Support for early childhood teachers means support for early childhood education
By Brittany Behenna Griffith
Last fall was an exciting time for my family. I got to be “that Mom,” taking pictures of my daughter next to the letter board that spelled out “Clara’s first day of preschool!” I followed behind, with camera in hand, as she proudly bounced down the hallways to her classroom. When we entered the classroom, Clara was greeted by her teacher and shown where to put her backpack. She excitedly pointed to her name on her cubby, put her backpack away and proceeded to the easel to paint. “Oh, bye Mom,” she said, when I had to prompt her for a hug. Just like that she was an independent and confident preschooler.
As I left Clara’s classroom on that first day of school, I too felt confident. I knew I was leaving my daughter in the hands of a highly-qualified teacher who would provide quality and enriching instruction while meeting the social and emotional needs of each of her students. I knew her teacher would be deliberate in planning for Clara’s unique needs and would take the time to provide individualized support. Isn’t this what preschool should be all about? Isn’t this why opportunities for all preschool age children to attend a high-quality preschool program should be expanded in our state? Unfortunately, not all the preschoolers have access to highly qualified teachers.
Many early childhood classrooms are being filled with long-term substitutes or brand new teachers (if they can be found). I recently participated in a community forum to offer input on the new Early Childhood Education and Care Department and heard many in the room tell stories about how their district was searching for early childhood educators for their current programs. The teacher turnover in these classrooms has been overwhelming, as I have witnessed firsthand. You see, the walk to Clara’s classroom on her first day of school was not new to me. I am an early childhood educator and I teach 18 preschool children in a classroom just a few rooms down the hall.
There are actions we can take to recruit early childhood teachers and ensure that they stay in the profession. Our state needs to work with local colleges to create paid early childhood education internships that get future teachers hands-on experiences in the classroom, more so than just a one-semester student teaching requirement, with the agreement that they fulfill service to New Mexico students upon graduation. This would help future teachers feel more capable in the classroom and encourage them to stay in our state.
The state also needs to take actions to provide early childhood teachers high- quality support in the classroom. The educational assistants in our early childhood classes are essential for a high-quality preschool classroom to function, yet high EA turnover is causing inconsistency for children and teacher burnout. Let’s pay the educational assistants in these programs a living wage. This would ensure teachers don’t have to retrain new assistants each year or train a new substitute each day that an EA position hasn’t been filled.
Lastly, we need to find a way to give our preschool teachers the time needed to prepare for their students each week. At preschool, prep often means sanitizing toys, changing dramatic play areas into grocery stores, castles, or doctor’s offices, and prepping art activities. Most teachers are given prep time when their kids go off to electives such as PE, art, computers, and library, but preschoolers are often excluded from this. Preschool teachers provide many of these experiences themselves. The time that preschool teachers are given to work in their classrooms is usually spent in IEPs, PLC’s or other required meetings. Our school districts need to get creative on how they will provide the time for preschool teachers to truly prep in order to meet the state requirements for high-quality programs.
Any funding to expand high-quality preschool programs in our state must go hand-in-hand with efforts to recruit and especially retain early childhood educators for the increasing amount of classrooms. Just like Clara, I want all preschool age children to have the opportunity to sit at the dinner table each night and talk about their day with joy in their eyes. I want preschoolers in our state to have the opportunity to build a strong bond with their teacher, rather than wonder who the adult in their classroom each day will be. It is imperative that our state focuses on recruiting early childhood education teachers and supporting them so that all children and families in New Mexico can have a fulfilling preschool experience.
Brittany Behenna Griffith is a Teach Plus New Mexico Teaching Alumna. Brittany teaches early childhood special education at Nye Early Childhood Center in Santa Fe Public Schools.