This is really a big one here, but let’s break it down.
You want to leave your child in a preschool with teachers who will support them, monitor how they interact with other children, help them explore their interests and engage them in rich conversation- all in an environment that will provide limits while allowing them freedom to choose what to do.
Seems like a huge task. How do you find such a preschool and how to you make sure it is of high-quality. Keep reading to find what to look for and what questions to ask to make sure that when you drop your child off they will be in the best hands.
Number 1. The director and the teachers. Do you know who will be working with your child each and everyday? Make sure these people are well educated. That means they have some advanced degree if possible, many classes of early childhood education and/or plenty of experience working with children of this age. This is really one that you will need to cess out for yourself. Just because I have a degree in biochemistry does not necessarily mean I can connect with your child. It does however mean that I have worked hard to be where I am. Now what about the early childhood education classes? Honestly these are a must, especially if you have only a few years of experience. I would want a teacher who is at the forefront of their field, staying current with the leading pedagogy and theories. This is the teacher that I am. This can take the form of a permit based on a combination of factors, like this example from California. If you scroll down to the bottom you can see a matrix of what this means. Make sure that you talk to these people and try to spend time in the program observing the interactions and as much of the routine as possible. If this is something that is not encouraged, that might be a flag. We have an open door policy at our program. Also ask about how long each teacher has been there. Teacher retention is very important for their relationships with your children. Also find out the teacher to student ratio, the acceptable ratio for preschool aged children is 1:12, but most people who work in the field suggest 1:8 is better. Once you have a feel of the staff figure out how they communicate with families. Watch how they communicate with your child, do they get down on their level to talk to them?
Number 2. The environment. Is this a place that you want to leave your child? Walk around get a feel of the place, does is look like children could have fun and learn something here? Bring your child and observe how they interact with the environment. Has the teacher created learning areas for doing different things? Areas to look for would be block building, pretend play, independent areas, science, math, sandboxes, playdough, play houses. How much of the material is open ended, can there be many ways to use it and be successful? Is the furniture sized for small children. Where will they go to the bathroom and wash their hands? Do you see examples of student work and what they are currently talking about? How much time will children spend outside and what do they have to play with. Part of working with small children is having opportunities for building fine motor skills- cutting, writing, painting, beading… As well as large motor skills- running, climbing, throwing, balancing… Look for a place that is comfortable and more neutral if possible. An overstimulating environment with too many things out and an explosion of primary colors is not very soothing for any person. You should also see their license posted somewhere in the facility maybe in a parents area that shows how they communicate with parents and families.
Number 3. Curriculum. For young children curriculum is anything and everything that happens in the classroom. Every experience is one that can be expanded to further understanding. Children are constructing their own knowledge from their hands on play. This can be quite new for some of us. Wait its not all planned out before the year starts, day by day? No. Some of it can but roads can and should be forged together with the children, by their interests and their questions. This is known as emergent curriculum. It would also better serve other grades as well. Emergent curriculum is what keeps each year fresh and makes sure that teachers are in the role of observers of the children around them. Each year the children are different, so it doesn’t make sense to teach the exact same things year after year. There is also great curriculum around anti-bias education that grew out of multiculturalism. This empowers children and asks them to think about and even act on biases that are seen in our society. The goal is to raise awareness of biases and for children to grow up equipped to deal with biases leading to an overall reduction of biases in life. Children will stand up for themselves and others if we teach them how and give them opportunities to be advocates.
Number 4. Do the staff at your school earn a living wage? Currently, most preschools are outside of any school district, so the regular benefits of being a teacher sadly do not apply. There is no healthcare, no pension, no sub service, no union representation, no tenure. I might have forgot something on that list. Also since the actual requirements for the job are so low, 6 units of early childhood education to get in the door up to 12 units to be a full teacher, schools can get away with paying teachers very close to nothing. This graph shows the average yearly salary of different teachers from a middle school teacher on the top to a preschool teacher on the bottom.
The median hourly wage for a preschool teacher is $13.04 / hour according to the bureau of labor and statistics. Teachers then have to find their own insurance and hope they don’t get sick. When you compare what a teacher makes in the US compared to other countries you can see an even sadder trend. We pay our teachers much less than other countries do to start out and the increase in pay over time is slow compared to other nations as well.
We are making shifts in the way we see education in our country and certainly in California but their are many things to think about when adding a “level” to our education system, Ill talk more in this in a later post as well. This is a hot issue right now with transitional kindergarten. Now, back to the living wage. We should want the best teachers teaching our children when their brains are growing the fastest, but this compensation does not attract the best when they can make more money working for a school district or doing something else entirely. I have found that I can live on less than I was making, but I also miss some of the benefits while I am appreciating some of the freedoms. Overall, if preschool teachers are paid a living wage, there is less job turnover, more job satisfaction and willingness to keep learning leading to happier children in the program.
Now let us put this all together. What should I take with me when I go and check out a program to determine if I should send my child there? Remember the teachers, the environment, the curriculum and the living wage. I would make a list of questions to ask on my visit. I would also start answering some of them before my visit by looking at the programs website. Here would be my list of questions (also pick and choose some from above):
- What is your daily routine?
- How do you deal with conflict between the children?
- How long have each of your teachers been here and what experience do they have?
- What is your teaching philosophy and how do you assess the kids?
To leave you will a song, a favorite from Cat Stevens- Where do the children play?