Picture this: A 4-year-old is in a sandbox, running sand and pebbles through a sieve. An adult is at his side, asking him to describe the speed of the moving sand, prompting him to compare the sizes of pebbles, and introducing words such as “filter,” “capture,” and “sort.” The adult is closely observing his language development, assessing his abilities, bringing math and science into their conversations—and doing the same with 12 other children under her watch that day. By every indication, she is a teacher.
But in American society, she isn’t treated like one. Terms such as “babysitter,” “caregiver,” or “daycare provider” are too often the words that pop into people’s heads when they think of an adult who teaches very young children. And their pay is too often at the bottom of the income ladder, with salaries near $10 an hour. In fact, many adults working in child-care centers and other early-childhood programs make about $1 more than fast-food cooks and less than animal caretakers, according to a recent report by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley.
This undervaluing of work is not just the case for infant and toddler teachers and assistants. Pre-K teachers, for instance, earn 40 percent less than kindergarten teachers, even though the demands of the job—and the education and training required—can be nearly identical. Research shows that these teachers matter a lot. The adults working in early-childhood programs set the foundation for future learning, developing essential knowledge in their young students as well as the skills, habits, and mindsets children need to succeed later in school and flourish in life. And the quality of interactions between teachers and children is especially important when it comes to sustaining the gains children make in pre-K programs.