Ongoing staffing shortages in the field of early childhood education have amounted to a five-alarm fire. In surveys, news stories, anecdotes and just about any other source of information on the sector, early care and education providers say they are in crisis, pointing to a dearth of qualified educators that many attribute to low compensation. Without sufficient staff, programs are not able to operate at full capacity, nor deliver the highest-quality care and education to the children they serve. And the educators who have remained in the field say their mental health and well-being have declined materially. Efforts to address these issues have been a mixed bag. A federal solution fell apart in Congress earlier this year. States have stepped up, but not universally, and in many cases, their solutions are short-term. Families, educators and children have all suffered.
Zahava Berman, director of the Ginsburg Solomon Schechter Early Childhood Center in Skokie, Illinois, shared her experiences with these intersecting challenges with EdSurge in an interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
For almost three years now, I’ve been watching early childhood educators—in my program and in others—make the difficult but inevitable choice to walk away from their careers working with young children to take better-paying, lower-stress jobs elsewhere.
But it still hurt, still shocked, when one of the best early childhood educators I’ve ever worked with told me she was leaving, too. She was one of a kind: so passionate about this work, so engaging, knowledgeable, calm, warm and inviting. Her heart was in this field, really in it. But like so many others, she couldn’t afford to stay in this industry any longer.
Lately, I lay awake at night worrying. I worry about my own early childhood center, a program in the suburbs of Chicago where I serve as director, and about all the families we are turning away and the dispiriting search for teachers we’ve been on for years now. I worry that we’ll have to close for good. We’ve considered it and have come pretty close already.
I also worry about the whole sector, because I know that what we’re going through in Skokie is what program directors and early childhood educators all over the country are experiencing. And that is scary. It’s existential. It’s not just, “What will become of my program? Will it survive long-term?” It’s also, “What will become of the early childhood field when there are no teachers left? Will the field survive?”
The entire industry is imploding. The entire industry is in danger of collapsing, and I don’t think people realize how serious that is. I’m nervous for the future, for the workforce.
It’s been a tough few years in our field. In some ways, this year has been more manageable. But instead of quarantines and case counts, we’re agonizing over staff vacancies and the bottom line. There are just not enough teachers willing to work in early childhood anymore, and those who are still here are burning out fast. Just a few months ago, I considered leaving the field myself. I don’t even feel bad admitting that. We work so hard and get paid so little.
We have a waitlist of children. I would love to open another classroom and take them in, but I can’t. I don’t have the teachers to support it. We also have families that need us to extend hours so that they can work. But we can’t. We don’t have teachers. We are here to serve our community—it’s why we exist—and we can’t even do that right now.
That’s what we’re up against, which is sad given that my program is one of the lucky ones. Our program is unique in that we’re associated with a day school and have shared access to resources—and we can only exist because the day school permits us to operate at a significant annual deficit. So I can raise teacher pay to exceed the state and national average for early childhood educators and get away with it. But even then, my highest-paid teachers are barely making a living wage. That’s our reality in the field right now: $25,000 to $45,000 annually to take on a physically demanding, emotionally depleting, stressful job that almost no one respects.
So naturally people aren’t entering the field. Why would anyone want to work so hard with little kids who’ve got snot and boogers coming out all the time? Why would they want to simultaneously change diapers while teaching a lesson?
You have to be so patient to work with the little ones and teach them at the same time. These teachers can get paid double what they’re making here to go work at Target. So, why would they? At Target, you work your hours and then you’re done. That’s not how it works as a teacher.
What will happen, if we keep this up, is programs will close permanently. And then it will create an issue for working parents because they have nowhere to send their kids. The quality of early childhood will go down significantly—maybe, instead of early childhood education, it will just be babysitting and supervising. We’ll probably have some day care centers that stay open long hours but with a higher child-to-teacher ratio.
Think about a toddler classroom, with little kids who are just starting to walk, who don’t have language skills yet, who are running around and playing. Imagine 16 of them in one classroom with two teachers. Those kids are not getting the best education. They’re not getting a high-quality education. And in effect, those kids will not learn early or intentionally how to share, how to speak kindly to one another, how to wait their turn and follow instructions, how to use a library.
People in the field know how dire this situation is right now. They know what is at stake. But those who are scanning the headlines or watching from the sidelines may not. So let me say it plainly: There is not a future of early childhood education in this country where we stay where we’re at, where things don’t change in a big way.
We can’t keep charging parents more, period. They can’t afford it. No, we need an intervention of some kind. Without one, the U.S. workforce will be impacted in ways we can hardly imagine—shortages in every industry, productivity down nationally, children behind academically and socially-emotionally.
We have to start thinking creatively. Policymakers have tried to get this ball rolling and to bring legislation where we could get more funding, but much of that has stalled. In Illinois, we’re lucky to have a governor who pulled together funding specifically for early childhood education. We were able to get grants to support our field, and even award teachers bonuses.
That is an important start. But we need solutions that are consistent and systemic. It will not be a simple task, but something must be done—and soon.