Zaina Cahill always knew she wanted to be a teacher. But she didn’t always know she’d also end up an advocate.
Cahill – who is the early childhood director at Children’s Village, a Philadelphia nonprofit child care center – said when she was contacted to testify at a congressional hearing in May, she was terrified. So when she appeared before the Democratic Women’s Working Group to discuss the state of child care in America, she was prepared with every fact and figure someone could ask about.
But in the end, it wasn’t the numbers and the data that got legislators’ attention. It was her story – a single person trying to live on a single income in the early-childhood education field.
“I was asked to talk about my experience as a teacher, and as somebody who loves working in the field … but can’t afford it,” Cahill said during a Thursday panel session at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) conference. “Even though I didn’t feel qualified, somebody valued what I had to say.”
Many early-childhood educators work multiple jobs to stay afloat, and insufficient funding and resources put extra burdens on teachers in building high-quality programs. And this pressure doesn’t seem to be going away.
Cahill’s story, NAEYC Governing Board President Amy O’Leary said while moderating the event, is an example of advocacy in early-childhood educators. And, she added, others in the field can – and should – be advocates, too.
“We have all of the tools to make it happen,” O’Leary said. “If it is not us, who are the voices of young children and families?”
‘Waiting for somebody else’
In many cases, the process of advocating – talking in front of a group of important people in fancy suits, wondering if anyone is listening – can be intimidating and jarring. But, too often, early-childhood educators are “waiting for somebody else to come save us,” O’Leary said.
But, she challenged the attendees, why is that the case?
At least 10 educators stood up to respond. They hailed from all across the country – New Mexico, Nebraska, Massachusetts, Minnesota – but many of their sentiments seemed to hit common nerves: a lack of confidence and skills, not enough support or fear of retribution.
The feeling of familiarity seemed to hit home for Rachel Giannini. The lead educator at the Chicago Children’s Museum, as well as a star in the upcoming documentary “No Small Matter,” leads the charge in creating a video blog series on issues in early-childhood education. And based on the widespread exposure the series has gotten, she realized these issues are on others’ minds as well.
“In a land where you don’t think anyone is having the same conversation as you … to going to thousands of people talking about early childhood – that’s huge,” Giannini said. “It was like, ‘Holy crumbs, everyone wants to talk about early childhood?’”
So, in addressing many educators’ hesitation to take up advocacy roles, Giannini stressed the power of social media to connect with those who share common ground and produce strength in numbers.
“It’s about owning your power,” she said.
Children’s Village Executive Director Mary Graham, who testified at a congressional briefing on the Child Development Block Grant in 2014, noted something else that’s worked for her as an advocate: keeping things personal. Instead of talking about numbers and budgets, which she said “gets overwhelming,” describing the experiences of families she’s seen and worked with “made it more realistic.”
Cahill added that at the end of the day, it’s important to be comfortable saying, “I don’t know the answer” but taking the opportunity to follow up with a legislator. At the end of the day, these policymakers can be intimidating, but they’re here to represent the people, she said.
“We forget those policymakers work for us,” she said. “Reminding ourselves of that is so important.”
‘It’s a human rights issue’
Despite the issues early-childhood educators face, O’Leary said, many remain in classrooms “with a smile on their face because they love teaching.” But, she added, it’s also important to know what goes on outside the classroom.
Llanet Montoya, a family child care provider in Worcester, Massachusetts, took this idea a step further: In addition to being aware of what happens outside the classroom, it’s key to lose the fear of taking matters into your own hands – even if that means getting a door slammed in your face, she said.
“If somebody says no, it’s okay. Keep going,” she said.
In Graham’s view, there’s a lot at stake that’s worth fighting for.
“Early childhood [education] isn’t a political issue,” she said. “It’s a human rights issue.”