Most of Michigan’s public preschool teachers say they’ll leave their jobs in the next five years, or they’re thinking about it.
Just 40% of the teachers interviewed across 11 Michigan school districts plan on sticking it out, according to a recent study from Michigan State University.
And it’s not because they don’t love their jobs, says Bethany Wilinski, an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education and one of the study’s authors
“So I’ll give you one poignant example: this teacher had been teaching Great Start Readiness Program [the state’s free preschool program for disadvantaged kids] for 15 years, absolutely loved it, but her district was moving towards putting preschool teachers on a separate salary scale from K-12 teachers,” Wilinski says.
“So she had a masters degree and was moving up the career ladder, and she was concerned that when that change came about, she would no longer be able to teach pre-k because she would be earning too much. The salary scale for preschool teachers would be capped at $35,000.”
That’s more than the $31,000 the average lead preschool teacher makes in Michigan. And that’s if they can land a salaried gig, rather than some of the hourly jobs in community-based centers that can start around $10/hour.
Plus, because preschool teachers have to have a teacher’s certificate to work in public school, they have the same qualifications as their K-12 colleagues, Wilinski says - but in some districts, can’t make as much money teaching 4-year-olds as the teacher with the classroom of 5-year-olds just down the hall.
“So it was really sad, because this is the kind of teacher you want to retain in pre-K,” Wilinski says. “Who’s making a huge difference in the lives of kids and families, and feels like, not only does she love teaching young kids, but wants to work in a program like GSRP, where she’s working with kids and families who are more marginalized in the system.So she’s basically shut out.
“And I looked her up to see where she is now, and I think she’s teaching first grade.”
Living at home, with family asking when you’re going to get a “real” job?
While money was the biggest reason they were considering leaving, many of the 30 preschool teachers interviewed for this study also said they felt like they were “operating on an island.”
Most wished “building colleagues, the school district, and society in general would recognize the importance of the work they were doing. One teacher explained she wished more people would understand that ‘the work we do is meaningful and we’re not just playing all day.’”
Another young teacher told Wilinski she was living with her mom, because she couldn’t afford to pay rent and her student loans on a public preschool teacher’s salary. “And that was the same teacher who said, ‘You know, my family keep asking me, like, why am I doing this? Like, why did I go to school for four years, just to teach young kids?’” she says. “If I had to guess, that person might not stay in [public preschool] for too long.”
Other teachers said they felt unsupported or ignored by administrators and K-12 teachers, who didn’t understand early childhood education’s emphasis on social and cognitive development, rather than pure academics. A few preschool classrooms weren’t even in the elementary school buildings, or didn’t have access to the library, computer lab, or playground.
“How we feel is we’re not part of this district,” one teacher told researchers. “We’re just childcare. We’re not teachers. We’re childcare staff. ‘Cuz that’s how they treat us.”
Not all bleak: some districts paying, treating pre-K teachers equally
Still, other public preschool teachers raved about their districts, especially when they were on the same salary scale as their K-12 colleagues. They saw that as “an expression of the district ‘knowing how important childhood education is.’”
Some said they felt “part of the system,” with kindergarten teachers turning to them for expertise on child development, and principals spending time in their classrooms:
“The first time [my principal] spent time in here, I don’t know if it was even an hour, and he’s walking out the door going, ‘You need a raise’ [laughter.]”
Where the preschool teacher shortage hits hardest
Michigan spends $244 million each year sending 37,140 low income or at-risk kids to preschool, through the state’s Great Start Readiness Program (not to be confused with Head Start, which is federally funded).
Nearly all of those kids go full-time, both because of parents’ need for childcare, but also because there aren’t enough qualified teachers to staff more part-time classrooms, says Richard Lower, Director of Preschool and Out-of-School Time Learning at the state’s Office of Great Start.
Those shortages are especially severe in urban areas like Wayne County, he says, where there’s a “large concentration” of Great Start classrooms and “not enough staff.” It’s “hit or miss” in some of the suburban districts, Lower says, but for rural counties, the challenge is recruiting qualified preschool teachers in the first place.
That’s especially hard in the western Upper Peninsula counties, Lower says, where schools have had to post open preschool positons “two, three, or four times” without getting the right candidate. At that point, the state works “within the law” to help those districts find “quality providers who have [relevant] experience [and] get them credentialed.”
Then, there’s the poaching problem.
Because public preschool teachers are required to have their teacher’s certificate (rather than just the bachelor’s they’d need to work in a private, community preschool,) they’re prime recruitment candidates when their district needs more kindergarten and Young 5’s teachers.
“Teachers come in to GSRP, then they’re recruited into kindergarten - and I’m talking about, within the same district,” he says. “There are many reasons why they would seek out pre-K, including that there are now more programs geared towards Young 5’s, and the dsitrict needs teachers for those two-year programs. Which leaves a shortage on the pre-K side.”
Often, it’s not that schools want to pay their preschool teachers less: they may only have the state GRSP funding to work with, Wilinski says, and have to pay everyone out of that same pool.
But when that’s the reality, it’s hard for preschool to fight back. “If there’s better compensation, they’re going to be pulled up into those programs,” Lower says.