Whenever I tell people I am an early childhood educator, I get one of 3 responses every single time. 1) “That’s cute!” 2) “How fun!!” 3) “You must be so patient!” I normally just grit my teeth and force a smile. I nod and say “yeah… sometimes!” Then we usually laugh and move on. For so long I have thought about what I would actually say to debunk these misconceptions.
It’s not all cute. Yes, the young children do look cute and are tiny and that certainly is a bonus, but if a teacher only taught because the children looked cute, they would quit before the first day of school was over. It’s not cute when the students are sneezing in your face. It’s not cute when they are routinely calling out on the rug or being disruptive during read alouds. Or when they are fighting with a friend or being defiant to a teacher.
Early childhood educators do not teach because the children are cute. Because if they did, then they wouldn’t view these not-so-cute moments as teachable moments or as a child’s means of communication. Saying that early childhood is “cute” demeans all the hard work that early childhood educators do every day to ensure the development of the whole child for every student in their class.
2) “How fun!”
Of course a teacher loves what they do and gets great joy from it (and I certainly miss it every moment these days) but I am not sure that any teacher would describe teaching as fun. There is so much that teachers do every day that suck all joy out of teaching. Meetings, meetings about meetings, curriculum planning, copier jams, paperwork, assessments and data entry, and more data… not fun.
Early childhood educators do all of that stuff and more, but it usually takes us away from our main purpose- educating the children. The assessments and meetings take us away from actually sitting with our students and working with them – helping them through a problem, giving them feedback, building a relationship with them.
Of course a teacher needs to assess their students, but often the assessments that really influence instruction are informal ones used in the moment while working with students. The assessments that teachers are told to do to prove to administration that their students are making progress, are the ones that take teachers away from actually teaching. Teachers can’t give feedback in the moment to these assessments. They can certainly use the results to inform instruction, but they often have to spend a lot of time uploading or inputting these results just to prove that they are doing their job. Not fun.
Additionally, labeling early childhood education as “fun” is extremely belittling. You don’t hear someone tell a high school teacher or even a 5th grade teacher how their job is “so fun”. Saying that early childhood is fun implies that all early childhood educators are doing is playing with their students and doing arts and crafts… how fun. This showcases how much early childhood needs to advocate for our profession. But, to an untrained eye, it might look like all that preschool teacher does is plays with their student. However, to a trained early childhood educator, we know that the teacher is facilitating play for the children. They are guiding the development for the whole child by fostering communication and including new vocabulary words. They are supporting the children to grow in their social-emotional development by guiding their cooperative play.
What the untrained eye doesn’t see is all the thought and planning that went into placing every single material into that space. Each material has a purpose to engage the student and foster development. The untrained eye also only sees play as something “fun” for the children. They don’t see the significant benefits of play. And they don’t read the research that proves time and time again that play is the most effective way for children to learn. They just don’t understand that in all this “fun”, children are actually working hard and learning and growing a lot.
3) “You must be so patient!”
Actually, I am one of the least patient people I know. I simply understand the developmental stages and capabilities of my students. And, I understand that all behavior is communication of their needs. I read this article, “Food for Thought. Patience or Understanding?” by Nancy Weber-Schwartz, in college and it has forever stuck with me. It helped me understand why it always bothered me when people said I must be patient for wanting to be a teacher.
This is a troubling misconception of early childhood educators, in my opinion. When people say this, it feels like they put the early childhood educator up on a pedestal as a quiet, patient, saint-like figure. It makes it hard for the teacher to be human – to have reactions or to have a life outside of the classroom. And it assumes that early childhood educators only do this work because they love children. So, they don’t need the pay or the recognition they deserve. Now, of course this is usually true – early childhood educators definitely do not go into education for the pay or the recognition. However, many early childhood educators leave the profession because them. Early childhood educators do not get paid enough to support their own dreams and their own families, society definitely doesn’t give them the recognition they deserve.
So, what should you say to an early childhood educator about their job? I don’t really have a magic answer. What do you say to a doctor, a lawyer, a politician, a CEO? Impressive! Fascinating! Amazing! Not sure exactly, but maybe say something like that instead of “cute,” “fun,” and “wow you must be patient!”