Education Op/Ed

Early education lays a strong foundation

BRIANNA HELLER

When asked what I do for a living I respond, “I am a teacher.” When asked which grade I teach, I contemplate changing the topic because I know that when I declare that I teach preschoolers, I am likely to hear, “Oh, so you’re not a REAL teacher.” My teaching license, the students I teach and the families I serve say differently. 

Early education is an incredibly undervalued profession, and is largely looked down upon by society. Ask any early educator; We have all heard it countless times. “You aren’t a real teacher.” “You’re just a babysitter,” or “Oh, that’s just daycare.” The younger the children in your classroom, the less respect you will receive. You teach in a play-based child-led program? You best come prepared to wax lyrical on the power of play, the importance of engaging children in their learning, and best practice in Early Education. We learn to censor ourselves, switching to “Child Care” instead of daycare, using Pre-K instead of preschool, putting emphasis on Early EDUCATOR just so we can be taken seriously by our loved ones, our professional counterparts in grades K-12 and special education, college programs, and the community at large. 

I am a proud Early Educator. Since the Orwell Early Education Program opened seven years ago, I have been teaching at an amazing child-led, play-based program where I serve a close knit community. My first group of preschoolers to go through the OEEP are now in fifth grade. This year, they are returning to my classroom as “reading buddies”; pairing up with one of my current students, reading to them and planning play-based activities that coincide with the book they read. I can see first-hand the effects of their early education experience through their confidence, creativity, kindness and respect. 

Early care and education lays the foundation for children to be able to succeed in school. We as early educators help children learn to identify and manage the emotions faced throughout the day. We help them embrace their excitement and joy, cope with feelings of sadness and loss, and work through feelings of frustration. We teach social interactions and help students develop negotiation and mediation skills. We help children to develop kindness and respect for their peers, their community, and the world we live in. Thanks to early educators, children learn that they do not need to be everyone’s friend but we do need to be kind to everyone. We instill a love of learning in children from an early age. We do all of this through play, allowing children to learn through activities that are intrinsically motivating, freely chosen and individualized to the student.

So many of our grown up problems, whether within our family and friend groups, our communities, our workplaces or within a political context could be solved or eased if we all had learned to handle our emotions, respect ourselves, others and the environment, learned mediation and negotiation skills at a young age and valued learning enough to never stop studying and evolving. 

But alas, our society does not value early education. The high turnover among early educators, poor pay and benefits, high tuitions and limited funding to offset tuitions, lack of access to quality care in underprivileged areas and the rhetoric that kids are only “playing” and we are babysitters shows how undervalued it really is. And so, it is our responsibility as educators to not only educate our children but those in our communities and our states at large. 

In Vermont, we have state funded-Universal Pre-K where three- to five-year-old children receive 10 free hours of preschool a week. Although this is a good first step, that is all it should be — a first step. It is proven that quality early childhood education sets students up for success and we need to call on our lawmakers to make this accessible for all families. 

Early care and education is a passion for me and I remain in my position because of the love I have for working with young children and their families. I know this is true of many of my fellow early educators. That does not mean we do not deserve to be respected and valued. Our passion should not be thrown in our faces. We should be paid and have access to the same benefits of our K-12 counterparts and it should not fall on the families in our programs. Our families deserve access to affordable early education as much as we deserve to be shown our value.

We are not babysitters. We are teachers. We are early educators. We are the foundation our future is built on. I challenge all of my fellow educators, our families and our community members to become champions and advocates for Early Education. 

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This piece is from Brianna Heller’s acceptance speech in response to winning two national awards in 2022, the Terri Lynne Lokoff Child Care Teacher Award and the Helene Marks Teacher of the Year Award in 2022. Brianna teaches at the Orwell Early Education Program, a program of Mary Johnson Children’s Center.

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