The Mass Exodus of Educators - And What do we do About it?
Where are all of the educators going?
Anywhere other than early childhood education is seems.
In recent months (actually it's probably turning into years now) we have seen a mass exodus of educators from the early childhood profession, and I for one am devastated by it. And it's not just the usual turnover - those who have retrained and decided to move into schools (better pay and conditions are often too great a temptation), or those who take time off to have their own children and then discover that the hours required in early childhood aren't always conducive to family life. This is turnover like we haven't seen before. This is a time where previously passionate, skilled, knowledgeable professionals are saying "I'm done" and leaving the education sector altogether.
Why are educators leaving?
Sure, there are the standard reasons that have been challenges for many years:
- Low wages
- Family changes
But now, we are seeing a whole bunch of new reasons for leaving the sector, including:
- Poor treatment by managers
- Poor treatment by families
- Lack of support for "challenging behaviour"
- Lack of motivation
- Unethical practices in services
How did we get here?
When I first started in early childhood education over twenty years ago, it was a competitive field. My TAFE class for my Certificate III had approximately thirty students in it, and I'd say of those thirty, twenty five would have finished the course. Recently I heard from a teacher of a Diploma course that they had thirty students commence the course this year and that it looked like only ten would finish. It's becoming clearer and clearer that this is not a desirable profession for a lot of people anymore.
Several years ago now, we saw an increase in the number of Registered Training Organisations offering Diploma's in a very short time frame. The general view from the sector was that this was not acceptable, and that the quality of educator was poor due to the lack of time, knowledge and practical experienced that they gained in a course that only lasted 12 weeks (for example) and could be predominantly completed online. Thankfully this approach has dwindled, and some of those RTO's who quickly developed a negative reputation have now closed. But what damage was done? Is this a contributing factor to where we are now?
There's no doubt that a global pandemic which ground almost everyone to a halt with the exception of a few essential professions - including early education and care - took its toll. Educators were required to be exposed to illness, were tasked with maintaining the emotional wellbeing of small humans who couldn't really understand the strange new world we all found ourselves in. Is this what's done it? Did the pressure of being "essential" with little recognition and continuing low wages, become too much?
Is it all a vicious cycle?
So we can't attract new educators to the sector because it doesn't seem very appealing for many (low wages, high emotional toll, high physical toll etc). This means that many services find themselves short-staffed, which leads to current educators feeling more overwhelmed, more under pressure, more burned out. So then they leave, and we have yet another vacancy to fill and where once we might have had thirty applicants for a position, we now have two, or in some cases - none. And so then, we have more pressure on the remaining educators, and on and on it goes. Until what? Until we have no-one left?
What's the answer?
Look, this all feels doom and gloom, and I don't want it to be. There are some incredible services and incredible educators who are an absolute asset to the sector. There are people who have been in the sector for 20, 30 + years and still light up when they talk about. People who advocate for better, but also recognise that they can make a difference, and that in working on their own practice (ongoing reflection and professional learning) they can overcome some of the challenges.
Regardless of those services and educators, it would be naïve not to think that we have a problem in our sector. A quick glance at an early childhood Facebook group will tell you that. Educators want support. Educators want guidance. Educators want recognition. Educators want to be treated with respect.
I don't know that I have the answer for how we solve such a huge problem. Do we need more funding for quality training of new educators? Probably. Do we need more government support for wage increases? Certainly. But what else do we need? And who needs to provide it?
I have a few suggestions, but they are most definitely not the fix for such a big issue.
We need to value our educators. This isn't just about throwing money at them, or offering incentives and bonuses. This is about true value. It's about listening to them, asking if they need support, ensuring that they take leave to avoid burnout, ensuring that they have time and space to eat their lunch in peace, providing access to quality professional learning (training, books, podcasts, videos, reflective discussion, articles etc), including them in decision making that impacts them, creating a culture of care and connection.
We need to take time to regroup, to breathe and have space away from our work. We need to eat well, hydrate, laugh. We need to ask for help when we need it, to say what needs to be said, to question what we don't understand. We need to rediscover the joy of childhood, of play. We need to focus on the children. We need to challenge unethical practices of our colleagues and stand up for children's rights. We need to stop taking work home. We need to remember why we do what we do.
Why should you stay?
I remember when I finished working in a service. It was 2013 and I was about to give birth to my second child. I'd been a director for over seven years and at the same service for almost ten. I loved it. I didn't love every day. There were some really hard days. There were some really hard years. There were times when I didn't think I could give any more. But each time I thought about throwing it in and going back to retail, or trying something different altogether, I just couldn't imagine my life without early childhood education. I couldn't imagine not seeing the delight of a toddler making a new discovery, or hearing the wisdom of a four year old who knew more about dinosaurs than I ever could. For me though, the opportunity to move full time into our work with Inspired EC, was one I couldn't pass up. Was I sad about leaving? Absolutely. Do I miss it? Often.
Do I think all educators should stay in the sector? No. Perhaps you are a year in and have discovered it just isn't what you thought it would be, or you don't feel you can give it what it needs. Time to go. But if you are an educator who has once loved what you do, we need you to really think about it before you go. Do you need a break? Do you need to be in a different service? Do you need to ask for support? What will get you back to the place of loving what you do?
Because the sector needs people like you. It needs people who care. It needs people who understand just how important these years are, who know what a difference they can make in the life of a child, in the life of a family.