Early childhood teachers, like many educators, work exceptionally hard. It is a challenging and often physical career with few benefits. Before officially entering the field, I didn’t know much about it. I started as an assistant teacher for the Department of Justice childcare in Washington, D.C. Before that, I worked with children in many settings, from babysitting to camps.
I worked as a children’s church choir director and spent a year as an ESL teacher in Japan. After two months, I was asked to run the children’s program at my school because of my natural knack for kids. When I entered the field as an assistant teacher, I had a lot of experience with kids but no formal training. I had a lot to learn!
As an assistant teacher, I developed a passion for the career and returned to school for a master’s degree; I also began to see how others viewed my now-chosen profession. I realized many misconceptions about early childhood teachers back then persist today. So, to shed some light on the field, here is a list of 10 facts about early childhood teachers that may surprise you!
1. Many Teachers Have a Degree (they’re not babysitters)
One of the biggest misconceptions about early childhood teachers is that they didn’t go to college or are “just babysitters.” In most states, teachers must have at least an associate’s degree to be a lead teacher in childcare or private preschool. Many places ask for a bachelor’s degree; some teachers may even have a master’s degree or hold special education certifications.
Requirements vary from state to state and school to school. Staff requirements will also depend on the type of center or school, the staff position, teacher’s aide versus lead teacher, and the ages of the children who attend the school or classroom. You can find your state’s requirements to teach preschool in the public school setting by visiting preschoolteacher.org
In addition to a college degree, one certification is recognized nationwide, the CDA or Child Development Associate Credential. The CDA requires people to have 480 hours of in-classroom experience and complete 120 clock hours of classes in early childhood education. The CDA is a more cost-effective way to enter the field. Participants can focus on birth-36 months, 3-5 years, or birth-5 years for the home childcare setting.
To learn more about the requirements to teach in a childcare or private preschool setting, visit your state’s Department of Education website.
2. Childcare Teachers Are the Lowest Paid Educators on Average
Early childhood teachers are, on average, the lowest-paid educators at any level. Those who earn state certification and teach in public schools will fare better than those who opt to stay in the childcare or private preschool setting. But public school teachers are notoriously underpaid, too.
The average annual salary for a full-time childcare teacher is $27,800. The typical range for childcare educators is roughly $20,000 to $36,000. At the height of my career, with over a dozen years of experience and a master’s degree, I was making roughly $32,000.
Though early childhood teachers, even in most childcare settings, are required to have degrees and certifications, they are grossly underpaid. Low salary is one of the main reasons childcare centers have such high turnover. Many young teachers start in childcare, gain experience, or finish their bachelor’s degree, and move on to the public school setting for better pay and hours.
3. They Typically Don’t Have Subs
Unlike public school teachers, childcare teachers rarely have subs. This doesn’t mean they don’t take sick days, but it can cause a ripple in the center when a teacher calls out sick. Some childcare centers have built-in subs called floaters. A floater’s responsibility changes daily depending on who is out sick or on vacation—floaters also complete other tasks needed in the school, like filing, restocking shelves, cleaning toys, etc.
Most centers have two maybe three floaters and no other subbing options. So, say one teacher is already scheduled off, and two teachers call out sick; the center has to scramble to cover classrooms and care for the children. As a result, early childhood teachers may take less time than truly needed to recover from an illness.
4. They Purchase A Lot of their Classroom Supplies Themselves
Early childhood teachers purchase a lot of the supplies in their classrooms themselves. However, unlike public school teachers, in most states, childcare teachers cannot write off their work expenses on their taxes unless they teach in the public Pre-K setting. The center may provide a monthly stipend, but it is rarely enough to purchase the materials needed for lesson plans.
In addition, many stores that offer educator discounts don’t recognize early childhood teachers because they don’t possess a state teaching certification. So even if they have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in education and teach in the childcare setting, without a teaching certificate, they don’t qualify. So, besides being the lowest-paid educators, they also can’t benefit from educator tax write-offs or store discounts.
5. They Work With Young Kids Because They Love It (not because they can’t do anything else)
There’s a common misconception that people who work in childcare do so because they can’t do anything else; they lack the skills for another job. Teaching early childhood requires particular knowledge about child development. Even those who, like me, started in the field without formal education training have an interest and love for working with kids.
Many people asked me over the years why I didn’t get a state certification and teach in public schools. Most early childhood degrees allow someone with a state license to teach up to third grade. I never got a state teaching license because I loved working in the childcare setting.
I loved working with young children, teaching them, and watching them grow and develop. Many middle and high school teachers have told me they respect what I do because they could never teach kids that young. And I feel the same about middle schoolers! Teaching at any level requires a passion for the age you work with and a deep understanding of child development at that age.
6. They Work Long Hours, and It’s a Physically Demanding Job
All teachers work hard, but childcare teachers work long and sometimes unusual hours. Because childcare centers are designed to care for children while parents work, some teachers may report to work as early as 6 a.m. while others may work until 6 p.m. or later. Childcare teachers typically work 9-hour days with one lunch break of either 30 minutes or perhaps an hour.
Working nine hours is standard for many people, but working with young children is physically demanding. Teachers must actively engage children in developmentally appropriate physical play and activities. They get up and down off the floor frequently, stand for long periods, lift and carry children when needed, and put down, pick up, and carry nap cots and other classroom supplies.
Early childhood teachers also have an emotionally taxing job. They manage many personalities, teach children how to solve conflicts, and interact with parents daily. All of this while keeping a smile on their face, a positive attitude, and a calm demeanor.
Unlike traditional teachers, childcare workers have no summer break; it is a year-round job. There’s also no spring break, fall break, or winter break. For example, teachers often work Christmas Eve until all the kids are picked up. And, depending on how the holiday falls, they are back at work the day after Christmas.
7. Continuing Education is Often Required
In most states, early childhood teachers must participate in continuing education classes. These classes are sometimes available online or sponsored in person by the state’s Department of Education. Sometimes, childcare centers will host a class, like First Aid and CPR, that their staff is required to have. However, these classes are often taken on the teacher’s personal time, without pay, or they must pay for the classes themselves.
Depending on where they live, they could be required to do a few hours or a dozen or more annually. For example, Alabama requires 6 hours annually, Maryland requires 12, New York state requires 15 hours every two years, and Pennsylvania requires 180 hours over five years. To learn more about your state’s requirements, visit your state’s Department of Education website.
8. They Write Lesson Plans
There is a misconception that preschool teachers or childcare workers show up to work and play every day. Play-based learning is the basis of a quality early childhood program, but the play is purposeful. Teachers design lesson plans based on the children’s interests, strengths, areas of needed development, and age-appropriate milestones.
A quality early childhood program requires teachers to observe and document each child’s growth and development. Teachers use that information to create purposeful activities and games and to decide which toys and materials to place on the shelf. Even infant teachers create simple lesson plans based on the babies in their care to promote the development of important milestones like hand-eye coordination, object recognition, self-soothing, crawling, etc.
9. They Usually Can’t Afford to Send Their Children Where They Work
Because the average childcare worker makes a salary around the poverty line for a family of four, they often cannot afford to send their children to the same centers where they work. I was fortunate to have a solid second income from my spouse when my children were young. But even with the discount offered by the center, it was a stretch.
Many early childhood teachers, especially single parents, send their children to lower quality programs, in-home daycares (which can be wonderful and cost less but are typically less structured) or use a family or close friend as a babysitter. In general, many lower-income families cannot afford the high ticket price of a quality early childhood program. The COVID-19 pandemic deepened the already wide gap between available quality programs and access for lower-income families.
10. Men Make Good Early Childhood Teachers Too!
Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions is that men shouldn’t teach early childhood. I have worked with several male teachers in the field, and they were among the best. Male teachers bring a different energy to the classroom, and for some kids who do not have a positive male role model at home they can serve that purpose early in a child’s development.
Childcare has long been considered a woman’s position, and people sometimes find it odd that a man would want to work with young children. There is nothing more odd about a man wanting to teach preschool than a woman wanting to be a mechanic. We need to break the stigma that childcare work is only for women.
Working as an early childhood teacher is a demanding but rewarding career. It requires specific education, skills, knowledge of child development, and a love of teaching young kids. Early childhood teachers are special people who put passion into their work and, unfortunately, don’t always receive the credit they deserve. So the next time you interact with your child’s teacher or any early childhood teacher you know, thank them for their dedication to educating our youngest learners!
August 17, 2023, by L. Elizabeth Forry