Five child care workers on the joys and frustrations of a struggling industry
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WBUR reporter Carrie Jung in Boston recently checked in with five current and former child care workers about the joys and challenges of working in this industry, and why some are leaving the profession.
Here’s what they had to say:
Over the span of a 50-year career at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, Bernadette Davidson has seen a lot of change. As the center’s director of child care, she’s overseen a move and the introduction of several learning programs. But for the last few years, she said that staying staffed has been her greatest challenge.
“After the COVID-19 pandemic, we were hit with more staffing shortages,” Davidson said. “Today, it’s three times as bad as pre-pandemic.”
You can see the impacts of the labor shortage throughout the center she oversees. There are part-time substitute teachers staffing many of the classrooms and one of her 20 student preschool rooms only recently reopened after an extended closure. Davidson says the decision to close that classroom was tough, but necessary after losing five full-time teachers the year before.
“In some cases, teachers have gone to centers that might pay a dollar or two more in the suburbs,” she said. “And in some cases, they’ve just left the field. They’re doing something else now. Because they can’t survive.”
Kiya Savannah and her two-year-old daughter wake up at 5:30 each morning. They eat breakfast and get dressed. Then comes a 45-minute drive from Brockton to Boston to get to Ellis Early Learning, where Savannah teaches four- and five-year-olds, and where her daughter attends child care.
Savannah has worked at Ellis for the last seven years — and she loves what she does. But staying on this career path has become harder since the birth of her daughter. The hours and commute are challenging, but it’s the pay that’s causing the biggest problems.
“I am a single mom,” explains Savannah. “So with one income, you’re expecting me to pay $300 a week [in tuition], and I’m making less than $40,000 a year? How? How is that possible?”
Savannah tried to make the math work but couldn’t make ends meet. Finally, she opted to cut her hours, so she would qualify for financial assistance from the state. While this compromise did allow her to access child care, she’s still struggling financially.
“Even though I don’t need the money to feel more appreciated, it would help my personal life out a lot,” she said, adding that her budget doesn’t allow her to put money into savings each month or afford extracurriculars for her daughter.
Savannah said she plans to stay at Ellis Early Learning for now. She has a good routine worked out and appreciates the high quality of the program for her daughter. But the arrangement will likely be temporary. When her two-year-old turns five and goes to kindergarten, Savannah plans to leave this center and the early education field altogether.
“Is it something I really want to do? It’s not. I love teaching at this level,” Savannah said. “But my daughter is getting older and things are becoming more expensive. Things are going to get harder for me, so I have to make that move, unfortunately.”
Leaving early childhood education in 2021 was a gut-wrenching decision for western Massachusetts resident Vanessa Pashkoff.
“There’s just a huge amount of guilt that comes with that,” Pashkoff said. “I love what I do. I love taking care of other people’s children and contributing in that way to our community.”
The decision to step away came down to finances. The cost of child care for Pashkoff and her husband’s first child landed them in debt. When another baby was on the way, they decided something had to change.
“I can’t afford to put my own kids in care on an early childhood salary,” she said.
It’s hard for Pashkoff to speak those words out loud. Looking back at her 15-year career in the classroom brings up a lot of memories. The vast majority of them are good. One of her favorite memories came from her early days as a teacher. One of Pashkoff’s students was building a tall structure out of plastic blocks. She asked him what he was making — and she said his response was unforgettable.
“He put his hand on his hip, and he was wearing a boa. And he flipped the boa over his shoulder and said, ‘It’s the statue of Little Bee! Duh! In New York City,’ ” recalled Pashkoff. She said she loved moments of confidence and confusion with the kids.
Still, she admits the job came with some serious physical challenges. It was long hours on her feet without a guaranteed bathroom break. And Pashkoff said dealing with students’ poop, blood and vomit was “beyond common.” She distinctly remembers one occasion when a three-year-old student threw up all over the oversized button-down shirt she was wearing that day.
“And the pockets filled with vomit,” she recalls. “I remember being like, ‘This is happening!’ But, you know, he’s not fazed by it, so I’m not going to react to it.”
She said she’s torn when asked to speak about the job — because while there were good reasons why she left, it’s a career she deeply loved.
Kimberly Artez, 61, lost her job as a director of a child care center when the program closed during the pandemic.
She spent the next 18 months applying for similar positions. When she finally got an offer, it was to be a lead teacher in a toddler classroom.
“I went from a corner office to a classroom closet,” Artez said.
Artez knows her way around a classroom. That’s where she spent most of her 25 years in early education before she was promoted to director.
She took the lead teacher position after her unemployment benefits ran out. But she worries about whether she’ll be able to get back up the ladder she worked so hard to climb. The most frustrating aspect of working in early education for Artez is the lack of opportunities for advancement, especially for Black women like her.
Artez is a military veteran with four college degrees, including two master’s degrees in education and criminal justice. In 2006, she received her director’s certification, which required completing additional college credits. But it took another decade to land a position as a director. It was a long path.
“If you can’t package all of that together to make something happen, then I have to say to myself, ‘Maybe this is not the field for me,’” she said.
Nationally, Black early educators on average earn $0.78 less per hour than their white peers, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley. And although people of color make up at least 40% of the child care and early education workforce, they are less likely to have higher-paid positions like directors.
Even as a director, the highest annual salary Artez ever made was $38,000.
Artez is still deeply passionate about early education. Her dream is to remain in the field and work to fix its problems from a policy side. She wants to help make early education better for teachers and workers. The inability to retain staff, she believes, goes beyond low pay. Fixing it will involve helping people move their careers forward.
For Artez, there are some rewarding moments. Parents often voice praise and appreciation for her work.
“You get these warm fuzzies,” Artez said. “But I don’t think there are enough warm fuzzies to overcome the challenges.”
Many teachers have a niche talent in early childhood education. For Anna Rogers, it was helping infants build basic skills. She loved watching those “aha” moments that opened the floodgates to more complex abilities.
“I know it takes babies three months or four months to be able to sit, but when they finally do, it’s the best thing ever,” said Rogers. “They get this new sense of independence, all by just sitting up.”
Rogers doesn’t work in child care anymore. She left a 10-year career in February to take a job in a local public K-12 school district. Today, she’s left the workforce altogether to care for her newborn son full-time.
The hours played a big role in her decision to leave. Her daughter will be starting kindergarten soon, and the public school schedule didn’t jive with her hours at a local child care center. Low pay was a huge factor too.
“You cannot work in child care and have your own house,” explained Rogers. “You can barely — if you’re lucky — have an apartment to yourself. It’s impossible to do this job without another support system.”
Rogers said she doesn’t blame center owners or directors for the low wages. She knows they are under pressure from parents to keep costs down.
“The only way I can see this working is if it gets subsidized somehow,” Rogers said. “The burden on the parents needs to be lifted, and the burden on the workers needs to be lifted.”
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