VPK teacher Melissa Smith takes pride in creating a warm, developmentally appropriate environment for her students.
The single mother of three teenage boys from Tallahassee has enjoyed working with children since she was a child herself. She worked hard to rise from a position as an afternoon floater in a child care program while in high school and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in Family and Child Sciences from Florida State University.
“I’ve worked with children and families in a variety of capacities for 24 years from case manager to director of a faith-based child care center,” said Melissa.
As much as she enjoys teaching at a NAEYC accredited child development center, Melissa is concerned that child care is a poor career choice from a financial perspective. In addition to raising her sons, she also helps care for her aging parents who are in bad health.
On many days, she’s struggling to get by.
“I teach at a school that values highly qualified teachers and pays better than most, but it’s still hard to make ends meet,” she added. “In previous positions, I had to ignore my own health issues as my employers couldn’t afford to offer health insurance, or the plans they offered required high out-of-pocket expenses making it difficult to even use my health insurance. Additionally, I have not been able to prepare much for my retirement and have a side business selling LuLaRoe apparel to help pay my bills.”
Although compensation continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing early care and education professionals, the Children’s Forum and other partner agencies across Florida are taking steps in the right direction to address the issue.
Florida is one of eight states awarded a grant from the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® National Center to work on improving public awareness, public policies, and funding to focus on compensation of the child care workforce.
As the lead organization, the Children’s Forum has assembled a Florida team comprised of stakeholders who are creating and implementing a strategic action plan to “move the needle” on compensation. Additionally, programs like Child Care WAGE$® FLORIDA reward early childhood teachers with salary supplements based on their education and continuity of employment. Administered by the Children’s Forum, WAGE$ incentivizes recipients to seek additional education and college-level coursework while increasing their average rate of pay per hour. For now, WAGE$ is only available in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties.
Melissa’s story about making ends meet as an early education teacher is far from an isolated case.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, in 18 out of 24 metropolitan areas in Florida, more than 90 percent of child care professionals don’t make enough to afford the basic cost of living in their area. Furthermore, a study by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment found that 52 percent of Florida’s child care teachers’ families participate in one or more public income support programs.
“Teaching young children takes a person who is passionate about the field to trade off income and benefits for the intangible rewards of teaching young children,” Melissa said.
As the compensation issue gets addressed, Melissa is planning for her future, which includes earning her certification to teach in the K-12 public school system. She also plans to return to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in Early Childhood Education and would love to teach the next generation of early childhood teachers.
“A huge consideration for both of these goals is income, benefits, and work hours,” she said. “I would be able to provide better for my children while still having a positive impact on the early childhood field.”
If you agree that teachers like Melissa should be paid a living wage, please contact your state senators and representatives. Let them know you support increased compensation for early childhood educators who are the keys to high-quality early learning experiences.