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Pay equity stories: Mel’s story

“I think people see us as just performing our natural womanly instinct to care and nurture. There is a common perception that ECE is not ‘proper teaching’; that it’s just glorified child minding. I get that reaction all the time to my job and it drives me crazy. I worked my butt off to educate myself on all that theory and pedagogy. But after four years and two degrees in a BA/BTeach I graduated into a marketplace that deemed me worth the same as a data entry operator or a mail room clerk.”

Tena koutou katoa, I’m Mel and I am an early childhood teacher. I qualified about 3 years ago, but I’ve actually had 2 stints working in ECE, the first was 30 years ago, when I was 17 to my early twenties.

I feel like my two stints 30 years apart bookend some really big changes for the sector. I started in 1986, the year the Department of Education took over responsibility for ECE from Social Welfare. After being a ‘child care worker’ for a number of years I travelled, worked other jobs and had a family. Then I got involved in Playcentre and my love for working with young children was reawakened. I connected with them. Watching them evolve fascinated me and I wanted to know more about what was going on for them. I signed up to university to get a modern-day qualification.

Getting my contemporary qualification made me realise how much had changed in the sector while I had been busy doing other things.

For a start, the qualification had progressed, from none originally required when I started, to a one-year certificate, which I got way back then; to coming in line with Kindergarten’s two-year diploma; and finally to the Bachelor’s degree level it is currently.

There had also been big shifts in the understanding of child development. Sociocultural theory now emphasised how children’s social environments influenced their development. Research had also highlighted the early years as being a critical period for brain development. We know now that offering enriching experiences can maximise children’s potential.

Our world-renowned EC curriculum had been developed and the sector had become increasingly professionalised.

The need for quality ECE was now recognised. In fact it would be very difficult for many families to live the way they do without us these days.

These are just some of the changes that the sector went through in my years away from it.

You would think that all this progress and acknowledgement of the importance of ECE would translate into better pay for ECE teachers. But it hasn’t. We are still one of the lowest paid professions. Why? Because in spite of all the changes it is still seen as women’s work and therefore undervalued.

I think people see us as just performing our natural womanly instinct to care and nurture. There is a common perception that ECE is not ‘proper teaching’; that it’s just glorified child minding. I get that reaction all the time to my job and it drives me crazy. I worked my butt off to educate myself on all that theory and pedagogy. But after four years and two degrees in a BA/BTeach I graduated into a marketplace that deemed me worth the same as a data entry operator or a mail room clerk.

I’ve got a family, a mortgage and a massive student loan I seriously fear I will retire with. At times I have considered being a weekend Uber driver just to get ahead. And I would do it if I knew it wouldn’t impact my family or my work.

In spite of the sacrifices I and my family have made because I chose this profession, I love my job. I know I make a difference to children and their families.

We had a kid leave last week who had been with us from the day he turned two to the day he turned 5. He was one of those kids who are first in the door and last out at the end of the day. His parents knew and trusted that for that massive chunk of his young life that he was with us, we understood, respected and loved him.

They knew we drew on our professional expertise to try give him the tools to navigate through life, and that we accepted and appreciated him for who he is. They knew when they couldn’t be there, that he had a team of people who really had his back. And it was emotional for everyone when it was time for him to move on.

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