A child’s earliest years are a critical window of brain development. Early learning opportunities with a high-quality workforce lay the foundation for future success in school and in life. Early childhood teachers in centers and family child care homes build the brains of and prepare the children who will be North Carolina’s future workers, innovators and leaders. Yet, child care teachers, overwhelmingly women and primarily women of color, earn an average of just $12/hour—less than $25,000/year—even with a degree.
Nearly 40% of child care educators rely on some form of public assistance because of their unlivable wages; they are seven times more likely to live in poverty than public school kindergarten teachers. Teachers working with infants and toddlers earn the least, regardless of educational level. This wage gap disproportionately affects people of color, who are more likely to work with younger age groups.
Young children depend on stable, secure relationships and continuity of care to support their development. But with low pay and few benefits, turnover is high and 22% of teachers expect to leave the field within the next three years. Some work multiple jobs just to stay afloat and still be in the field they love.
At Child Care Services Association (CCSA), many staff not only love helping children and families, but they started helping children and families in the classroom. Staff like Jessica who is now a counselor for the Infant-Toddler Educator AWARD$® program at CCSA.
“Some of my absolute favorite years in early childhood education were spent in infant-toddler classrooms,” said Jessica. “Unfortunately, due to the lack of adequate compensation for infant-toddler teachers, those were also some of my most trying years. I consistently worked one to two part-time jobs in addition to my full-time teaching position in order to provide for myself and my daughter, and, as a single mother, there were many days when I questioned if it was worth it to stay in the field I loved.
“Eventually, I made the difficult decision to leave the classroom and worked with children and families in other capacities before being welcomed into the CCSA family,” said Jessica. “While I cherish the work I do now where I’m able to help provide infant-toddler educators with the supplemental compensation that they deserve, I do sometimes wonder how my path might have been different had my salary as an early childhood educator truly matched the immense amount of effort I put into being the best infant-toddler teacher I could be.”
We are so grateful for the staff here at CCSA, but if the early childhood education field had been viable for them, they might have stayed. Many people might have stayed, like Artrianna, who started in the classroom but is now also a counselor for the Infant-Toddler Educator AWARD$® program at CCSA.
“Working as an infant-toddler teacher has provided me with first-hand knowledge and experience with the impact low compensation has in the field of early childhood,” Artrianna said. “The high pace environment that you need to create in your classroom to keep your children engaged, the rigorous expectations the center has and the nurturing that parents expect often came crashing down on me and fellow teachers each time we were paid. There was a feeling of not being appreciated and hushed conversations of how upcoming bills were going to be paid with what was deposited into our bank accounts.
“What made it worth it each day and what fueled the fire of being an educator was the love for the children in the classroom,” Artrianna said. “With increased compensation, I believe that it would eliminate a lot of the stress that teachers experience outside of the classroom that they bring in with them each day. Clearing their mind of monetary concerns and replacing it with being able to be 100% refreshed each day, [allows them] to focus on the complete needs of the children, families and curriculum.”
We know child care teachers are the workforce behind the workforce. Families rely on our early education system to keep working, and our state’s economy does, too. Yet, one in five teachers doesn’t have health insurance during a pandemic, and many don’t have access to paid sick leave to care for themselves or their family. They have been on the frontlines of the pandemic since the beginning, risking their own health to care for children and support working families.
The state’s economic recovery and future prosperity depend on a strong early childhood workforce and child care system. Without it, North Carolina families won’t be able to go back to work. Yet the early childhood field has an acute workforce shortage and the talent pipeline is shrinking: fewer people than ever are pursuing a degree in the early childhood field. A Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education is the college major with the lowest projected lifetime earnings. This needs to change.
Finally, the early childhood workforce crisis existed long before the pandemic, and we cannot continue to build our early education system on the backs of child care educators working for unlivable wages. Professional compensation and benefits are needed to recruit and retain a high-quality early childhood workforce.
Tomorrow is Worthy Wages Day, but it’s long past time for early educators to earn the professional compensation and benefits they deserve.