Wednesday, April 29, 2020

We Could Not Pick a Better Time



Yesterday, I read that the President wants state governors to "seriously consider and maybe get going on opening schools." It wasn't a surprise, of course, given that he's been advocating for a rapid end to our nationwide quarantine. As anyone who has been reading here knows, I'm more concerned about the social-emotional toll this is taking on us, than I am either the disease itself or the economy, so I'm keen to resume at least some of our normal activities sooner rather than later. But this hit me square between the eyes.

They want the schools to re-open, not because they're concerned about education, not because they're concerned about children, and certainly not because they give a damn about teachers, but because without child care, the economy cannot restart. That's right, the entire economy is built on our backs. I'm not necessarily saying that preschool teachers and child care workers across the nation should come together, draw up a list of demands, then refuse to return to work until they are met, but if we did, we could not pick a better time. The moment we go back to "normal," society can go back to taking us for granted, but right now, as a profession, we've never had more leverage.

We all know our profession is broken. A full one half of Americans live in what are called "child care deserts," areas in which there are three or more children for every available spot. And where spots are available, they tend to be very expensive, with families around here paying close to $2,000 per month per child. That's the law of supply and demand, right? When demand is high and supply is low, prices go up. But at the same time, we are facing a nationwide teacher shortage, especially in the early years, in part because the pay is so low. Preschool teachers in our state make an average of $25,000 per year. Those are poverty wages. Supply and demand isn't working for us. Our profession is broken and the economy depends on us returning to work as soon as possible.

Caring for children is the central project of every human society that has ever existed, yet it's hard to imagine how we could have shoved our children any farther from the center. Our profession is low paid and low status. It is physically and emotionally taxing. We are abused by ignorant politicians and indignant parents. Our work is vitally important in ways far beyond our contribution as one of the cornerstones of the economy: we are, as John Dewey wrote, the midwives of democracy. Yet, we are treated, at best, like afterthoughts.

Right now, a generation of parents is getting an education on the work we do as they are on point for caring for their own children. Right now, an entire economy hinges on us returning to work. Right now, there is an opportunity for us to address some of the brokenness of our profession. Most of the early years professionals I know are as eager as I am to get back to work, but if we had the collective will, we could use this unique moment to insist upon change. It's pie-in-the-sky, I know, but a boy can dream, can't he?

In all likelihood, we'll go right back to business as usual. I know that, even as I also know it sounds cynical. But I, for one, am pointing these dynamics out to anyone who will listen. The economy cannot re-open without us. Democracy cannot function without us. Never again should people be allowed to treat us as sweet little puddin' heads who can find nothing better to do with our professional lives than spend it in the low status, low paying ghettos that we've created for our youngest citizens. Never again should they be allowed to take us for granted.

As long as the preschools and child cares are closed, the economy cannot fully re-open.  I'm not necessarily saying that preschool teachers and child care workers across the nation should come together, draw up a list of demands, then refuse to return to work until they are met, but if we did, we could not pick a better time.

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My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Book, is at the printers! We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 18. I'm incredibly proud of it. And while you're on the site, you can also find my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

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