Last month, GEEARS: Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students and partner Quality Care for Children co-hosted over 50 early childhood professionals—almost all of them teachers—for a Human-Centered Design Workshop.
GEEARS invited early childhood educators from across Georgia to the workshop, asking participants to give up an entire, precious Saturday. For some, it meant a commute of hours. And yet, GEEARS was inundated with requests to attend. These educators were hungry to seek catharsis and support amongst each other. They wanted to raise voices that would be heard by researchers, advocates, and policymakers. We made sure that the teachers who ultimately participated were diverse. They came from all over the state and specialized in infants, Pre-K students, and all the toddlers in between.
“I drove four hours to get here after working all day to be a part of the change and put my own input into it,” said Courtney Mirabelli, a three-and-four-year-old teacher from The Learning Treehouse Preschool and Daycare in Effingham County.
One of the day’s goals, 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 the world from my office, but you are the experts. You live this every day. We need your experiences. We need your great ideas to help elevate those to policymakers.”
The need is particularly urgent. According to the workshop’s facilitators from Start Early, recent data show that the early education workforce is 3.9% below pre-pandemic rates, when “conditions for the workforce were already dire.” The facilitators also noted that 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.
A throughline of the day’s discussions was this under-valuation of early educators, who 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.
“One of the common things that everybody has experienced is the challenge of maintaining staff, or just getting staff period,” said Dasima Hill from Decatur’s Little Linguists International Preschool told us during a break. “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.
But most of the attendees’ proposed solutions were serious and constructive. By day’s end, the room was positively brimming with sticky notes, posters, and dialogue.
Many of the solutions simply leveled the playing field between early educators and their K-12 counterparts. They advocated for benefits, professional development and training opportunities, and designated planning time. Others proposed tax credits based on years of service, a shortened work day, CDA credit awarded for time spent teaching, and school supply drives.
It’s gratifying to see that one idea discussed at the workshop—child care access and assistance for early educators—had already been in the works at the Georgia Department of Early Care and Early Learning. DECAL recently announced a small pilot program in which the state will pay 75% of an educator’s child care costs if their children attend the same program where they work. In this article about the pilot, DECAL Commissioner, Amy Jacobs, noted that teachers and child care directors directly influenced its conception: “We have absolutely heard from teachers directly, and from child care providers, that they think this will make a difference.”
In other words, those who advocate and create policy are in agreement—the most important voices behind change for Georgia’s families and children are those of the professionals who work with our children every day.
In post-workshop feedback, one participant suggested that the conversation continue: “It would be great for the same people to come back and see and hear how they implemented what they learned.”
Another said, “After 30 years in the field, I feel more hopeful than ever.”
And during the event, Mirabelli noted, “As a whole, we all have that same inspiration and love for our children and our careers, so much more so than you see in a lot of other workforces. I think that just shows you, no matter what we’re getting paid, we’re still going to do this job.” It’s important to note that the workshop participants were paid a stipend—a small acknowledgement of their time and expertise. And after they returned home, the hosts and teachers agreed—these conversations aren’t over. Educators’ continued engagement with GEEARS will be critical as we constantly refine and prioritize the ideas we put forth to policymakers in state government, and also influencers and stakeholders in the business and philanthropic communities.