I became an early childhood teacher because, like so many others, I dream of making abundant, equitable access to high-quality early childhood education a reality. But a major barrier persists: We don’t have nearly enough teachers, and more and more are leaving the classroom every day.
Despite this challenge, the process of becoming a certified early childhood teacher is not nearly as accessible or inclusive as it can be. This needs to change. If it doesn’t, we risk leaving out multitudes of brilliant potential teachers, while trying to expand early childhood programs within an already stretched-thin workforce.
Four out of five child care centers across the United States are understaffed, according to a 2021 National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) survey. The center where I teach is one of them.
Being short-staffed means teachers bend over backward daily to ensure children are cared for and legal ratio requirements are met, at the expense of our own well-being. Staffing shortages make it difficult for us to use vacation, personal or sick days, and when we do, it’s a heavy burden on the other teachers who have to stretch to cover those who are out. And already limited breaks and planning periods are clipped even further at understaffed programs, meaning lesson planning, assessments and paperwork often follow teachers home on nights and weekends.
As a result, early childhood teachers are burning out. In a recent survey of more than 2,300 early childhood teachers administered by Teaching Strategies, a provider of early childhood classroom tools, one in two teachers reported high burnout, and 43 percent said staffing shortages are affecting their stress level. So, it’s no surprise that early childhood teachers are quitting. In the same survey, 20 percent of participants said they are considering leaving their jobs, and of that group, 40 percent cited mental health as the reason.
One of the biggest obstacles to drawing and keeping people in the profession is low compensation. Child care workers are paid on average a third of what elementary teachers make. While many advocates across the country have been working on efforts to rightfully raise early childhood teacher wages — for example, in San Francisco and in New Mexico — there’s significantly more work to be done.
Quicker Routes Needed
Raising compensation is critical, but it’s not enough. We also need the field to innovate how we recruit and train more teachers. The most effective and equitable place to start is by making the pathways to becoming a certified teacher more accessible and inclusive.
We currently rely largely on higher education institutions to graduate qualified, trained candidates. But existing programs don’t have the capacity or incentive to scale, especially as many programs are hesitant to train more early childhood teachers because of the historically low salaries of the profession.
Most importantly, relying on existing institutions means we leave out many potential teachers, because a lot of these programs are not designed to meet their needs.
When I decided to shift my career to become an early childhood teacher after nearly a decade in the tech and nonprofit sectors, I had to gain the necessary training and education credits to become a certified teacher. That’s when I experienced firsthand the flaws and challenges of the process.
I first looked to enroll in a local community college to begin the required early childhood coursework that would make me eligible to become a certified early childhood teacher in California, but quickly found myself confused and frustrated. The schools didn’t have resources available to help me troubleshoot the complicated and error-filled online enrollment process. After several weeks of error pages and unanswered emails, I was ready to give up.
Fortunately, I found a quicker, easier pathway. A local early childhood nonprofit (where I served on the board of directors and where I planned to eventually work) was piloting a Child Development Associate (CDA) training program, and I decided to participate. The CDA, which has been around since the 1970s, is a faster, more lightweight program that puts a heavy emphasis on in-person, hands-on training, without sacrificing any quality or quantity of training. While it is not the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, it is recognized as a substitute for coursework and experience requirements to become an early childhood educator.
Within six months, I completed my online education credits and in-person training hours, and received my CDA, which allowed me to become a certified early childhood teacher in California. That’s half the time it would have taken had I gone the community college route.
Accessible Pathways, A Matter of Equity
Today, I teach two-year-olds alongside incredible early childhood teachers who inspire me with their expertise and work ethic, and most importantly how magically valuable they are to the children. When I’ve asked them about their journeys into the early childhood classroom, many have shared stories of frustration about the challenges of earning their teaching credentials.
One of them shared how it took nearly three years to earn her credential, because she had to fit night classes at her community college around her full-time job and her responsibilities as a single mother.
Another teacher, originally from the Philippines, who has over a decade of teaching experience, explained that she is taking additional classes to renew her credentials, which is required by California’s regulations. She said she is disheartened by how out of place she feels in her online classes because she struggles with both the English instruction and the technology required for online learning. She is incredible with the children in the classroom, which is why it was gut-wrenching for me to hear her say, “It makes me question whether I should be a teacher or not.”
My colleagues deserve better. They deserve affordable, accessible programs designed to allow them to advance their careers while continuing to work and meet their personal responsibilities. And potential new teachers need flexible programs that make it possible for them to enter the workforce with more ease and less friction, without sacrificing quality. We need new approaches that are designed around the specific needs of new and current teachers.
Thankfully, we are seeing new programs emerge that are creating inclusive, accessible pathways to becoming an early childhood teacher. EDvance College, for example, began as a model embedded in San Francisco State University and is now an independent nonprofit higher education institution focused solely on early childhood teacher training. EDvance College has affordable programs specifically designed to help practicing early childhood teachers earn a bachelor’s degree around their busy work schedules and demands.
StraighterLine, a for-profit company that provides online postsecondary courses, created a stackable pathway for new early childhood teachers to make ongoing education for teachers more streamlined, combining the CDA certification with further online courses to allow teachers to flexibly earn a bachelor’s degree to qualify for more advanced credentials.
Access to high-quality early childhood education is among the most powerful, proven ways to close equity gaps and support communities. But the profession is riddled with obstacles, the workforce is undervalued and underpaid, and with so many teachers leaving, programs are understaffed.
Supporting young children and their families is a special, unique experience. The work demands talent, passion and enthusiasm, but it is beyond rewarding. There are remarkable people doing this hard work everyday — I know because I work with so many of them. And there are plenty more who would be interested in pursuing a career in early childhood education if it was a path with more economic stability and respect.
We need to make the profession a more desirable one to enter and to remain in. To get there, we need to create more inclusive pathways for new early childhood teachers to become certified and for current teachers to advance their careers.