Pay vs. Passion vs. Professionalism

If you look back through my posts on this blog, you’ll see that it ricochets between discussions of museums and informal education and early childhood education and more formal classrooms. That is because my own research and practice ping-pongs in a similar fashion between the preschool classroom and my work on young children in museums.

There are many overlaps between museum educators and early childhood educators. The main one being a group of dedicated people who are used to doing a lot with very few resources! Another similarity is the current, and very active, conversations happening right now about hiring, retention and compensation in the fields.

Early childhood education is an incredibly poorly compensated profession. The national median wage is just $28,570 according to the latest Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education reports. The hours are often long and grueling and daily schedules may fluctuate wildly depending on when the centers open.

All of this leads to a wide rage in preparedness among educators. Some have advanced degrees, but many don’t, and their access to continuing education and training might be haphazard at best. Some are getting by on intuition and love of kids, and others are struggling to create the kind of environment we all want for young children. Many are the “trailing partner” who may work in the field because it is “portable” and they can find work anywhere or because they are following a passion.

This low wage, low level of entry is pretty mind-boggling when you stop to remember how many children are in early childhood settings and the amount of money it costs to have them. All of the research points to the importance of high quality, well prepared educators working with young children, but not every child receives it.

But, how are you supposed to attract highly qualified educators when the pay is so paltry? How can you demand advanced degrees and specialized training if the earning potential is so low? We need to support them in real, tangible, FINANCIAL ways so that the field can reach that level of professionalism.

Early Childhood Educators also suffer from a lack of respect. “All you do is play all day!” is something that most educators have heard. Or, their contribution is dismissed as “daycare” and their professionalism is second-guessed. The field is lucky that it has so many people who believe in young children and will stay because of passion.

Passion is also what keeps many museum professionals in their field. Like early childhood educators they believe in the importance of the field and support it despite personal costs. Also like early childhood, the pay does not reflect the level and amount of work being done by most people in the field.

However, one of the interesting differences is that many in the museum field are starting to rebel against the OVER professionalization of the field. To gain entry to full time museum work there is an expectation of advanced degrees and also time spent volunteering and in unpaid internships.

This creates a very real barrier for people who may have passion for the field, but can’t (or won’t) take the loss of income to become a part of it. By setting the price of entry too high we are losing out on real, diverse talent that would only improve the field for everyone.

It is interesting that in both fields, the net amount on the paycheck and also the perception of the field is shaping the workforce. They both need dedicated, high quality individuals. They both can tap into a passion for the type of work. They also both suffer from how they perceived by those outside the profession and the expectations that are put on the workers.

Professional organizations on both sides are taking notice and trying to figure out the way forward. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is launching an initiative called “Power to the Profession” which is “a national collaboration to define the early childhood profession by establishing a unifying framework for career pathways, knowledge and competencies, qualifications, standards and compensation.” They also speak up on the issue of compensation and access to high quality childcare.

The museum world is also talking. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) is having the conversation and grassroots efforts like #MuseumWorkersSpeak are speaking up loudly about the expectations and privileges built into the field.

Although the easy answer is to add more zeros to the paycheck, for both fields it is more complicated then that. A true long term fix will take looking at how the profession is perceived internally AND externally and the expectations put on the individuals who work in them.

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