Monday, July 13, 2020

Killing Ourselves With Kindness

I've met plenty of lawyers who I would classify as jerks. Same goes for doctors, engineers, and computer programmers, but I don't believe I've ever met an early childhood educator who would fall into that category. I'm sure they exist, but they are certainly few and far between. On the contrary, our profession tends to attract the kindest people.

We lead with our hearts. It is an essential part of our profession to love the children, all the children. That takes a special sort of person, one who is instinctively compassionate and constitutionally inclined to place the needs of others before their own. We have incredible patience with rants, rages, and other foibles. We live our life on our knees, hands dirty, and gunk in our hair. We don't take ourselves too seriously because the children, our co-workers, simply won't let us forget that we're all too human. No one empathsizes more strongly with the rollercoaster of being human: your pain is our pain, your fear is our fear, your joy is our joy. We finish each day drained, physically, intellectually, and emotionally, knowing full well that tomorrow will be the same. Only the most kindhearted survive.

This is our great superpower, I think, this kindness, but like all superpowers it is also the source of our greatest professional weakness. Around the world, early childhood educators are among the lowest paid professions. In the US, the median annual preschool teacher salary is under $30,000 with many earning closer to $20,000, which is below the poverty line, and few of us have jobs that come with health insurance, retirement funds, or paid leave of any kind. On top of that, policymakers and others with absolutely no classroom or early years experience are forever foisting curriculum, mandates, and regulations on us without soliciting input from actual educators, forcing us to forever choose between abandoning our professional integrity or sacrificing our jobs. This situation is due, at least in part, to the our kindness, our willingness to sacrifice, to get along, to not rock the boat.

This has never been more clear than right now as policymakers and others are agitating for the reopening of schools in the face of a pandemic that in our country is far from contained. They need us to get back to work so that parents have a place for their children as they return to their jobs. The Center for Disease Control has issued guidances for "safe" reopening, criteria that officials are calling "too expensive" and that many of us feel, even if we do spend the money necessary to make our workplaces safe, will force us to abandon developmentally appropriate practice, potentially harming young children during these vital early years. Some of us are pushing back, but many of our kindhearted colleagues are going along to get along, even as they worry about children and their families.

Some early years educators, of course, have never closed their doors, remaining open to serve the children of medical professionals, firefighters, and other essential workers. None believe they are offering the children an ideal experience, but they have, heroically and creatively, done the best they can in these trying times. There are others who have, if given the choice by their governors, remained open or opened early in order to serve those families who might not fit the criteria of "essential," but who must continue to work to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. And right now many preschool teachers and child care providers are making plans to reopen their doors despite health, safety, and pedagogical reservations because their fellow citizens need them. I honor our kind hearts, but worry that our kindness will come at a cost for our profession and the children we love.

Today, the pandemic in the US rages. It is far worse now than it was when we originally closed our schools. Economic pressures are mounting, and the spotlight has been turned on our low wage, low prestige profession, to sacrifice both our safety and professional integrity in order to get America back to work. They are counting upon our kindness. They are counting upon our instinct to pitch in where the need is the greatest. They are not offering us more money. They are not offering us healthcare or hazard pay or any sort of retirement benefits. They are not even pledging to ensure or safety. They aren't even offering us a seat at the decision making table. No, they are counting on us to passively do what we always do, which is to heroically and creatively care for, teach, and make a life for our youngest citizens, so that their precious economy can reap the benefits. 

I'm reminded of the US statesman Benjamin Franklin who once said, "We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately." One of the reasons it is so easy to take advantage our kindheartedness is that we tend to operate alone or in small schools, caring for children in our church basements, homes, and tiny schoolhouses, separated from the wider universe of colleagues. Our pubic school counterparts swim in larger ponds and are allied with one another through their unions which give them the collective bargaining power to secure higher wages, better benefits, and ensure that their voices are being heard, while we hang separately. 

But now is a time for us to figure out how to hang together, not just for ourselves, but for the children we love. We spend most of our time as the silent, unsung essential workers, the ones without whom the economy grinds to a halt, the ones actually performing the fundamental project of every civilization, which is to care for the youngest children. But right now, we are front and center. Right now we have the ears and eyes of a society reeling from a pandemic who are turning to us to save them. If we do not hang together, we go back to work with even fewer guarantees, with lower pay, without health coverage, and with greater danger. We go back knowing that we will not be able to provide everything young children need to thrive. If we fear rocking the boat or allow ourselves to once more sacrifice, we risk killing ourselves with our own kindness.

Kindness is the greatest virtue, but it is also one that the bullies of this world will manipulate to their own benefit if we are not strong. Our work conditions are the children's learning conditions. While our hearts go out in all directions, now is a time to come together on behalf of ourselves and the families who count on us. It is not unkind to stand up for ourselves, we are not being "jerks." Indeed, in coming together we are engaged in the greatest kindness.

This is why we've organized The Play First Summit with such urgency, pulling together in a couple months a worldwide event that would typically take a year or more to plan. This is why so many of the biggest names and thought leaders in our profession have joined us. It's a call to sisterhood, to brotherhood, to solidarity, to hanging together. We've issued our Declaration of Interdependence for Young Children, Parents, Caregivers, and Educators, which we urge you to sign. We don't know where this will go, that is for us to collectively decide, but it is definitely going somewhere. Tens of thousands of early childhood educators and our allies are coming together in just a few days. We have been flooded with people and organizations offering their help, their ideas, and their dreams. Individually, this might make us uncomfortable, it is not in our nature to rabble rouse, but our strength is in our unity. Please hang with us.


The Play First Summit is just around the corner! Please join us for this free event featuring twenty of the world's top early childhood and parenting thought leaders, including Janet Lansbury, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Ijumaa Jordan, Maggie Dent, and Cheng Xuequin (Anji Play). This is not just another series of lectures, but rather a collection of conversations about our challenging times, how they are impacting young children and families, what we can do about it, and how we might seize this moment to transform the early years into what they ought to be for children everywhere. To see the full list of speakers and to register, click here.

Also, Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

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