Early Educators Love Their Jobs. Does Vermont Love Them Back? | Paid Post | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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LET'S GROW KIDS
  • Let's Grow Kids
It’s flu season in Vermont, and Trisha Scharf is scrambling. On a blustery February morning, two teachers at her child care center, Children Unlimited in Williston, have called out sick. Unable to find substitute teachers, Scharf takes a break from her administrative duties to float between classrooms and help where she can.

“We’re swamped during the cold and flu season,” Scharf said. As the center’s owner and director, she manages personnel — an endless balancing act.

Meet the Educators:

To solve her staffing issue, she could hire more teachers. But that’s not as simple as it sounds.

“Should we hire someone full time? Part time?” she asked rhetorically. “And how does that make sense financially?”

Scharf can’t hire just anyone. “Early educators not only need to be loving, caring, and nurturing; they also need to know about child development, social-emotional development, therapeutic techniques to support children who have seen trauma,” she said. “They need to know how to meet each child at his or her developmental level while at the same time being able to organize a group and keep everyone safe and healthy.”

It’s a big job, but that’s rarely reflected in their paycheck. “Figuring out how to pay people is my biggest challenge,” she said. “I can’t charge parents an arm and a leg for child care.”

Early educators across Vermont are facing the same dilemmas.

Demand for affordable, high-quality child care in Vermont dramatically exceeds the supply. In order to meet the current demand for child care, the Vermont workforce needs an estimated 2,000 additional early educators.

When confronted with that kind of recruiting challenge, most employers would raise the salary and sweeten the benefits package. But for child care providers, that’s just not possible. How do you raise rates for working parents who you know are struggling to pay? How do you ask for more money from people who, in some cases, are paying more for child care than for housing?

LET'S GROW KIDS
  • Let's Grow Kids
Today, the median annual wage for a child care worker in Vermont is $29,430, often without benefits. Comparatively, the median annual wage for a kindergarten teacher in Vermont is $59,560. Research into how kids learn affirms that teaching young children requires a similar level of skill and intention as teaching older ones. Still, national data shows that early education majors make the least of all those with bachelor’s degrees. It’s no wonder that recruiting is a challenge.

During the 2020 legislative session, Let’s Grow Kids is asking the state to help fix these problems by investing in the kinds of workforce development strategies used in other industries:

  1. Investing more in higher education scholarships for early educators;
  2. Launching a student loan repayment assistance program; and
  3. Creating temporary wage support programs in order to grow the early education workforce.
We asked a diverse group of early educators who support these initiatives to share what they love about their work, and what challenges they face daily. These skilled professionals have earned degrees and completed numerous courses preparing them to work with children and families with a wide variety of needs. But their compensation doesn’t reflect that expertise. They often work without benefits and are saddled with student loans. In many cases, they’re only able to pursue careers that they love by getting a second job or by accessing a spouse or parent’s health insurance plan.

Their stories illustrate what’s wrong with the system — and what’s right with it. All of these educators love their jobs and are passionate about their profession.

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Pearl Schramm

Bennington Early Childhood Center, Bennington
Pearl Schramm always wanted to pursue a career in early education — her mother ran her own child care business out of their home while Schramm was growing up. Throughout high school, Schramm explored the idea of other careers, but kept coming back to early education.

She double majored in early education and child advocacy and policy at Montclair State University in New Jersey. While doing social work internships, she found that she really just missed the classroom. Schramm started a graduate program at Montclair as well, but got concerned about her growing student loan debt and withdrew before finishing at Montclair. She moved back home with her parents to save money, and is now paying for her master’s degree from Northern Vermont University out of pocket rather than by taking out more loans.

Schramm’s masters is in Early Childhood Special Education. “There are kids in every class with needs to be met that fall under the special education umbrella,” she said, “so this is helping me reach every kid that I work with.” Schramm is a recipient of the TEACH scholarship program, which makes her education possible. "I love being an early educator, but I wouldn’t be able to grow in the field without my TEACH scholarship."

In addition to her schooling, this is Schramm’s first year working full-time in a preschool classroom after six years working part-time. She makes roughly $31,000 a year — and feels lucky to get that much. “My boss is a champion for us as a staff,” she said, “and she works hard to compensate us as fairly as she is able to.”

What’s your favorite age group to teach?

I love the 3 to 5 age group. There’s so much going on before they go to school and it’s really important to get kids on the right track before they enter kindergarten. We place a big emphasis on social and emotional skills and we’ve seen kids turn into real leaders during the time they spend with us, then they’re ready for kindergarten.

Vermont doesn’t work without child care

In order to meet the current demand for child care, Vermont needs an estimated 2,000 additional early educators. Tell your legislator you support investments in Vermont’s early childhood education workforce today!

Why was pursuing higher education so important to you?

I’ve chosen to be in school for so many years for a lot of reasons. My feeling is that there’s always more to learn. In addition to school, I also make an effort to take advantage of as many professional development opportunities as I can. There are constantly new research findings to read about, new perspectives to be gained from discussions in class, and new strategies to try out with our kids. I know after my licensure and master’s I eventually want to move on to my doctorate. My uncle jokes that I’ll be a student for life, and I honestly don’t disagree with him. I truly don’t know what my next chapter will look like, but I can guarantee that I’ll still be learning right alongside the children I work with.

Can you think of a time that you used your education in the classroom?

Just last week, I was learning about the guided-play approach and got to put it into practice. A big interest in the classroom right now is grocery stores and we are also talking about rhyming, so I made up grocery lists with rhyming words. The kids helped me color them in and laminate them, and we talked about how I’m learning how to help them be leaders of their learning by providing these types of materials based on their interests. 

Have you ever had to put off paying a bill or defer maintenance on anything to cut costs?

I definitely have a careful schedule to pay all of my bills, and it’s tight enough that if one unexpected thing happens I’m not able to pay everything on time. For example, last month my dad was in the hospital and I was out of work for three days. Because of the loss of pay I was unable to pay a credit card bill.

Do you have student debt?

Oh, yes, about $220,000. I still live with my parents because of the cost of renting and moving out and I need to save my money while I’m trying to complete my grad program. I’m paid hourly, but I have to be on my parents’ insurance to save money. I love this career, but I couldn’t afford rent or health insurance without my parents’ help.


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Sara LeBlanc

Next Generation in Georgia and St. Albans
Sara LeBlanc doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. She believes in nature-based learning and she loves to get her kids out of the classroom and outside exploring, even in the wintertime. “We’re really active and we try to incorporate as much time in nature as we can,” LeBlanc explained. She brings that philosophy to her center, Next Generation, where she works as the owner and business manager.

LeBlanc’s interest in education started in high school with a teacher program at Essex Tech Center. LeBlanc had kids at a young age and it took her some time to get on her feet as a single parent trying to enter the early education workforce. “I’m not ashamed to say I had to use the system to get where I am. I had food stamps, took out loans. It wasn’t a great feeling, but it helped me get where I am.”

Now, 20 years after Sara entered the child care field, she’s watching her 18-year-old daughter attempt to start her own career in child care. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about it. Throughout high school, she’s gotten enough credits to start out as a lead teacher, but she doesn’t want to miss out on the college experience. I don’t think the debt is worth it.” LeBlanc explained that the traditional college path can be a challenge in their field, because the pay for the job itself isn’t high. These are the conversations she’s now having with her daughter.

Do you have student debt of your own?

Oh, yes. About $30,000 left. I went to Champlain College and I now have two degrees, one in business and one in psychology.

Have you ever had to put off paying a bill or deferred maintenance on anything to cut costs?

Yes! When I first started out, I had a really hard time paying my bills. I needed multiple credit cards to get by. There were times I needed to get appliances or my car fixed and I just had to figure out how to get by without them, since it is such a paycheck to paycheck job.

What is the biggest challenge in your workplace? 

Trying to figure out how to pay our teachers more. We can’t charge families more, so it’s hard. We can’t compete with the school district and the state for applicants, a lot of teachers go into the public sector. We’re trying hard to close the pay gap so we can find the staff to take care of our precious next generation.

Can you afford to give your staff benefits?

We do as much as we can. I get my health insurance through my husband, and most of our staff members rely on their partners for insurance as well. We’ve helped a few who couldn’t rely on someone else get insurance through VT Health Connect, but that was really a challenge. We do have paid vacation and a lot of places don’t.

What is one thing you’d want people to know about your job?

People think of us as daycare. We don’t care for days, we care for children, and that’s hard work. It’s a difficult job and it often feels like we’re really underappreciated.


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Joey Claflin

Happy Feet, Springfield
Joey Claflin remembers the day in 1999 that she decided she wanted to go into child care. She was sitting in her high school classroom, and thought, “I want to try working in a child care center or own my own.” She graduated from high school two years later and began working at a center almost immediately; she opened her family child care program in 2004. Sixteen years later, she’s still at it.

Since opening her program, Claflin has been taking classes at CCV to work toward getting her associates degree. “I think getting my degree will really help me get a better understanding of all my children, especially the ones with special needs. Getting my degree will help me know more about how to help them than I can right now.”

Claflin was born in Springfield, but spent most of her life in Claremont, N.H. It wasn’t until she met her husband, a firefighter, that she moved back to her hometown to open her own child care program. With just four students in her care, she has a close relationship with all of them. Having such a small group of children gives her the freedom to give individualized care, which she finds really rewarding.

What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten?

I have a parent who works over at Springfield Hospital. She was picking up her child just the other day, and she said to me, “I love the fact that I can go to work and feel like my child is safe.” She’s able to do her job because I do mine, and it makes all the difference for her at work to know that her child is safe and happy.

Do you have student debt?

I actually just paid mine off, but I’m going to have more since I’ll be going back to school again at CCV. It never ends. I don’t have the luxury to pay as I go, not while I’m trying to run my center and provide for my family at the same time.

How do you save money?

I’ve never been a coupon person, but I’ve had to learn. Other than that, the only place I can really afford to shop at for classroom supplies is DollarTree. I really try every which way I can to save. I have network meetings with all of the other teachers in the area and we all try to carpool. All teachers try every way possible to save a little.


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Ellen Drolette

Sunshine Daydream Child Care, Burlington
Latex allergies are common, but they can be a pretty big inconvenience for a dental assistant, as Ellen Drolette unfortunately discovered. “It was always my life plan to work in a dental office,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do next.”

Instead of finding a new job, Drolette pulled her two children, ages 5 months and 2, out of their child care programs. “I wasn’t happy with the care they were receiving and I couldn’t afford anything else,” she said. She found that she really enjoyed looking after her children in her own home, so she took classes and got registered as a family child care home.

Over time, Drolette noticed that the biggest challenge for herself and fellow teachers was burnout. Low pay and a lack of respect sapped their morale and motivation. Drolette wrote a book on this phenomena, titled Overcoming Teacher Burnout in Early Childhood: Strategies for Change. Even after running a child care program out of her home for 27 years, she still has to remind herself of her own lessons. "That’s what has helped me stay in the field for so long."

She and her husband put in a lot of work into the program. They assembled the playground and have repaired fences and floors — just a few of the expenses that come with running their own family child care program. Drolette does give herself paid vacations, but she has to get her health insurance from her husband’s job. She doesn’t get sick days or personal days.

What’s the best part about your job?

The relationships that I form with families. They really become like an extension of your own family. Because my group is so small, they really do become like siblings. My son formed a really close friendship with a girl in his group. Her mother wrote me this essay one Mother’s Day called “To My Daughter’s Other Mother.” It was just this really beautiful piece about being thankful she had someone else to help raise her child. Those relationships are what I draw on when I wonder if I’m making a difference.

What was it like starting your own program? 

I started without any education, which I don’t recommend. It was very overwhelming – I didn’t understand the 3 and 4 year-olds at first because I didn’t have that experience, and that made it really challenging. I wish I had taken child development classes, I would’ve had a much better understanding. After I took classes, my job got so much easier and I was able to provide better care.

You’ve been in the field almost 30 years. Do you ever get feedback from kids you used to teach?

You wonder a lot if they’re going to forget about you when they grow up, but they don’t. Last year, I ran into a little girl that I took care of when she was 3 and she’s in college now. I didn’t even recognize her at first, she recognized me. She told me that she’s studying early education and she has great memories of her own experience, which was really rewarding to hear.

Have you ever had to put off paying a bill or deferred maintenance to cut costs? 

Last summer we had a few large, expensive projects that needed to be done, but we couldn’t afford to do them all and it was hard to decide. Our deck was splintering and the stairs were rotting, and our roof was in bad shape. We decided to start with the deck because the children use the deck often. We had to recruit our children and their spouses to help us with bribes of free meals. The roof is still bad but we’re hoping to tackle that in the spring. There aren’t funding or grant opportunities available for this sort of thing.

What’s your biggest challenge?

The fact that I have to charge the rates that I do. I know that it’s difficult for families to pay the tuition they’re paying and it comes out of their salaries. I feel so guilty about it. This year I decided to close my program a little bit earlier in the day and I know that can be difficult for working parents, but it keeps me from raising the rate. There’s a lack of child care for parents to choose from and the cost of tuition is such a challenge.


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Elizabeth Roberts

Sweet Sprouts Daycare, Perkinsville
You might say Elizabeth Roberts owes her career as an early educator to divine intervention. In 2013, she was laid off from her position as a data entry clerk. After a short job search she decided to stay home with her two toddlers.

And then an encounter at her church introduced her to her new career. She met a Department of Labor employee there who encouraged her to become a child care provider. The woman introduced Roberts to people at the Parent Child Center, who supported her in opening up a child care program in her home.

Seven years later, Roberts has completed more than 340 hours of professional development, earning her associate’s degree in Early Childhood Education from the Community College of Vermont. Now she’s praying that TEACH, a scholarship program for early educators, will receive enough funding so that she can afford to go back to school to get her bachelor’s degree.

Roberts runs Sweet Sprouts Daycare out of her home, which used to be her great-grandmother’s house. “I can throw a rock to the house I grew up in,” she said with a laugh. Her parents live just up the road and her aunt and uncle live across the street. Her daughters even go to the same elementary school she did when she was their age.

Favorite lesson to teach?

Anything with dramatic play, I love their imaginations. I have more than 30 costumes. We have a lot of masks and accessories, too. We can start with an idea and the creative play will just take off from there.

When have you felt you made a difference?

There was a child last summer with a learning disability at this awkward age between preschool and kindergarten. I became close with his parents and I’ve heard that he’s doing great in kindergarten. I felt so proud of preparing him for that. His parents are bringing him back here for the next summer vacation and when his mom told him about it, he packed up to go right after dinner! He didn’t want to wait until summer to come back.

How do you save money?

I ask for donations. Parents bring in toys, coloring books, things they aren’t using any more. There are a few parents who will go to the store and bring me supplies. That little bit of help makes a huge difference.


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Trisha Scharf

Children Unlimited, Williston, VT
If you had the chance to do what you loved, would you take it if you also had to take a huge pay cut? Trisha Scharf did. After working in accounting for five years, Scharf knew that she needed a change. So, when she and her husband moved to Vermont from New Jersey 30 years ago, she saw the opportunity to pursue a new career in child care at Children Unlimited and she took the risk.

“I was only able to make the change because of my husband’s salary and benefits,” she explained. “If I had been a single woman, there’s no way I could’ve done it. I would’ve stayed in accounting.”

Ten years ago, Scharf bought Children Unlimited from the previous owner, who retired. Since she’d already been working there for years, the transition was pretty seamless for children and families. It was harder for Scharf. Running a center comes with new challenges, such as paying for staff and providing the best care possible on a limited budget.

Vermont doesn’t work without child care

In order to meet the current demand for child care, Vermont needs an estimated 2,000 additional early educators. Tell your legislator you support investments in Vermont’s early childhood education workforce today!

Do you offer benefits to your staff?

We can’t offer 401(k) or retirement, but we do offer a week’s paid vacation. We have health insurance, but it’s very expensive, so not a lot of people take us up on it. I’m personally covered through my husband and a good portion of our staff are covered through their partners. That’s the only reason they can teach here. It’s increasingly difficult. We need these people to be educated. How are they supposed to afford that on what I can afford to pay them?

What’s the most heartwarming feedback you’ve received?

We have a former student whose parents wanted to put her in an after school program. This child said, “I don’t want to go there, I want to take the bus back to Children Unlimited because that’s my home.”

Do you have more than one job?

No, but there have been a few times over the last 10 years of ownership that I have not been able to pay myself. I am in the very lucky position that mine is not the only household income so sometimes our family depends on my husband's income.

Why is professional development and training so important to you?

We're seeing a lot more stress and anxiety in young children now than we have before, so much so that our program has contracted with The Early Childhood Program at The Howard Center to come in and provide a full-day workshop to our faculty to help us best support these children and their families. This is why I choose to continue my professional development — I feel I can't best meet the kids and their needs if I don't fully understand what they are going through, how it impacts their development and behaviors, and what science has proven are effective ways to support them.

Would you recommend this career to a young person looking into the field?

For the fulfilment? Yes. For the fun? Yes. For the love? Yes. If you want to get rich? No. I do feel like there’s hope on the horizon for the first time in 30 years — there seems to be an understanding in society about our impact. Not just on the kids, but on our economy. If we weren’t here parents couldn’t work. We’re finally starting to get it and I believe change can happen.

This article was commissioned and paid for by Let’s Grow Kids.