In our current hyper-partisan climate, it seems nearly impossible to get American policymakers to agree on anything. And if a policy garners broad support, it is even more difficult to draft legislation that will become law without some form of controversy threatening its eventual enactment. It’s an all-too-familiar narrative in today’s politics – and it plays out once again in the dispute over the universal preschool plan it’s a centerpiece of President Biden’s social spending bill.
Surprisingly, there are two major elements of the plan that don’t generate much debate at all. The first is a proposed requirement that pre-kindergarten teachers hold at least a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. The second is that their remuneration be related to primary school staff with similar qualifications. These specific teacher-centered proposals merit further consideration.
As a nation, if we are serious about investing in more pre-k opportunities, we must ensure that these programs provide a high quality educational experience. And if we are to achieve higher levels of quality in the first place, we must accept the fact that preschool teachers are much more than glorified babysitters. In fact, as you will see, experts agree that they have a greater impact on the success of our children than any other teaching professional they will encounter throughout their educational journey.
More than two thirds of Americans support using federal funds to expand access to pre-k programs. This comes at a time when we need to pull working parents out of child care and re-enter the labor market. Yet many policy makers find themselves divided over the price and the fact that the States themselves will have to bear a significant part of the costs. As a result, we may not see the plan implemented in some states, even if it makes its way past the US Senate and into the President’s office (which, at the time of this writing, hasn’t). been the case). This could be a monumental missed opportunity for many children in our country and the teachers who support them.
Dr. Michael Troy, clinical psychologist at Children’s Minnesota and leading expert in early childhood development, recently sat with me to discuss the importance of early childhood education. “Our brains are built from scratch,” he says. “So what we learn in year one lays the foundation for what we learn in year two, and so on.” Seen in this context, preschool is where our children learn to learn, and they need a highly skilled and steady hand to guide them through the process.
Why is the job so demanding?
First, it is not about opening a lesson plan and teaching according to a set curriculum. It’s about helping children learn to think critically, collaborate with each other, and meet the challenges that naturally arise in any social setting. During our conversation, Dr. Troy explained that, in his experience, most kindergarten teachers would prefer students who can sit in groups and help their classmates, for example, rather than students who can read on sight any day. It takes a specialized skill set to create an environment in which children can develop these traits.
Second, at a time when until 33% of children are forced to deal with “negative childhood experiences” in their lives, it becomes essential that kindergarten teachers learn to recognize the signs and know how to deal with them. Kai-leé Berke, co-founder of Noni Educational Solutions and author of The creative program for preschool, told me recently that pre-kindergarten teachers need to be able to relate to children who have experienced trauma. Again, we see the need for advanced training and specialized skills that will help our pre-kindergarten teachers overcome a significant barrier to healthy childhood development.
And third, in the midst of teacher shortages and burnout that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, kindergarten teachers need access to self-care resources and learn to stay calm and collected at times when the classroom is anything but. In the words of Ms Berke, “Teachers are human, and it is inevitable that they will be affected when there are moments of chaos or instances where a child may act or become aggressive with other students. question is, do our teachers have the skills and training to stay regulated and get back to center in these times? If so, they can stay in control. Otherwise, they risk not only worsening the situation, but also their own mental health.
It is essential that we keep in mind that it takes a lot more to create a loving and successful learning environment than meets the eye. And by demanding that our pre-k teachers get the training they need – and the pay they deserve – we can help ensure that our pre-k programs have what it takes to put our children on the road to success.