On September 23rd, GEEARS and partner Quality Care for Children co-hosted over 50 early childhood professionals—most of them teachers—for a Human-Centered Design Workshop at a leafy retreat center in Peachtree City.
The goal, as GEEARS’ Executive Director Mindy Binderman put it, was this: “What do we do to attract and retain our early educators? I can have all the great ideas in my world from my office but you are the experts. You live this every day. We need your experiences. We need your great ideas so we can help elevate those to policymakers.”
And the need is particularly urgent. According to the day’s facilitators from Start Early, recent data shows that the early education workforce is 3.9% below pre-pandemic rates, though “conditions for the workforce were already dire.” Early educators experience poverty at a rate that’s 7.7 times higher than K – 8 teachers. As a result, some studies estimate that annual turnover rates are between 26% and 40% for early childhood educators in licensed facilities.
Through the day, the facilitators led discussions about challenges like the public perception of the early childhood field, how to support child care directors who can, in turn, better support their teachers, and workforce training, recruitment, and retention.
A throughline that ran through the discussions was the under-valuation of early educators, who are paid extremely low wages and are often dismissed as “babysitters” or “daycare workers.” In fact, they’re highly-qualified, credentialed teachers with a passion for their young students and the families who desperately need their services if they are to work and support their households.
The attendees, who came from all over Georgia, said they found each other’s companionship to be cathartic. They were moved by the facilitators’ eagerness to listen to their stories and the chance to share with each other.
“I think it’s great that we can be here and get other people’s perspectives,” Dasima Hill from Decatur’s Little Linguists International Preschool told us during a break. “One of the common things that everybody has experienced is the challenge of maintaining staff, or just getting staff period. I heard some different ideas about how we can find a happy place that makes us all happy.”
Told to shoot for the moon when it came to solutions to issues like educating the public about early educators, the teachers got creative (and a little slap-happy):
“What if we brought legislators in to listen to us?” one attendee proposed to a chorus of affirmations.
“What if companies sponsored a classroom?” piped up another in a small group discussion.
“What if insurance companies chipped in for our healthcare and retirement?”
“Y’all,” called out one attendee for the whole room to hear, “we need a reality show! They need to see what we do. Oh, it would be a hit, I promise!”
While gales of laughter filled the room, a fellow teacher wrote neatly on chart paper, The Real ECE of Atlanta.
At the end of the day, the participants were paid a stipend—a small acknowledgement of their time and expertise. And when they returned home to child care programs all over the state, their stories and wisdom remained. They will fuel GEEARS’ advocacy in the coming legislative session and in all the work we do on behalf of this critical, but beleaguered, industry.