In 2020, when Covid hit, early childhood educators pondered what the future might look like. As the year went on and industries shut down, our sector kept on going.
Fast forward to 2022 and the effects of working through lockdown after lockdown are emerging. Like health and aged care, staff are now leaving the sector in droves as the true impact of burnout, stress, illness and underpayment reveals itself.
As a kinder teacher and fully vaccinated pregnant woman, I have just recovered from over 8 weeks of sickness after picking up the flu, then Covid, then RSV, all of which resulted in three hospital stays as well as continued hearing loss, respiratory issues and asthma.
I have returned to work after five weeks of unpaid sick leave, despite a weak immune system – I have mortgage repayments to make. Sickness is everywhere, but childcare centres are particularly transmittable environments.
Despite my own struggles, my greatest concern is for the children. Chronic understaffing means programs such as sport, bush kinder and music are cancelled almost every week. Early intervention options such as speech pathology are fully booked, as are occupational therapists and psychologists, and therefore children who need extra support are not able to receive it, resulting in further challenges in the classroom.
We try our best to support them and then feel like failures, with children not receiving the attention they deserve.
Each day I arrive at work brings a new set of problems. How many staff will be away today? With the return of agency staff – hard to book, but thankfully there – the staffroom is getting full again. But casual relief teachers are forced to settle children they have never met before. Parents, understandably, question who their child’s teacher is today as their child cries and clings to their legs as they look around, barely recognising a face.
A new baby arrives, their first time in care; thankfully their parents are finally allowed in the centre to see their room, unlike those who commenced earlier in the year. The baby screams and is handed to an educator paid just $23 an hour.
In my kindergarten room, the children question whether we are heading to bush kinder. I advise them that we do not have enough staff to meet the ratio – again – and I watch as their faces drop. Whilst having two educators in the room is deemed more appropriate, today we have 11 children, and the ratio of educator to child is 1:11, so the kinder assistant is taken away and used elsewhere.
The children call my name, but I can’t get to them all. A child hurts themselves, but I don’t see what happened. I finally sit down for lunch at 2:30 in the afternoon and listen to the stories other educators tell of the troubles in their rooms. Just this week two staff have resigned. I cut short my break to write an incident report and reply to an important email.
Back in the room, a child wants me to sit with them whilst they play. I know this child needs extra support with their fine motor skills, but again, I’m pulled in another direction. Children’s needs are not being met and my heart breaks. I question whether this role is for me.
As I’m leaving, I run into a parent I’ve been meaning to talk to, and I recommend a service for their child, knowing they may not get in until the end of the year. Once I arrive home, I crash on the couch – but not before I read multiple journal articles on how I, unqualified in that specialist area, can support them. I then feel guilty for all the times I promised a child I would be back in a minute and never returned. I wonder what they tell their parents. I am unable to support the children in my classroom at a time where brain development is vital and social and emotional skills are developing.
I am tired. I am fed up and I have found myself questioning my future in this industry for the first time.
I moved into the early childhood sector because I discovered a love for helping kids, and I still do. But after 5 years, I question my future. How can I continue in a role where I am constantly sick and are having to take unpaid leave? Where I am paying off almost $60,000 in student debt for a bachelors and masters degree, a number too close to my salary? Where I don’t feel like I’m doing a good job? Where I can’t even do what I supposed to do? Where I am underpaid and unsupported? I go on (unpaid) maternity leave in November and I am worried about how I will return.
For now, I will continue. My passion as an educator is strong. I just hope that the government starts to recognise the difficulties we face and why so many of us are being forced to walk away from the job we love.
Belynda Kennedy is an early childhood educator