Monday, March 28, 2022

The Disruption That Young Children, Their Families, and Educators Need

"The local public schools are recruiting police officers and fire fighters as substitute teachers."

"We have 75 open teaching positions and no applicants."

"We're an 11 person teaching team and I know that at least 5 who aren't going to return next year."

"They're already holding combined classes of 40+ in the gym because there aren't enough teachers."

"They think they can get people to come back by offering more money, but that's not why my teachers tell me they're leaving."

Recently, I've begun to travel again. I've enjoyed speaking at conferences and professional development events via Zoom, of course, but I'd almost forgotten how much better, how much more well-rounded and fulfilling it is to meet with educators in-person, to really see their faces, to engage in easy back-and-forth, to . . . (Dare I say it lest it prove a dream?) . . . actually greet my colleagues with a hug.

But all is not right in our profession right now, even as things are returning to some semblance of normal. The other thing about being with people, sharing breaks together, breaking bread, and generally hanging out, is that both brighter and darker truths are spoken.

Based on those conversations, snippets of which I've included at the top of this post, as well as conversations happening in online forums such as Twitter, the preschool world, if not the entire educational world, is in for a massive transformation in the coming months. Indeed, it's already started. There are a whole lot of educators just waiting for the end of the school year to turn in their keys. It's just a matter of how many walk away from a profession they once loved despite the chronically low pay and long hours.

I've been doing this a long time and never before have I heard the kind of buzz I'm hearing right now. If even a fraction of it is true, and it's already coming true in many places, there are going to be thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of communities that are going to have to go to extraordinary measures to keep their school doors open. If we learned anything during the pandemic it's exactly how absolutely essential our schools are for our economy to function, at least as it's currently configured.

Why are teachers fed up?

The answers are varied. 

Many are plain exhausted from the past two years of pandemic teaching, of the unrealistic demands and expectations that have been heaped on our profession as we've tried to do what is best for children during unprecedented times. We've had to, on the fly, essentially re-invent schooling, and quite often without much support from administrators, policymakers, and communities. 

Others have discovered that they can earn a much better living with much lower stress elsewhere.

Some are concerned about violence and threats of violence, especially from guns.

A lot of those who are leaving tell me they are sick of being required to inflict developmentally inappropriate academic-style curricula on preschoolers. They can no longer take part in an educational approach that defies the evidence of what our youngest citizens need, which is play and lots of it. 

But the straw that is breaking the proverbial camel's back, it seems, are the increasing attacks on what was left of our professional autonomy. Legislatures are passing laws about what we can and cannot say to children, some even going so far as to mandate that we lie to them. In some places, educators are being required to get their lesson plans pre-approved weeks if not months in advance, with punishments being meted out to anyone who happens to deviate, which is what any good teacher will do as they seek to be responsive to the children. Entire categories of education are being placed off-limits, often for political, not pedagogical purposes. There are threats of cameras being placed in classrooms in order to catch-out any little slip-up. And all of this is being mandated by non-professionals, people who have no educational training, experience, or, frankly, standing. 

This is not something that will be fixed by suddenly offering higher pay. If that were the main motivator, this exodus from teaching would have happened long ago. This was already a profession in which 50 percent of new educators leave the profession after only five years. This was already a profession that is ranked among the most stressful. This was already a profession, especially in the early years sector, that is grossly underpaid: in many states the average pay is around $25,000 per year, which is awfully close to the poverty line.

This is the bad news, but perhaps it is also the good news as well. Entrepreneurs are always talking about the need to "disrupt" an industry. Perhaps this is just the disruption we need, but it will be nothing but disaster if we are not capable of taking advantage of it. When I talk to the educators who are staying, they tell me they are staying for the children and for the families of the children they serve. They are staying because the children and their families need them. 

If we are going to make this disruption work for both educators as well as children and their families, we are going to have to begin to re-build bridges between teachers and parents. It is going to take a concerted effort because, as one tired teacher recently said to me, "It seems like a lot of parents just want to dump their kids off on us, while a small, vocal minority think they're our bosses and get to tell us what to do -- even if it's harmful to children."

It doesn't have to be like this. Teachers and educators are natural allies: at bottom, we all want what is best for the children, yet it seems that increasingly we are talking past one another, we are ascribing bad motives to one another, we are suspicious, demanding, and dismissive. And meanwhile, the kids are stuck in the middle.

In the early years, what is best for young children is for educators and parents, grandparents, and carers to be on the same page, to work hand-in-hand, to communicate, support, and collaborate. Indeed, if we cannot manage this, I fear, this disruption will lead to a painful educational, economic, and societal upheaval with no solution in sight because, frankly, simply throwing money at it isn't going to make things better. 

This is, at least, the hopeful thinking behind my course The Empowered Educator: Partnering With Parents. Based upon my decades of experience working hand-in-hand with parents, grandparents, and carers, this 6-part course offers my best thinking on what educators can do to start bridging the divide, to heal the wounds, and create a community of learning based on mutual respect and understanding. This is, in fact, exactly what the research tells us that young children need -- a community, a village. This, I firmly believe, is exactly the disruption that young children, their families, and educators need.

"I'm not in this for the money," an educator said to me, tears in her eyes. "None of us are. We are here for the children. I wish more parents understood what we do and why we do it. I just want their kids to have a genuine childhood, full of play and love. Isn't that what they want too?" 

It's too late to avert our crisis, it's already upon us, but in crisis there is opportunity. I sure hope, for the sake of all of us, that part of the solution is a return to the village, because, as the African proverb rightly has it, "It takes a village to raise a child." That is the disruption we need and it will start one school community at a time.


If you're interested in learning more about creating a learning village that parents will wholeheartedly support, I've developed this 6-part course called The Empowered Educator: Partnering With Parents. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. How would it be to have parents show up as allies? Click this link to register and to learn more. Discounts are available for groups. Registration for this cohort closes on March 30, so act fast!

Bookmark and Share

No comments: