Education

In their words: ECE workforce under pressure

Those working in the early childhood education sector have spoken about their experiences with bullying, and being underpaid, under-valued, and unable to offer quality care and education to our tamariki

The early childhood education sector is under pressure and teachers, researchers and advocates say a significant shift needs to happen in order to deliver quality education and care to the next generation.

Last week, the Child Poverty Action Group released a report calling for the nationalisation of the sector, saying poor quality ECE can have a detrimental impact on a child’s wellbeing, and "in some cases may be worse than attending no early learning service at all”.

Over the past few weeks Newsroom has been highlighting some of the issues facing ECE - many of which have been exacerbated by Covid-19.

Those in the sector have talked about a culture of bullying, practices that appear to put profits above safety and quality care and learning, and poor pay and working conditions. The sector is already facing a teacher shortage crisis, and struggling to attract enough quality people.

In a recent member update from the Early Childhood Council - the organisation that advocates to private providers - chief executive Peter Reynolds said Newsroom's reporting had upset many of the council's members.

"We absolutely challenge teachers representatives' claims that centres pocket subsidies, and that privately-owned centres are just out for profit," he said in the email.

"And we agree - bad employment practices shouldn’t be tolerated in ECE. It can happen, like in any sector, but it needs to be reported and dealt with properly.

"It’s unfair to generalise about a whole sector based on the opinions of one person in one article," Reynolds said in the bulletin to its private provider members.

As part of this reporting Newsroom has spoken to researchers, experts with decades of experience in the sector, and advocates, as well as more than 20 teachers and ECE workers who wanted to share their experiences, in the hope of bringing about changes to the system.

Below is a collection of comments from some of those working in the sector:

ECE teacher - 12 years in the sector

After working as an untrained relief teacher, this ECE teacher gained a degree and post-graduate certificate in Leadership in Early Childhood. 

She worked as an assistant head teacher for four years, but went back to teaching for more family friendly hours, and because “I felt my voice went nowhere”. 

“The stress follows me home. The worry that I’m not doing a good enough job, that the kids are missing out on what they need... They deserve the best. What they actually get though, a lot of the time, is crap."

She said she was often disappointed at the teaching conditions and the environment for children, but felt there was little she could do to reduce group sizes.

“I love my job. There’s nothing else I want to do. Yet the current situation in early childhood, and in my centre, has often made me want to leave. Just to get out. There have been days where I want to walk out the door and not go back. 

“The stress follows me home. The worry that I’m not doing a good enough job, that the kids are missing out on what they need. Our babies, and our children are our most precious thing right? They deserve the best. What they actually get though, a lot of the time, is crap. 

“My colleagues pour their hearts into caring for the children every day. That is what keeps me there. I have seen exhaustion and frustration in all of their eyes though and I cross my fingers they won’t leave so that we can keep holding it together (just). 

"Teaching goes out the window and it becomes managing, trying desperately to keep them all safe."

“The ratios, group size, and the space allowed for each child in our centre is legal. But it’s wrong. We often can’t fit all the children in our sleep room, we can’t fit them all in the lunchroom, it’s noisy, it’s chaotic, we can’t keep track of their belongings, we can’t keep up with the nappies and toileting, we can’t respond to every child that might be hurt or upset. 

“We don’t have time to create the wonderful learning experiences we want to. We don’t have time to be with and teach a child the way we should. You can have two teachers with 20 toddlers/two years old. Say one of them changing a nappy – therefore the other teacher is actually with 19 toddlers. It’s fine on paper, it’s legal, and it’s awful. No one can do a good job in that situation. Teaching goes out the window and it becomes managing, trying desperately to keep them all safe. 

“I can be outside by myself with up to twenty (or more) toddlers and young children. Some of them have challenging behavioural needs and can hurt themselves, the other children and me. Some of them have higher developmental needs, some of them are new and scared and just need a hug. I triage them. It feels so unsafe. I can’t care for all of them. I want to, but I can’t. It’s heart-breaking sometimes. 

"It should be a given that children can be well cared for. We shouldn’t have to fight so hard for this.”

“There is so much research and information about how important it is for babies and young children to be well cared for. They need to be in smaller groups, not these huge centres that are all across our country. Less children, smaller centres, and more teachers. It doesn’t matter how much training I do, if there are too many children in a room I just can’t be there for them all. 

“I have a degree; I follow a curriculum. I spend hours unpaid catching up on paperwork, planning experiences for the children, having centre family tea nights, going to meetings, having working bees. I go in early, I stay late, I work on the weekends, and at night - once I’ve put my own child to bed. I do it because I’m passionate about my job, and I care. I want to do a good job. But the daily conditions have been so tiring for so long that all those extra jobs are becoming too much to bear. 

“I work in a good centre. We have good days and bad days, sometimes our roll isn’t full – and it’s wonderful, it’s completely different when we actually have enough space for us all, and enough teachers to care for and teach the children. This is a good centre – so what about the bad ones? Because I know conditions are so much worse in other places.

“I just want decent conditions for the children, and for myself. It should be a given that children can be well cared for. We shouldn’t have to fight so hard for this.”

ECE team leader - five years in the sector

“I am a team leader and have worked in ECE for five years. 

"The bullying was so bad that I nearly ended my life."

“I have been bullied by the manager for most of this time, hanging in there for the teachers children and families. The bullying was so bad that I nearly ended my life. 

“The owners know of the bullying and have done nothing but give me one phone call to see how I was doing. I am now leaving.”

ECE teacher - Auckland

Following the closure of a collection of Discoveries Educare centres in Auckland, a teacher at the Mt Wellington centre said she was “very concerned about the children's and families wellbeing and what this means for other centres”. 

Teachers and families were given just three days’ notice the centre was closing.

“They clearly don’t care about their people. They just care about money.”

“I have come to you because I think they need to get exposed to protect our tamariki, whanau and teachers...

“You talk about being a company who wants to look after your people, you talk about being a company who values children, and family and whānau, but this is how you treat your employees, and this is the notice that you give to people in your centre...

“It really says something. It’s really cruel....

“They clearly don’t care about their people. They just care about money.”

ECE teacher - Dunedin

“At first I loved it but as time has gone on it is getting worse and worse. 

“All management cares about is money. Bums on seats…

“Every time I try to complain I am silenced and it feels like I can't speak up."

“We are so busy and stressed that every day is exhausting. If us teachers are feeling that then the children definitely are, which is really sad. It actually breaks my heart to see the children so upset all the time because we physically can't get to them all the time. 

“Every time I try to complain I am silenced and it feels like I can't speak up… Each day is a struggle, teachers are unhappy and wanting to leave. Children are bored and distressed. 

“The children are bored because there isn't money put into resources unless teachers use their own money… The room is always messy and unsafe because we are so busy we can't maintain it properly. I don't know how to make it better, and when I say something I am threatened with redundancy… Our children actually deserve so much more.”

ECE teacher - Wellington Region

“In my opinion ECE can be an extremely toxic environment. Over many years I have had many very severe bouts of depression and feeling like I'm going to break down because of the pressure placed on us...

“ECE is hard, no one sees us as educators including other teachers in other sectors...

“I make resources and I give this profession my blood sweat and tears."

“Businessmen and women looking to make money shouldn't be able to do so with education. New Zealand's most valuable assets, these children, are the future of New Zealand...

“With all the bad is some really good, there are some amazing teachers and centre's around, I work for one now and love it. 

“I make resources and I give this profession my blood sweat and tears. My children are young - both under four - and have had to put up with a grumpy mum because this job is physically, mentally and emotionally draining.”

ECE teacher - 15 years in the sector

“ECE is in urgent crisis in New Zealand; it’s scary! I’ve been a teacher for 15 years - that whole time things have gotten worse and worse.”

“I am on minimum wage. And I am expected to do as the teachers say… do their jobs if needed."

ECE teacher support - 3 years in the sector

“I am on minimum wage. And I am expected to do as the teachers say… do their jobs if needed, like nappies and toilet training... 

“Post-Covid-19 we were told all unqualified teachers would lose 50 percent of our hours. They then hired qualified staff full time so they would get more funding. I now feel like a reliever in my own work place. Thrown around and not talked to by the full time staff.”

ECE teacher support - left the sector

“During my time there, I watched countless breaches of regulations, child endangerment and neglect occur, all of which I called out or addressed with management at the time, as did some of the other members of staff. 

“These included inadequate supervision, forgery of documentation, deliberate withholding of information regarding injuries and incidents from parents regarding their children, illegal ratios and, in turn, illegal forgery of the required documentation to hide this, unqualified staff (me at the time) being left as person in charge, refusal of pay for time worked outside of rostered hours, disciplinary meetings being held as a punishment for speaking up about poor practice and threats made against those who felt their concerns weren't being dealt with appropriately.”

ECE teacher - left the sector after 10 years

This teacher left the sector after 10 years. She says she was bullied at a South Island kindergarten.

At one point her manager refused to sign off on her teacher registration renewal. The manager allegedly altered and deleted meeting records during an investigation into the dispute over the teacher’s registration renewal. The investigation found the teacher was fit to continue teaching and her registration was renewed, but she decided to leave the sector.

The teacher said she believed she was targeted because she raised issues with some practices. She believes she was seen as a threat.

“I'm still trying to heal from my traumatic experience but I think being able to share that could support my healing...

“It was the worst type of bullying… Other teachers made derogatory comments about me...

“I got in trouble for letting children sit on my knee. She said that I was using it for my own needs for affection, rather than what was in the best interests of the children. I was a little bit shocked that she would suggest that...

“It’s left me with complete distrust of the entire system."

“It was a hierarchy. And they were trying to make sure I was keeping my position at the bottom of the food chain...

“It’s left me with complete distrust of the entire system.

“This is in a centre where these children need really good, up-to-date practice. They need strong attachments and good relationships. They’re not going to get it. They’re stuck in a centre with two teachers who have really poor, out-of-date practice.”

ECE centre operator - 12 years in the sector

“New Zealand has a recognised shortage of Early Childhood teachers. Our population is growing but in many areas this is nowhere near reflective of the increase in childcare spaces. This immediately has a major negative impact on all centres nearby. Rolls in existing centres decrease and teachers are poached to staff new centres," said a centre operator.

“Parasitic consultants justify this by suggesting a Darwinian effect - only the best survive and older centres need to upgrade to survive."

“Parasitic consultants justify this by suggesting a Darwinian effect - only the best survive and older centres need to upgrade to survive. Great if you are not involved. In reality there are many areas in New Zealand where new and existing centres are all operating at break even or just below. This is visible from the discounting seen in many areas. This is probably the biggest issue facing childcare at present.

“Most comment on the sector focuses correctly on the welfare and outcomes for the children. To properly provide for the children centres must be economically viable. If the Government simply provides more money (even if targeted at teacher pay) to the sector this is simply an added incentive to developers and speculators.”

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