“Over the years I have learned that we are so much more than ‘just’ teachers. We are also role models, friends, mothers, and confidants for our students.”
After working as a data analyst in Jamaica for 18 years, Sheryl Miller made the bold decision to quit her job, return to university, and study towards a degree in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). Ten years after graduating, she hasn’t looked back.
“People always told me I would make a good teacher, so, at the age of 39, I decided it was time to change my career, and go into teaching."
Sheryl spent two years studying for her diploma, and a further four years for her degree in Early Childhood education. Today, after a decade in the early childhood sector, Sheryl is still confident that she made the right choice.
“This job can sometimes feel thankless. It requires so much of your time and energy and resources. But the reward at the end of the day is in seeing the children thrive,” says Sheryl.
“It's not just my job, it’s my profession”
According to UNICEF, early childhood education forms the foundation of high-quality basic education. It helps children develop critical numeracy and literacy skills as well as the social and emotional skills they need to succeed in life.
“Over the years I have learned that we are so much more than ‘just’ teachers. We are also role models, friends, mothers, and confidants for our students. Sometimes they tell us things that are happening at home, and we need to take action and intervene for their safety. Sometimes they just need a hug, or encouragement.”
ECCE teachers and schools face a number of obstacles
While early childhood education is recognized as a critical foundation for every child, ECCE teachers still face many obstacles around the world.
“We try to make our lessons as interactive as possible to capture the attention of the three, four, and five-year-olds. They learn by touching, seeing, tasting… and to do this, we need resources. Teachers often end up purchasing things like stationery, books and learning materials out of their own pockets. In my classroom, I buy many of the resources for our science area and literacy corner.
“I joined the Jamaica Teachers’ Association Early Childhood Committee so that I can help lobby for teachers, and raise awareness about our lack of access to support and resources.”
Teachers need more recognition and respect for their commitment to education
According to Sheryl, another obstacle for the ECCE sector is a general lack of recognition of the importance of foundational learning.
“Sometimes parents see you as just a ‘babysitter’. But you have to remind yourself that you are not there for the adults. You are there for the students.
“Just as children progress through crawling, creeping, standing, moving around, and walking step by step, early childhood education is the same. We guide them through the steps of learning their letters and numbers, shapes and colours.”
Sheryl believes that although the COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted learning, it also had some positive outcomes.
“It helped parents realize how important early childhood education is. When they supervised their children during online lessons, it was the first time that they really saw what we do, and how we do it. It helped build an even more trusting relationship between parents and teachers,” says Sheryl.
Although they may have received more support and respect from parents during the pandemic, many early learning teachers had to devise their own strategies, and use their own resources to help their students continue learning during lockdowns.
UNESCO's Global Education Monitoring Report on Non-State Actors in Education found that only 55% of countries provided pre-primary school teachers with instructions to ensure learning continuity during the pandemic, compared with nearly 70% of countries for other levels of education.
COVID-19 also highlighted the need for governments to invest in equipping schools with resources and technology
“Many children lost out on education during the lockdowns, as they didn’t have access to devices, or data. And when children returned to school, we noticed that literacy and numeracy levels declined,” says Sheryl.
The social-distancing rules also forced many schools to reduce the number of children in the classroom.
“In Jamaica, social distancing rules are still in place. So, some students haven’t been able to return to school as the affordable institutions are full, and parents don’t have the resources to enroll them in alternative schools.”
The pandemic also led to widespread teacher burnout, and resignations
“To encourage teachers to stay, and continue transforming education at this level, we need more financial support and resources. We need to ensure teachers have more respect and recognition for the work that they do,” says Sheryl.
UNESCO is organizing the World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education in Tashkent, Uzbekistan from 14-16 November, to reaffirm member states’ commitment to supporting “the right of every young child to quality care and education from birth”.
Photo credit: Sheryl Miller