and founder of the Teachers Advocacy Group (TAG), a Facebook support group that works to advance rights and social justice in early childhood education.