By Amy DuBois
Worthy Wage Day: Fighting to Make A Difference
I was game to try anything. That was my mindset going into a job training program 24 years ago. It was preschool that caught my attention, so I volunteered there for a short time before they hired me. Being around those children made my heart very happy.
There is no amount of money that could possibly make a difference in the way that I do my job. I love being with these children and their families. Our compensation is quite low, and obviously, I’m not in it for the money.
But I can see that we’ve made a difference in these children’s lives. It seems as though, if we were paid based on the importance of the work we do, our wages would be up there with professional athletes and movie stars. Every once in a while, you’ll hear an NFL or NBA player say that exact thing.
Here’s what makes us worthy in the eyes of our preschoolers. We teach them their social skills, how to make things positive instead of negative, and how to start kindergarten so they’re ready to learn. We’re medical helpers, comforters, even psychologists of sorts. It’s all part of what we do.
Worthy Wage Day: We’re Not Playing
Play is important, of course, but it’s not all about play. Learning colors, simple counting and letters of the alphabet are some of the skills we teach. Our kiddos learn to solve problems, and to show basic manners and courtesy. It’s rewarding. We also teach them a safety curriculum that includes pedestrian and car safety, and how to avoid dangers like guns, matches and hot stoves. We even teach about personal safety like unwanted touching.
They come back and see us, too. One young woman came back three years ago and brought her daughter to enroll. It had been 19 years since I had seen her; she called ahead and wanted to know if I was still teaching. And there was one parent who has sent me four children; I’ve had many return families. It’s hard when the last one leaves.
According to NIEER research, only 5 states require salary parity with K-12 for pre-K teachers and inadequate funding contributes to low teacher pay and benefits, affecting quality. My pay is about a third of what a schoolteacher makes doing the same job that I do. And if I didn’t have a husband, there’s no way I could do it. I would have to rely on public assistance. We have medical benefits, but we could do better. We have retirement accounts, and they contribute. We get sick leave and three personal days a year, no vacation. We start at $12 an hour; $17 would be the top for the teaching staff.
"Every May 1 on Worthy Wage Day, we wear buttons. To make our situation better known, we have done informational picketing with signs, on our break, to give a heads-up to people driving by about low wages. Some people honk and wave as they pass."
But many people still feel we are glorified babysitters. What I’ve been seeing are older people who just don’t understand. They never had kindergarten, or it wasn’t required, and they don’t understand the seriousness of “education” in early childhood education. They think we’re just playing with the children.
Worthy Wage Day: We Put the ‘Education’ in ECE
And the laws haven’t kept up with research on early childhood education. All across the country, no state requires preschool and only eight states require kindergarten. Even where universal preschool is available, it’s not required. In most school systems, the mandatory school age is 7 or 8.
When I talk to our state legislators, I show them it’s a proven fact that children excel who’ve gone to pre-K and kindergarten, versus not attending. That’s because we have to meet federal guidelines for these children before they go on. If they don’t master socialization skills, then they can’t go to school ready to learn. Kindergarten readiness is the standard we have to meet. Literacy, numeracy, science, language. For language, that means how to have a conversation, with skills like taking turns. For science, it means learning about water and ice, trees, insects and all the nature in our area.
"We have children come in who have never held a pair of scissors or touched a pencil or a crayon. Many don’t know how to spell their names. These are kids who have to go to kindergarten the next year."
All of these skills are affected by changes in family behavior from 20 years ago. Today, a lot of parents spend too much time with their technology and not enough time with their kids. We help with that. We have resources that promote eating meals together. We eat together at school, and we model joining together in conversation. That kind of socialization is not just valuable — it’s priceless.
Whenever you have a chance, please talk to your neighbors, community leaders and elected officials about raising the pay for early childhood workers to a worthy wage. Our children are worth it.
Early childhood educator Amy DuBois of Cosmopolis, Wash., is a member of the Federation of Head Start Employees.
She’s been an AFT member since 2003.
- This blog post is re-published with permission from AFT Voices. Read the original post. To learn more about AFT's Schoolhouse Voices from PreK-12 public educators, visit: https://aftvoices.org/school-house-voices/home. Follow on Twitter @rweingarten or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/AFTunion.
- Want to learn more about the positive impact of labor unions on wages? Check out this Labor Union Lesson Collection.