Back to the future: early childhood education
Simply asked, how are you planning for the Jewish future? Jewish early childhood professionals consciously and selflessly answer this question each and every day by making a profound difference in the lives of young Jewish children and their families. These deeply committed individuals have dedicated their lives to the field of Jewish early childhood education because they know that our Jewish future lies in the hands of the youngest members of our community.
For those of us who are parents, we have a perfectly clear window to the future each and every time that we look into our child’s eyes. We want our children to have a bright, happy and healthy future and that whatever path they choose they will be contributing members of society. For those of us raising children in a Jewish home, we also pray that they will embrace the teachings of the Torah and that their future will be guided by Jewish values, laws and traditions. But what needs to be in place from a very young age in order for all of this to best come to fruition? The old saying, “a good beginning makes a good end,” comes to mind.
Studies have shown that early childhood education is one of the most important experiences in a child’s life. There is an enormous amount of research proving that when children attend high-quality early childhood programs, they have better chances of succeeding in school and attending college, which leads to greater employment and higher wages as adults. Quality early childhood programs provide children with the tools they need to learn social, behavioral and learning skills at their own pace, in terms they can understand. We also know that 90 percent of a child’s brain develops during the first five years and that brain development sets the stage for the child’s intelligence, emotional stability and personality. It stands to reason then that early Jewish experiences will greatly impact a child’s developing Jewish identity. Why is it then that while nearly 100 percent of Jewish children attend early childhood education programs, only about 30
percent attend Jewish ones?
Parents of young children either choosing or needing to send their little ones to an early childhood program have much to consider, particularly with the knowledge that these early years will factor greatly into the type of person their child will grow up to be. The decision to send a child to a Jewish early childhood program may make the selection process easier for some while for others it may add yet another factor to consider.
Whichever early childhood program a parent ultimately selects, quality is at the top of everyone’s list. Among many things, a quality program promotes the physical, social, emotional and intellectual development of young children. It is one in which parents are welcomed, supported and encouraged to participate. However, the core of any quality program is its staff. A quality early childhood program supports its staff with opportunities to continue to study and grow in their field and with
adequate pay and benefits.
There can be no denying the enormous responsibility entrusted to Jewish early childhood educators, and certainly one would think that the Jewish community must regard these professionals in the very highest of esteem. Sadly, this is not often the case. How do we begin to elevate people’s perceptions of this noble profession? Doing away with the word “preschool” would be a good start. It is as if to suggest that what happens during these early years is inconsequential because it is “before school” or when real learning begins.
The reality is that quality care is expensive because quality care requires people of ability and training who must be paid adequately if they are to be attracted to this field of work. The quality of childcare depends on what we are willing to pay those who are responsible for it. Our willingness to pay also reflects the amount of respect that we have for them. Long gone are the days when women became preschool or nursery teachers to earn a little extra money on the side, as their husbands were the main bread winners for the family.
Low wages and limited or no benefits for Jewish early childhood educators create a strong barrier to individuals entering the profession. This results in them leaving the profession in order to earn a living wage in another profession and makes it difficult for Jewish early childhood educators to afford continued and on-going professional education and training. For men, their decision to pursue a career working with young children is further complicated as they are often faced with stereotypes and stigmas that drive them away from the field before they even start.
I am privileged in my role at the Agency for Jewish Learning (AJL) to collaborate with our community’s deeply committed Jewish early childhood professionals, and we are beginning to shift the current paradigm in Jewish early childhood education. The AJL’s Pittsburgh Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (JECEI) launched in 2011, is a systemic multiyear change initiative focused on improving the quality of Jewish education in these learning environments, on expanding opportunities for parents to learn with their children and to become more involved in the Jewish community and on strengthening the ties between early childhood centers and their host institutions (mainly Jewish community centers and synagogues).
While the desired outcomes for Pittsburgh JECEI are to raise the quality of Jewish early childhood education, engage families with young Jewish children and increase Jewish identity, none of this will be truly realized if Jewish early childhood professionals do not
receive the kavod (honor) and respect that are due them. In addition to attitudinal change, this also has to equate to respectable salaries with benefits.
On my desk at work sits a framed image of the back a very young girl wearing a dress, standing alone on a path lined with trees and a wooden fence. Under this image it is written, “Children are always the only future the human race has; teach them well.” So let me ask my initial question once again a bit differently, how are we planning for the Jewish future?
(Carolyn Linder is the director of Early Childhood and School Services at the Agency for Jewish Learning.)