It might seem strange that classism could find its way into the nurturing world of early childhood education (ECE). Most people think of the ages at which a child is in childcare as the most innocent of times.
However, many factors can bring out classism in early childhood education:
- underpaid and overextended teachers
- varying quality and prices of child care programs
- the struggle for families to find affordable childcare
- social prejudices placed on children at a very young age by parents and teachers.
Early childhood education is like any education field, it is wrought with underpaid and overworked teachers. Many pre-schools and childcare centers do not provide any benefits to their workers, including healthcare, retirement, life insurance, and very few paid sick days.
Regardless of how much education you might have, after paying bills, health insurance premiums (which you’ll need, because you will be sick all the time and unable to take time off), you may have to get a second job, just to get by. Just like anything, childcare prices have to be competitive (which is reasonable, childcare costs can eat up a parent’s paycheck). Many early childhood education centers are small and private, their goal is to make a profit, you as an educator, can be replaced by someone cheaper.
There is often an attitude that early childhood educators are “just” daycare workers. Regardless of where you work, whether it’s nonprofit or a high end preschool facility, whether you have years of experience and a packed resume, you will often be viewed like “the help.”
Burnout can be a problem, leading to more turnover and teachers abandoning the field all together. If you work at a high end center, their child better leave your class knowing Cantonese, molecular chemistry and how to make the perfect flan, all while never getting their NorthFace jacket dirty. Make sure they still get the “whole child” experience. Even if you work for this other worldly school, it is unlikely that you will be able to afford to send your own child there.
That this disparity continues to exist indicates that the education and care that a child receives in the first five years of their life is not important to our society. You may ask yourself, why? I know I do. The response is typical. If a childcare center pays their teacher more and provides benefits, the center will have to charge more, which in turn adds to the cost burden for parents.
Children cared for in childcare centers will start experiencing classism as soon as they walk in the door.”
It also hurts profits if the school is no longer cost competitive with other schools. It also goes back to the value our society puts on education. Early childhood educators are the lowest of the low in hierarchy of education. Though there are varying levels of education in ECE, the work that these teachers do is no less valuable than any other educator.
As an employee coming from a nonprofit to a private center, I was often told that I needed to change my way of thinking. “Things are different here,” I was told. Why should things be different? Many states have a licensing process for ECE centers, which includes how much education staff must have to be alone with a child. But what if you can’t afford a center with educated staff, or you don’t live in a state that has quality childcare guidelines? What if childcare cost depletes your weekly paycheck? You are often stuck with whatever you can afford, which can be scary. Why should any child, let along very young children, face such extreme quality differences in education? Why, at such a young age, is the quality of a child’s education determined by their parents’ wealth?
When You Walk in the Door
Children cared for in childcare centers will start experiencing classism as soon as they walk in the door. Parents make alliances and friendships with families they deem socially acceptable. Children from more advantaged economic classes are often given VIP treatment, and schools are often more forgiving.
There is still seems to be an attitude about that a child should be at home for the first few years or only in part time care. Many working parents who can’t take time off for special family events or who have to use childcare fulltime, become even more isolated because they are judged and they lose out on the networking.
Children who are already deemed socially, “lower class,” will face a tougher road. Teachers often have built in prejudice (they may not even realize) and a child may be picked out from an early age and deemed either from an ideal situation, or given a title of problem child, without the teacher looking at family culture and economic struggles.
Where to Go from Here?
How do we begin to address classism in ECE? Many states are working to support a higher standard in early childhood programs. And it has been nationally recognized that quality early childhood education is an important part of a child’s development.
However, better standards nationally could make a huge impact. Teachers might be more likely to stay in a field in which they believe they can make an actual career. Children will benefit from better quality centers and highly trained educators. Families might feel more of an incentive to pay for quality care. And we will all be better off in a world where each child and ECE worker is respected.