For as long as I can remember, I have been inundated with the message that I am “good with kids”. It is true that I have always had an affinity for young children; even in my own childhood I would jump at any opportunity to play with a baby or to help a parent change a diaper. I started babysitting at a young age and continued to do so all through my adolescence and into early adulthood, making the transition to full-time childcare work as I served as a nanny for several different families in my early twenties. The notion that I was innately talented at caring for children, however, never sat right with me. It reeked of the feminization of care work, devaluing the knowledge and skills that I acquired over a decade of childminding. I loved all the children infinitely, of course, but the work was physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. I had internalized these messages so profoundly that I was uncomfortable with speaking up about any professional challenges that I experienced for fear that my identity as a naturally capable caregiver would be compromised. I was left with the feeling that the work I was doing was unskilled and unimportant, and that I was somehow less competent and intelligent as my friends working in different fields.
On the advice of family, friends, and the parents that I worked for, I applied to the early childhood education program at Algonquin College. Not knowing what I was getting myself into or if I even wanted to be an early childhood educator (ECE), I entered the program full of anxiety and reluctance, but my perspective was rapidly transformed. At Algonquin, I learned that early childhood education is a socially valuable service provided by educators who are highly trained in areas such as child development, behaviour guidance, and curriculum planning. ECEs were portrayed as capable professionals with a specified skill set, not simply as nurturing women to whom this type of work comes naturally. It was a refreshing perspective that inspired me to make the most of my time at college and become the best educator I could.
Unfortunately, I learned immediately after graduating that the value and respect for ECEs that permeated my college was not universal. A few weeks after my graduation, I began working as a supply educator in a for-profit childcare centre. This was my first experience working under for-profit auspice, and I was shocked by the working conditions at the centre. Educators were expected to do janitorial duties for the whole operation. With no time designated to complete these tasks, ECEs would frantically clean the floors while children slept, endeavouring to maneuver around the cots in the dark without waking anyone up. Staff were given only 45 minutes of break per work day and were not permitted to eat any food prepared on-site. As a supply educator who was registered with the college of ECEs and given a regular shift, I was paid minimum wage, and full-time program staff were paid $15.00/hr.
I was being taken advantage of in this centre. I felt that my knowledge and skills were not recognized or valued, and it was impacting my ability to provide the highest quality of care to the children I worked with. I knew I had to make a choice, so I applied for a job as a summer program assistant with a revered not-for-profit organization in the area. I knew based on my interview experience alone that this centre was going to be a better fit for me. My interview at the former centre had been conducted in an empty program room; we were seated at a low table in uncomfortable preschool-sized chairs and were frequently interrupted by children wanting to come in and say hello to my interviewer. In stark contrast to this incredibly unprofessional experience, my second interview was held in an office. I sat down at an adult-sized table across from a panel of interviewers and was offered a glass of water and a pad of paper on which I could jot down some notes before answering a question. These interviewers took the time to look at and ask questions about the portfolio that I had brought with me, making me feel confident in my abilities as a professional. In the end, I was offered the job, as well as a full-time, lead-educator position at the for-profit centre. Staying true to my values, I accepted the job at the not-for-profit centre, though I was riddled with guilt as I knew that the for-profit centre was having an extremely difficult time recruiting quality educators.
I knew immediately that I had made the right choice. ECEs at my new centre were highly valued and respected for the work that they did. I saw first-hand the difference in quality of care between these educators and the underpaid and overworked staff at my previous agency. The educators that I worked with were passionate, devoted to their work, and took their role very seriously. They were treated as professionals, recognized and appropriately compensated for their hard-earned skill set, rather than as a group of women who were “good with kids” and expected to labour for the love of the work. Yes, I love my work, but love can’t pay my bills.
Unfortunately, the utopian experience I had that summer is not the norm. ECEs have long suffered from notoriously poor working conditions. We are being taken advantage of and asked to work for less than a living wage, and these problems are especially rampant in the for-profit sector, which constitutes 25% of the workforce. If these conditions persist, burnout rates in the field will continue to increase and childcare centres will experience high-turnover rates. In this environment, children are the ones who ultimately suffer the most; it is well-known to early childhood professionals that one of the most important things for healthy early childhood development is consistent, responsive relationships with trusted caregivers. It’s time to invest in high-quality, not-for-profit childcare and limit new funding to for-profit enterprises.
As early childhood educators, we can make a difference. It’s time for us to join together and rally for change in our sector. I ask that you demonstrate your commitment to our invaluable profession by signing the AECEO’s campaign pledge for professional pay and decent work. Better yet, become a member of the AECEO. There is power in numbers, and by building our collective voice we can create a world where early childhood educators are valued for the socially important work that they do. Children, families, and society at large will benefit from a comprehensive childcare system that offers professional wages and benefits, paid programming time, and overall higher quality care and education.