INTERVIEWED BY EMILY FREEHLING

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Virginia is starting the 2020s with a renewed focus on early childhood education. Gov. Ralph Northam has called for $95 million in new funding to increase access to early childhood education for at-risk 3- and-4-year-olds, and to ensure educators and care providers have the training and support they need.

“Early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make in our children’s health, well-being, and future success,” Northam states in a release announcing his proposals.

At this moment of focus on developing the minds of Virginia’s youngest residents, it’s important to recognize that the task of improving early childhood education ultimately falls to those on the front lines: preschool teachers.

“Early childhood educators are our heroes,” says Courtney Harris, Virginia Quality Expansion Coordinator at Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area. “Teachers are in the spotlight right now, and it’s important to remember that this is not a highly paid profession, but a lot is expected of these teachers. They are not babysitters.”

To maintain a strong workforce of early childhood educators, preschools and other care providers need access to resources where teachers can receive professional development, support and mentoring to help them grow in their careers.

That’s where Virginia Quality comes in.

Virginia Quality is a free program that provides resources to help Virginia’s child care and early learning programs continuously improve. Child care centers, preschools and home-based care providers voluntarily choose to work with Virginia Quality for support and professional development in the areas of staff education and qualifications, curriculum and assessment, and classroom environment and interactions.

Through assessments and observations, Virginia Quality consultants help care providers move beyond the basic requirements of licensing to build schools and programs that are developmentally appropriate and will help young children be ready for kindergarten.

Virginia Quality Regional Coordinator Jenna Martin says professional development for preschool teachers is a key component of improving kindergarten .

Martin says parents and the community at large need to recognize the importance of cultivating quality early childhood educators. That can be challenging in a profession where pay tends to be low.

A 2016 report by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services found that the national median salary for preschool teachers was $28,570, compared with $51,640 for kindergarten teachers. The report also found that while education and training requirements for these teachers had increased in recent years, pay had not.

Preschool teachers with bachelor’s degrees were found to make nearly half the earnings of overall bachelor’s degree holders. In all states, median annual earnings for childcare workers were found to qualify a worker with a family of three for food stamps.

This makes it harder for qualified, motivated individuals to go into early childhood education, Martin says.

“Many people who choose to get a bachelor’s or higher degree in early childhood get asked, ‘Why not elementary?’” she says. “There is a lack of understanding and respect for people who choose to work with the youngest children.”

That pressure is particularly felt by private-sector care providers, who do not receive the government funding that makes higher salaries in public programs possible.

Dawn Chapman, director of Bright Beginnings Childcare Center in Stafford County, participates with Virginia Quality, and finds the training and other development the program provides to be an important, free resource for her staff.

Chapman says the job requires patience and a true heart for understanding the individual needs and learning styles of students with no prior school experience to look back .

“Sometimes people think, ‘Well, I can watch kids,’ but we are not babysitters here,” she says. “We are the first steps to school for them. We open that door so that they can perform when they get to kindergarten. They have to have the heart and the patience and the passion to do it.”

The Head Start and Virginia Preschool Initiative public preschool programs in the city of Fredericksburg have received strong marks from teachers at Hugh Mercer Elementary School, where their students enter kindergarten. They have also been able to retain many of their teachers for careers as long as 20 to 25 years.

Laura Dove, supervisor of preschool programs for the Fredericksburg City Public Schools, says there is an enthusiasm around working with preschool children that her educators fall in love with. But it takes the right individual.

“They have to be passionate about helping at-risk preschool age children and really embrace our mission about involving the whole family,” Dove says. “They have to be open-minded, because you have to meet each child where they are. This is their first school experience, and each child needs their own path.”

Fredericksburg’s public preschool programs—which also include federal Head Start programming for King George County—participate in Virginia Quality, which Dove says has been an important resource for teachers.

“Virginia Quality and Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area has been one of our greatest assets,” she says.

She says teachers like that the coaching and support Virginia Quality provides is catered to each teacher’s individual needs, and that having a third-party observer in the classroom who isn’t their boss allows for an open conversation about how the teacher wants to improve.

“[The technical assistants] are strictly there to help the teachers feel like they are teaching to the best of their ability,” Dove says. “It is solely about the craft of teaching.”

Virginia Quality’s Martin and Harris both encourage parents to ask their preschools or daycare providers whether they participate with Virginia Quality, or what resources they provide their teachers for professional development.

As Virginia works to improve school readiness for young children, supporting teachers from the ground up is just as important as getting support from the governor’s office.

“It’s an exciting time in early childhood in Virginia,” Harris says.

 

HOW PARENTS CAN SUPPORT EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATORS

Ask your preschool or childcare director how they are supporting teachers with professional development.

Ask them if they participate in Virginia Quality. You can also find a list at virginiaquality.com.

If you notice that your classroom has been observed by a Virginia Quality consultant or other state entity, thank your teacher. By opening their classroom to observation, they are showing a commitment to quality and improvement.

Remember that you are your child’s first and most important teacher. Provide a good foundation by talking frequently and reading books with your child. Build on that by establishing a solid home-to-school connection with your young child’s school or care provider.