Almost every day, 27-year-old Aubree Waddell takes her two youngest kids to the public library in Garner, to keep them busy. Today she’s sitting at a little table in the kids’ section with her baby daughter in her arms. Waddell’s four-year-old son, Micah is trying to read with his baby sister.
“Read it, Auri, read it!” he says as she coos back. “Do you want to talk?” he asks his sister.
Waddell used to go to work every day teaching young children who weren’t her own. She had been doing so for nearly a decade.
“It was actually my first job, ever,” she says.
But when her daughter was born last August, she decided to take a break. And she doesn’t know that she’ll go back.
“I love kids. I'm the oldest sibling, oldest grandchild,” she says.
But being an early childhood educator is a lot of hard work – without much respect, says Waddell.
“I think that people look at early childhood and think like, ‘Oh, I'm dropping my young child off, and you're gonna babysit them for the day,’” says Waddell. “We don't babysit your kids, we actually teach and educate. We have to know about milestones and things to look for when kids are delayed, how to help them get up to speed, be able to facilitate activities and teachings that are gonna help them grow and learn and be on track.”
Only a small fraction of young kids in North Carolina are taught in public pre-kindergartens because the state funds limited public spots. Yet teachers in the state’s private preschools earn on average less than $25,000 a year, according to the National Institute for Early Childhood Education Research.
“I have your child's safety and well-being in my hands for eight, nine, ten, up to 12 hours a day. And it's like, oh, I can only make minimum wage or a little bit higher? I'm not making enough to sustain a living for myself,” she says.
Waddell says the pay is just enough to cover basic bills, like a phone plan, car insurance and gas.
“In some cases, people don't even make enough to pay rent – probably in a lot of cases,” she says. “And definitely not a mortgage.”
This isn’t necessarily for lack of financial investment from parents. Center-based care for a four-year-old in the state costs on average $17,000 a year, according to advocacy group Child Care Aware of America. That’s more than annual tuition to North Carolina’s public colleges.
“I've been the parent and I've been the employee, and it's like, yeah, you pay a lot. But the teachers ... wouldn't say, ‘Oh yeah, we see that money,’” Waddell says. “We don't see that money.”
On top of that, Waddell’s last employer didn’t offer health insurance coverage. According to the nonprofit NC Child, one in five early childhood educators in the state isn’t insured. Waddell says she just can’t wrap her head around all this, given the responsibility of the job.
“It's just like a regular school teacher, you know what I mean? You're dealing with all kinds of children from all kinds of backgrounds. You don't know what's going on in their homes, you don't know what's going on in their heads, you don't know each child specifically until you take the time to know them and learn them,” she says. “They become like your kids. Parents can tell, my son or my daughter, they're about to [fill in the blank] – I can tell. I can feel it.”
Waddell is now considering a new career, probably in healthcare. Because, she says, working in early childhood education takes a toll.
“You have people that are so tired, so worn out, so burnt out. They need the money, and so they go in, and they have short tempers or they're checked out. Kids are doing whatever they wanna do,” she says. “Nothing's structured because they just can't bring themselves to do the work that is expected with the pay we get, with all the other stuff we have to deal with. It's just … it's insane, it really is.”