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Turning Around the Crisis in Early Childhood Education

The COVID-19 pandemic caused many changes in almost all areas of the workforce. In the case of early childhood teachers, there was already a national shortage before the pandemic. The advent of COVID-19 caused the issue of early childcare costs and the low pay of teachers to enter the national spotlight. High-quality early childcare is a cornerstone of economic development, and this crisis affects more than the families seeking good early childcare.

Early Childhood Educators Unable to Make a Living

Why are early childhood educators departing from their positions?

They can't afford to live on their income. Their pay is typically more than the minimum wage, but not by much.

Wages fluctuate from state to state, with the average wage of an early childhood teacher ranging from $11.66 to $13.43 an hour. With that kind of paycheck, it's no wonder these educators are leaving the classroom. As a consequence, early childhood schools struggle to remain open, with some closing down. In others, parents notice a decline in the overall quality of the care provided.

To maintain quality, schools need experienced and skilled teachers. To recruit good teachers, the schools need to pay a reasonable starting wage. In the long run, it is less expensive to pay a decent wage to an experienced teacher than to be constantly recruiting teachers who don't stay in the position for very long.

Educators Leave the Industry for More Lucrative Jobs

Where do early childhood educators go when they realize they can't make a living doing what they are trained to do?

They can go to many places, such as retail centers.

Take the megastore Target, for example. You can get a job at Target for $15.00 an hour, which is almost 50% more than an early childhood teaching position. This is a no-brainer for many teachers who are struggling to make a living. Leaving the industry to work at a retail store like Target makes economic sense.

This is why it is vital that early childhood schools do not compare themselves to other early childhood schools. Schools all over are struggling because they don't pay their teachers enough. The management of early childhood programs need to look at the industries and work opportunities that their teachers are leaving them for. If teachers are leaving to get jobs at Target, then early childhood schools need to start offering wages that compete with Target.

The High Costs of Replacing Teachers

Economic Costs

When retaining teachers for early childhood programs becomes a problem, you enter into a vicious cycle of recruitment costs. Replacing a teacher who has left does not come easily. Estimates suggest that replacing an employee at an early childhood center ranges from 1.5 times an annual salary to three times the annual salary.

Replacing an employee involves a number of steps. You have to advertise. You need to have someone actively recruiting employees. There will have to be interviews, a careful selection, and background checks. This all takes time and money. Once a new teacher has been hired, there are training costs. The teacher needs onboarding, training, and shadowing for two to three months.

What is happening in the classroom while all this hiring and training is going on? Substitute teachers are paid to ensure the classrooms remain open.

Stress on the Rest of the Staff

These are just some of the more obvious economic costs. There are other costs that are not so obvious. If your employee turnover rate is high, there is more pressure on the remaining staff. Fewer reliable teachers means the dependable staff that is left has to work harder. Serving meals becomes a daily scramble. Lessons are planned on the fly. Tracking children's learning might not be a priority. Can you see how turnover begets turnover?

Negative Impact on the Children and Their Families

Perhaps the worst impact of this crisis happens to the children in the classrooms. Children learn best within a warm and nurturing environment. That's what parents want for their kids. They desire early childhood education that is challenging but not unrealistic or overstimulated. To achieve this delicate balance of nurture and education, early childhood centers need talented and skilled teachers who can be trusted. The families of young children want someone familiar in the classroom, someone they can form a good relationship with. Being able to trust the teacher is arguably the most important factor in the child's learning.

Teachers are an informal source of support and information for families. If a trusted teacher leaves to get a job elsewhere, families feel that loss in many ways. This places more stress on them because they have to deal with substitutes whom they might not trust, or go through the process of learning to trust a new teacher.

How to Recruit Teachers Successfully

On a strictly economic basis, it makes sense to pay teachers $17.00 an hour.

How did we come up with this number?

If you consider that the cost to replace a teacher is 1.5 times the lowest wages, then it costs $17.50 an hour to replace the teachers who leave to find more lucrative work.

The goal of the recruitment process should be to find an educator who can foster children's learning and support families for an extended period of time. You don't want the new recruit to leave for greener pastures. Combining a reasonable starting wage with other benefits, such as bonuses, is the most successful recruitment process.

Consider giving signing bonuses to your teachers. One half of the bonus is paid at the start date and the other half is paid after nine months of hire. This is an effective benefit as long as the bonus is significant. We recommend a bonus of $2,000 total.

Referral bonuses are also effective. Provide your employees with a $1,000 bonus when a referral is hired. Provide another $1,000 after the referral works for nine months. Employees who refer new hires are committed to the success of the new hire. They can provide informal mentoring that will help the new hire succeed.

In fact, signing bonuses and referral bonuses are more effective in retaining your employees than offering tuition reimbursement or professional development along with health insurance.

Retention is Just as Crucial as Recruitment

Retain your new employees by putting them on graduated pay scales based on performance. There are more and more ways to objectively measure the success of your teachers, including the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), or the tool called "Implementing Creative Curriculum to Fidelity."

Using these systems, improved measurements should be tied to an increase in hourly wages.

Retention rests on giving your employees a reasonable wage, but it doesn't stop there. Teachers consistently describe how the lack of support and the lack of respect cause them to leave a certain childcare center or even the entire industry. Supporting teachers begins with providing teachers more time to perform all their duties.

Teachers do a lot of things.

They take attendance, monitor parent sign-in sheets, create lesson plans, follow a curriculum, document children's learning, track the provision of meals, and more. Nap time for the students does not equal lesson-planning time for the teacher. If you believe your teachers can do all their prep during the children's nap time, you are making a crucial mistake. Not all children sleep during nap time, and some will need special attention. More importantly, this leaves teachers feeling undervalued. Give your teachers the time they need by paying for floaters or substitutes.

You can also work to eliminate as much of the documentation paperwork as possible by using the latest technology for attendance and sign-in sheets. Investing in these changes creates a higher-quality environment, gives support to the teachers, encourages your teachers, and is less expensive than recruiting and training a new teacher.

More Support for Teachers

Teachers in early childhood programs need more support for dealing with children who have challenging behaviors.

The number of incidents and the severity and duration of the challenging incidents have almost tripled in the past decade. There is evidence that the pandemic is making this even more true. Teachers need training and support to deal with the stress of challenging children and challenging families. They need intensive training for working with children who have social and emotional difficulties.

Both the Pyramid Model and Conscious Discipline are research-based and provide concrete strategies supporting teachers in their work. These models have cohort and online training. FirstDay Learning is a subscription model that allows teachers to access support from a mental health consultant as needed.

It is important to give both teachers and children mindfulness techniques that help them improve their mental wellness. Teach them how to identify triggers. Teach them yoga stretches that they can do to find balance and a sense of calm in the chaos. Most importantly, give your teachers five-minute breaks so they can recharge and relax. Children need a quiet and cozy corner for calming down, and so do teachers.

With higher wages, more encouragement, and more support, the early childhood education crisis can be turned around. The future of the next generation relies on early childhood education to make more of itself and retain its skilled educators.

Dr. Cathleen Armstead, the owner of Sunshine Nonprofit Solutions, provides strategic planning, consulting, and grant writing services to nonprofit organizations working with children and families. With twenty years of experience in the Head Start/Early Head Start world, she continues to advocate and work for social, economic and racial justice.