From Head Start Teacher to WAGE$ Program Coordinator: Kiki Peters Understands the Challenges Early Learning Educators Face

Kiki Peters is a single mom of a teenage son. She came to work at the Children’s Forum after teaching in an Early Head Start program. Though she loved working with children, Kiki realized her position did not provide a living wage. She held up to three jobs at one point to pay the bills.

Today, Kiki is the coordinator of our Child Care WAGE$® FLORIDA program and helps early learning educators who are in exactly the same situation she was in. She feels connected to the stories she hears from recipients of the salary supplements that keep them in the field and help them make ends meet financially.

Kiki shared her story to shed light on the daily challenges facing early education teachers, and the struggles she faced to get to where she is today. She encourages teachers to keep working hard to educate children and take advantage of programs to assist them with their salaries and careers.

What attracted you to the early childhood field?

Growing up, I thought I was going to become a veterinarian or a nurse. I attended Florida State University and was pursuing a degree in nursing. One semester, I enrolled in a child life course. That class was amazing and I wanted to learn more about young children. I decided to sign up for a child development course as well. From there, I decided to change my major to early learning. That child life course changed it all.

What were some of the challenges or sacrifices you had to make as a Head Start teacher?

I was in my early twenties, and, after working all day at my Head Start job, I went to another part-time job at a shoe store. I lived in public housing, used food stamps, borrowed money from my parents, and sometimes went without just to make it to my next payday.

I wasn’t aware that I made low wages. My hourly rate at Head Start was $10 an hour, and I thought I was making big bucks. I seriously thought I was making a great salary and it didn’t hurt that I had weekends off.

I had a three-year-old son to care for at the time, and the biggest thing I had to sacrifice was quality time with him. I wanted to provide a good life for him, but time is what I had to give up in order to make this happen.

How did you come to the Children’s Forum?

I shared my classroom with a co-teacher, and one day she brought in classified ads from the local newspaper. She came across a job advertisement for a T.E.A.C.H. Counselor. I had never heard of the Children’s Forum or T.E.A.C.H. I applied for the job and landed an interview. I was excited because I knew the T.E.A.C.H. Counselor position could be a career advancement.

I was initially hired as a T.E.A.C.H. counselor but two years later, I transferred to WAGE$. I have been there ever since, and currently oversee the WAGE$ program and four full-time staff.

How did coming to the Forum change your life?

Coming to the Forum changed my world! It opened up financial possibilities for me and my family. I was able to quit my part-time job at the shoe store and move out of public housing. Within three years, I purchased my first home.

The Forum became my second family and my new support system. In addition, I received a Master’s degree in Public Administration in 2016.

How would programs like T.E.A.C.H. and WAGE$ have helped you when you were starting out?

Both T.E.A.C.H. and WAGE$ would have been incentives for me to stay in the classroom. I didn’t leave because I didn’t like my job; I left for better pay. Having a T.E.A.C.H. scholarship would have helped me achieve a master’s degree. With WAGE$, having an early education degree would have qualified me to receive a stipend of $1,500 every six months.

You’ve heard a lot of stories about early learning teachers trying to make ends meet. What stories have stood out the most, and why?

Most of the WAGE$ stories we hear are similar. The name will change, the city will change, but the struggles, the frustrations, the setbacks are all the same. We have heard the same story for far too long. When will it change, what will be the change, and who will make it change?

I recall a heartfelt letter we received from a teacher who was short on her utility bill. She didn’t have any assistance or support and was wondering what she was going to do. Her WAGE$ check arrived and she was able to pay her utility bill with the supplement. The fact that it came when she was most in need, that makes all us feel good and it makes our WAGE$ counselors feel proud of the work they do.

What advice would you give to early learning educators in the field today?

I would tell them to fight for what they believe in, but back it up by hard work, education and dedication. Choose to see the good: see the good in the work you do, see the good in children in your care, and don’t give up on yourself. Sometimes the detour is a blessing in disguise.

According to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment in 2015, the median wage for child care workers was $9.53. Fortunately, early learning educators can qualify for assistance to continue working in the classroom and to earn a higher degree to get better paying jobs.

Our T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® Scholarship program provides scholarships for early childcare educators to work towards earning a Master’s, an Associate and/or Bachelor degree, or credentials in early childhood education. Learn more about T.E.A.C.H.

Our WAGE$ program offers education-based salary supplements to early childhood teachers working with children ages birth to five. Learn more about WAGE$.