Stepping Back from the Edge

Tonya Martin photo

“Working as an early childhood educator, I make very little money. I give my all to the children in my care. Yet, I can barely pay my mortgage and keep the lights on in my house. For dinner most nights, I eat popcorn or ramen noodles because I literally can’t afford anything else,” said Tonya Martin.

Tonya Martin

As an infant-toddler educator, Tonya struggles with critically low pay and she works an additional part-time job to survive. It is a constant and ongoing challenge, but her passion for young children drives her.

Tonya remembers, “I’ve always known I wanted to work with children. When I was young, my mother ran an in-home child care and I was always helping in that arena. I loved being around the younger kids. As I got older, I would pretend my dolls were my students. I was always holding someone’s baby or had a toddler on my lap.”

When she went to college, she started as a psychology major, intending to serve children in that capacity. A class volunteer assignment, though, put her on another path.

Tonya said, “I volunteered at a campus child care center. As soon as I stepped foot in there, I knew it. I said, ‘Tonya, what are you doing? You know you want to be in an early childhood classroom.’ I changed my major right then and there.”

She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and she grew as a teacher as a result.

“One of the main things I learned from my education at UNC-G was about child-directed activities and lesson plans. That really shaped how I maneuver as a teacher. I watch the kids first and see what they are interested in. I scaffold. I build on what they were doing the day before. There was already a seed in me, but my education helped that seed blossom,” said Tonya.

She continues to learn as a teacher, especially now with all the changes COVID-19 has brought to the early childhood field.

Tonya stated, “It has been a big change for everybody. I work for Early Head Start and we’ve been able to evolve with the pandemic. We’ve been doing virtual learning and that’s new for all of us. We had to hit the ground running and it’s definitely different with toddlers. COVID-19 has turned everything into an experience and an experiment.”

Teaching has been rewarding for Tonya, and she’s proud of the relationships she has built over her 15 years in the field.

“I’m still in contact with many of the children I first started with as a teacher. The parents still remember me. I’ve touched some lives and that gets to me,” she said.

Teaching young children also comes with challenges and Tonya is very clear about the biggest one – compensation.

She said, “We don’t go into this field thinking we are going to become wealthy, but you do expect to be able to take care of your basic needs and a lot of times that is impossible. You are living paycheck to paycheck, which can be very depressing. I have a bachelor’s degree and I’m working two jobs and I can barely make ends meet. I cut back on this and get rid of that, and I’m barely scratching the surface. When I think about my finances, it is disheartening. You love the kids and families, being able to be a part of their learning process, but on the other side, you are coming home not knowing if your lights will be on, not knowing if you can make rent this month. You are taking care of a classroom full of little ones, but you cannot take care of your own needs as a working person.”

Tonya is very grateful to receive salary supplements from Infant-Toddler Educator AWARD$® Plus, and was one of the first participants paid when the program began. She was ready for it!

Tonya said, “I used to receive WAGE$ and when my county stopped supporting it, my life crumbled. When AWARD$ Plus came, it was just a godsend. AWARD$ Plus has absolutely eased some of this financial stress. I get chills just thinking about it. It has been so incredibly helpful. When I get to the edge and think I’m going to quit and just go work for Target, that boost in income is enough to make me step back. I feel like I can keep doing what I love and stay in the field.”