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Why Are Our Most Important Teachers Paid the Least?

January 9, 2018
Jeneen Interlandi
The New York Times

Many preschool teachers live on the edge of financial ruin. Would improving their training — and their pay — improve outcomes for their students?

One snowy February morning at the Arbors Kids preschool branch in downtown Springfield, Mass., 38-year-old Kejo Kelly crouched low over a large, faded carpet and locked eyes with a blond-haired boy of 3. It was circle time, and Kelly was trying to get each of her 13 tiny students to articulate a feeling.

“Good morning, good morning, and how do you do?” she sang softly to the little boy. “Jamal’s silly! Amir’s happy! And how about you?” Kelly’s classroom was known for what one visiting specialist called its “singsonginess.” The good-morning bit was standard fare, but Kelly also sang her own impromptu ditties throughout the day. She’d found that a good melody could cajole even her most obstinate students into completing dreaded tasks: There was a song about washing hands, and one about cleaning up messes, and another about how shouting and running were for outside only.

Most children squealed with delight when their turn came to name a feeling: They offered up happys and sillys with abandon. Even the more bashful ones, who had to be prompted, were visibly thrilled by Kelly’s attention, which seemed to beat out a limited toy-dinosaur collection as the class’s chief attraction. But not the blond-haired boy. During the opening exercise, in which each child got a turn to dance in the center of the circle to a song of his choosing, he neither picked a song nor danced to the one Kelly offered. Instead, he flung himself at her feet and writhed like a fish out of water, then went completely still in a belligerent game of possum.

Now, at least, Kelly had made eye contact.

“How are you today?” she asked, holding both of his hands in hers as she spoke. “Are you happy? Angry? Sad? Or silly?”

If any of her students — or “little friends,” as she called them — had sung her song back to her just then, Kelly would have answered that she was stressed. Three teachers had called out from work that morning, including the assistant teacher assigned to Kelly’s room. Massachusetts state law prohibits the child-to-teacher ratio in full-day preschool classrooms from exceeding 10 to 1, so normally, Kelly had 13 students and one co-teacher. But staff shortages were a common occurrence at Springfield Arbors, where teachers earned $10 an hour on average and staff turnover was high. In practice, there was a lot of juggling: On any given day, students and teachers shuffled from one room to another, combining some classes and breaking others up in an effort to keep each room within the permissible ratio. That day, Kelly would absorb six additional students and one co-teacher from another classroom.