How Much Is the Work of an ECE Teacher Worth?

Posted on 01/14/2022 @ 07:00 AM

Tags: Jewish Schools & Educational Services

Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

The Scenario

Lois Cohen (a pseudonym) is a lead teacher in one of our local Jewish Early Childhood Education (ECE) programs embedded in a congregation. She works full time with the 4 year-olds. She loves her work, clearly, as she has been in the field of ECE for over 20 years.
Sara Maimon is the assistant teacher who works along with Lois. Sara works full time and has worked three years in ECE.
Lois and Sara start the day at 8:00 AM, checking in at the school office, reading the day’s memo and noting changes in schedule and staff.
There are so many changes lately, due to absences of teachers and substitutes who have Covid-19 or are required by the school to be quarantined. They go to their classroom, get settled and survey the room. 
Though they had set up the classroom yesterday before they left, they look over the environment one more time and reflect on the goals for the morning’s learning. Lois decides to add some items to the light table and Sara replaces the markers on one table with water color paints and brushes to enhance the children’s experience with producing colors and hues.
Sara puts on the children’s favorite morning welcome music and right on cue, the first child appears in the doorway.
Lois walks over to greet the child, asking how he is.
Lois and Sara know all the children so well- their special interests, their preferences, their strengths and the areas they resist and need more encouragement in order to participate.
Lois knows that this particular child notices lots of things on his way to school each day so she asks the child to recount his observations on the drive.
Lois and Sara honor each child by warmly welcoming them into the classroom and they entice them to explore the day’s learning provocations with some great questions to awaken their curiosity.[1] 
Lois then transitions to a whole group ritual for welcoming this new day. They sing “Modeh/Modah Ani”- the prayer expressing how grateful we are for waking up to a new day ripe with possibilities, and the children and teachers then express to each other what they are thankful for today. 
On Mondays, they start the new week by doing Havdalah together and on Fridays they get ready for Shabbat by singing blessings and eating challah.
Three years ago, when the ECE established the routine of starting Monday mornings with Havdalah being done in each of the classrooms, Lois and many of her colleagues, learned about Havdalah for the first time at a teachers’ meeting. They explored the meaning and purpose of Havdalah and practiced it together as a group. Then, Lois practiced at home, started leading the children and slowly over time, she has become comfortable with this ritual and has grown to love it. 
Then Lois leads a singing activity in which the children are singing, dancing, laughing and clearly having fun.
Lois knows that while the children are singing they are actually practicing literacy skills through reciting, whispering and shouting out the rhyming words.
Sara then divides the children into two teams and reminds them about their new “tweet” wall. You see, the children have been talking about how funny it is that their parents are sending tweets to people and they’ve been talking about it in class.
Sara and Lois explained to them what Twitter is and how people write, send and receive tweets. They asked if the children would like to tweet and of course they said YES! 
So now, every other day, half of the children write tweets, on separate sheets of paper, to whomever they want in the class, post them on the tweet wall, while the other half of the children pick up all the tweets from the previous day, deliver them to the children and they all read the tweets to each other.
Lois and Sara are so pleased with this new language and literacy building activity as they see students who have resisted writing now wanting to perfect their letters so their friends will be able to read what they have written.
The children are writing new words they have learned and are realizing the use for, the importance of, and the enjoyment gained from writing words that express their emotions and ideas in language.

The scenarios above, and more, are happening in all of Miami’s ECE programs, whether they are housed in day schools, JCCs, congregations or are privately owned schools.

The Need for Living Wages

ECE teachers are educators. They are not merely playing with children.
They work with curricula, follow developmental standards, plan the day’s activities with intention and purpose.
They reflect on their practice and hone their skills through professional development offered through CAJE and / or coordinated and led by their own directors. These are the professional rubrics that inform the work of early childhood educators. It is the same work that every professional teacher does.

Yet, for some reason, ECE teachers earn far less than teachers in elementary, junior high or high school, even when they have the exact same professional credentials.

First 5la, an ECE advocacy group in Los Angeles, calls this situation: “Worthy work, unlivable wages.”
Across our nation, and within our Jewish communities, including Miami, we value the work our early childhood teachers do, yet they are being paid so poorly that many potential teachers are not going into the field because of the salaries.
Potential new teachers to the field can work at Walmart or McDonald’s, often for a higher hourly wage, and can get health insurance too. (A benefit very few of our ECE teachers get.)
In the Coalition for Applied Studies in Jewish Education’s (CASJE) most recent report (of which Miami was one of the 8 communities surveyed for the data) on “Compensation: The Salaries and Benefits of Jewish Educators,”[2] they state,

“Being a teacher, a woman, and an early childhood educator is financially hazardous.”

What a paradox!
Education research shows that “A highly-qualified early childhood educator- one who knows how to create a dynamic, accountable learning environment- is at the center of a high-quality early learning experience.[3]
The teacher is the most important factor in providing quality learning experiences, yet our ECE teachers are being compensated on the same level as entry level workers. 
Is this how our Jewish community honors its teachers? 
There are two issues connected to ECE teachers’ wagesOne is establishing a base pay that, at a minimum, is a livable wage.
A small sample taken this month (one ECE in a day school, one from a congregation and one from a privately-owned school) of our community’s teachers and assistant teachers show that the range for yearly full-time work is $25,000 - $37,000.
When we consider all teachers do during school hours, the time spent communicating with parents, and attending to the myriad of administrative work connected to teaching, how can we expect a new generation of teachers to be motivated to work with our youngest learners for this kind of salary?
Is this how we pay teachers who, we learned during the pandemic, are essential workers?
The other legitimate issue connected to ECE teachers’ wages is taking teachers’ professional credentials into consideration for giving higher compensation.
It is still the case that many of our ECE teachers have the minimum Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) 40 hours required to work in an early childhood education setting.
Many of these same teachers with minimum credentials would be very interested in going back to school for higher credentials like the Florida Child Care Professional Credential (FCCPC- or its equivalent CDA- Child Development Associate), but with a raise of $1 or $2 dollars per hour more, there is little motivation to work on it.
The same is true for encouraging teachers to gain college bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Early Childhood Education.
ECE educators are children’s first teachers who have a major impact on their spiritual, social-emotional, physical and cognitive development. They become better teachers when they themselves have a more in depth understanding of child development and education psychology.
Paying teachers with college degrees means offering salaries of $50,000 and more per teacher! Most of our schools would need to make radical changes to their budget structures in order to offer teachers these kinds of wages.

CAJE, the Early Childhood Education & Engagement Committee and the Jewish Early Childhood Professional Network, made up of Miami’s ECE directors, are all advocating and working towards the time when:
  • A majority of ECE teachers have college degrees in ECE and even Jewish ECE
  • A majority of ECE teachers receive livable wages and benefits, such as health insurance, retirement plans, paid professional development, paid family leave and more
  • Young people view Jewish Early Childhood Education as a worthwhile, purposeful profession in which they can be proud of their work and are compensated in a way they can live with dignity.

In 1903, Theodore Herzl said about the founding of a Jewish homeland, “Im tirzu, ein zo aggadah- if you will it, it is no dream!” It was 45 years later, well after his death, that the dream became a reality. 
G!d willing and with the determination, creativity and resolve of the Miami Jewish community, we will not have to wait that long to see this transformation in the professionalization of early childhood education.  

[1] Provocations in the early childhood education setting refers to an experience which is set up in response to a child’s interests and ideas. It “provokes” learning by generating ideas, thoughts and actions.
[2] Research Brief #4 Career Trajectories of Jewish Educators in the United States, CASJE
[3] National Association for the Education of Young Children