I don’t have very many soapbox issues, but the elevation of teacher wages is certainly one of them. Especially in the city I live in, it is becoming increasingly difficult with each passing year to transform the wages of an ECE into a comfortable standard of living. For a few years now, I have been racking my brain in an attempt to find a solution to the financial crises of under-compensated infant, toddler, and preschool teachers. There are drastic shifts in cultural paradigms that need to happen before any visible change can occur, and even then, gaining any ground through the appropriate channels will be an arduous journey. For there to be any significant gains, there will need to be overwhelming public support, political alignment, compromise, and legislation.
But there is another perspective we sometimes forget. From a pragmatic standpoint, one of the reasons teacher wages are so low is that schools are by and large expensive to run. Furniture, rent, classroom materials, school supplies, renovations, utilities, and food are all unavoidable costs for childcare centers and preschools. All of these operational costs stand at odds with what teachers make. Basically, the more money a school requires to keep its doors open, the less money it can afford to pay its teachers. These operational costs combined with the cost of wages are reflected in the overall cost of tuition, which in the United States, is astronomically high for quality childcare.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am a huge advocate for environmental protection and sustainability in the classroom. I am sure every single person in the world knows by now that both concepts go a very long way towards ensuring the survival of the natural world. Environmental protection and sustainability practices need to be embraced by every industry and commercial sector before real, tangible, drastic environmental change can happen. But the purpose of this post is to drive home a simple but totally forgotten truth: sustainable schools aren’t just in the best interest of the earth.
Sustainable educational models are in the financial best interest of schools and teachers.
I am well aware that I am a bit of a radical when it comes to pedagogy and educational practice, but I feel that in the United States, there is an institutional model that we have only just barely scratched the surface of. A huge portion of operational costs, especially furniture, classroom materials, school supplies, and even food, are completely optional. They detract from the budget because they rely on middle-man industries instead of being handled internally by schools. Retail child-size classroom furniture is, for some reason, astronomically expensive. Pencils, crayons, paint, and other art supplies seem cheap, but they add up very quickly on a tight budget. Toys, especially those made of plastic with lights or battery-powered features, have unbelievable price tags despite having very restricted learning outcomes. With a little bit of out-of-the-box thinking, these expenses can be minimized, costs of running a center can be lowered, and more money can trickle down to staff.
What if a school could set itself up to make its own furniture from salvaged materials, create its own classroom materials from things commonly regarded as refuse by other industries, and grow their own food for snack? What if teachers could have the time and the training to stock their classrooms with objects they used their own two hands to create? What if, dare I say, students were given the respect and trust to aid in all of these monumental endeavors?
The answer to all these questions is easy. If schools gave teachers the time to source salvaged materials to make their own furniture from scratch, it would cost nothing and suit the exact needs of every classroom environment. Every classroom would be stocked with fixtures that are exactly what teachers need, not the best they could find given their limited budget and the manufacturing parameters of whatever company they choose to order from. All child-sized furniture would fit, and all adult-sized furniture would be comfortable.
If teachers were given the leeway to make their own classroom materials from recycled materials, their classrooms would be less crowded. Every item on their shelves would be open-ended, full of educational possibilities, and completely free. They would have the option to rotate out materials whenever they wanted so long as they had the time and resources to make more. Students would always have materials that specifically engage the skills and subjects they personally need to grow. Teachers would actually feel ownership and pride towards the objects they put in their students hands instead of just pulling items from a shelf day-in and day-out.
If students were able to participate in all of these efforts, the results would be nothing short of magical. Students would feel a deep and tangible sense of connection towards the fixtures and materials in the classroom. Their schools would become not just buildings, but their home away from home. They would take care of the things they play with because they know how hard they had to work to create them from scratch. They would know each and every contour of their toys, because they played a part in transforming them from an unfinished, raw material into an item full of limitless educational potential.
I’ll admit that it is a lofty dream, one that seems pretty pie-in-the-sky even to me. But I find myself working towards such a model every day because I want the classroom I work in to be an extension of me and the students I teach. I want the things I surround myself with to show every person that looks upon them that they were crafted with care, hard work, and dedication. I want to know that I am doing everything I can to free up the money that I want to see in my pocket, and help save the earth in the process.
The unfortunate reality is that this model isn’t for everyone. It requires more work, more buy-in, and more dedication than most people want to have towards their job. It requires that teachers spend time on transforming themselves into more than just educators; it requires them to become artisans, farmers, horticulturists, carpenters, blacksmiths, and masons. A model of sustainability necessitates a staff who has not just the mastery required to do their job, but also the mastery required to create a personalized context in which their job can be done cheaply, responsibly, and passionately. In other words, to earn more, the fastest and most effective solution just might be to become supremely well-rounded. To earn the wages we deserve, we may just need to become highly competent in all the things that we count on others for. We need to become a workforce that separates our needs from our wants, minimizes our costs, and personifies versatility.