Building Better Brains: The Importance of Early Childhood Educators

It’s a hot summer afternoon around three o’clock when we pull into the parking lot. Cars and parents scattered across the drive as they mosey inside to pick up their children. Upon opening the front door of the medium-sized brick building, a wave of cold, clean air, smelling slightly of finger paint and crayons, crashed over our faces. Bright white tiles reflect the sunlight coming through the big open front window causing the colorful artwork on the walls to shimmer and dance. There is no doubt that we have entered a childcare center.

Accompanied by Cathy McHorse, Early Childhood Education Director and Jeanine Dolan, Classroom Coach Coordinator, we enter the office with vases of flowers and handfuls of gift cards in tow. Between the two of them, they have nearly 40 years of experience in early childhood care and education and today we are here to surprise and celebrate teachers who went above and beyond this school year to continue their education and training.



As the first teacher rounds the corner, wide-eyed and carrying a look of confusion on her face, a vase full of bright flowers and a card are offered to her.


“We are with United Way for Greater Austin and we are here to congratulate you on getting your degree,” McHorse said.


“Oh my, how wonderful. I wasn’t expecting this, thank you.”


A little thanks goes a long way when it comes to an often challenging, but extremely important, job.


Early childhood teachers – even those with college degrees earn unlivable wages. To learn why we, as a community, should care, what this means for our children and how United Way is offering a support system to educators in need keep reading.

The State of the Early Childhood Workforce


This year, the Early Childhood Workforce Index released a study that found 2,424,168 children age 0-5 living in Texas. Sixty percent of those children live in households where all caregiving adults are currently working. This means that 60 percent of the more than 2.4 million young children in Texas are in some way participating in or are in need of childcare. That being said, there are only 89,230 members of the early childhood teaching workforce.


If these numbers lead you to believe that early childhood educators are in high demand, you’d be correct – so why is it so hard to recruit and retain teaching talent? The answer is simple. At the local, state and national levels, we are not adequately investing in our early childhood teachers.



In fact, 56 percent of child care worker families participate in one or more public income support program like Medicaid, Food Stamps and TANF. And child care workers’ family participation in public income support programs incurs a cost of at least $117 million.


“Our system of preparing, supporting, and compensating early educators in the United States renders the almost entirely female workforce struggling to provide for their own families and in many cases, to put food on the table,” said Marcy Whitebook, one of the co-authors of the index and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.


Why Recognition Matters


Why is it important for early childhood teachers to continue their education and expand their knowledge and credentials? Why does it matter and why should anyone care?


“The obvious answer is that when teachers are better educated, they know more about childhood development,” Dolan said. “Therefore, they are going to create warmer and more responsive environments for young children.” But as I came to find out, early learning is so much more.


United Way for Greater Austin’s Center Project seeks to expand the supply of high-quality early childhood programs in our community, regardless of family income. Through our Center Project, we support centers that are accredited for quality. One of the requirements to meet quality standards is having a workforce that is working toward higher education credentials.


Twenty-two teachers in our Center Project completed a variety of continuing education courses and certifications this school year. From bachelor’s degrees to Child Development Associate degrees, these 22 educators completed a credential marking their hard work investing in their own professional development, skills and capacity, all the while shaping the young minds of our children – and that’s not an easy task.


“While these teachers are self-motivated, it’s also a part of the expectation in providing a higher quality experience for the children they work with,” McHorse said. “These teachers have accepted this expectation and responsibility and we, at United Way, strive to support them in reaching it.”


The State of Texas only requires a high school diploma and 24 hours of training for child care teachers. This goes to show that teachers who continue their education and skill development are truly going above and beyond to serve our children – and we should thank them.


“Finding someone who has the education and is willing to work for what child care providers are able to pay is really hard,” Dolan said. “Generally early childhood educators are right out of high school that has their 24 clock-hours and a passion for children. Unfortunately, they will probably only last six months.”


The average early child care center teacher in Austin makes anywhere from $20,500 a year to $27,000.


The average early child care center teacher in Austin makes anywhere from $20,500 a year to $27,000. There are a lot of jobs out there that will pay more and require less of your time, energy and skills.


“We are trying to create a culture shift,” McHorse said. “We want to frame early childhood educators as brain architects and brain builders. It is important to focus on the fact that early childhood is the most critical period for young children’s brain development, so why would we invest the least in the individuals doing this critical work?”


Part of United Way’s Success By 6 initiative is to encourage, motivate and support our staff who are striving to build their professional development and achieve different levels of credentials. We want to support them in building their toolbox and knowledge because as a community we want the highest quality for our children.


“I think of it as investing in our early learning workforce,” ­­McHorse said. “If we want our children to have the strongest foundation possible, we should be investing in those who are providing and creating it.”


What assistance is available?


The Teacher and Director TRAC is a partnership between Austin Community College, local funders and child care providers to assist the workforce in pursuing higher education. Funders include the City of Austin, Travis County and Workforce Child Care Solutions. The Teacher & Director TRAC Project offers childcare professionals who live and/or work in the City of Austin or Travis County the following benefits:

  • scholarships for courses
  • textbooks
  • assistance with course selection
  • class enrollment, and educational guidance
  • a $50 incentive paid upon successful completion of the first course.
  • A $100 incentive is paid after each successful completion of 12 hours of college credit in a Child Development degree plan as funding permits


Wage supplements are also available through the Jeanette Watson Wage Supplement Project. The Jeannette Watson Wage Supplement Project is a salary supplement program is intended as a means of compensating professionals who have furthered their education in Early Childhood Education or a closely related field. To be eligible, applicants must be working directly with children in a licensed child care facility and earning $14.00 or less per hour and must have worked in their current facility for the past consecutive six months prior to initiating the application process


A Word From Our Child Care Workforce


Q: How does your center/organization support staff in pursuing college coursework?


A: Teachers at Open Door are supported in their academic career with access to scholarships from Teacher TRAC and TEACH. As a site director, I provide my teachers with time to work on school work and do observations so they can be successful.

-Tracey Matchefts, Site Director of Open Door Preschool East 


 Q: Why do you feel is it important for early childhood education staff members to seek higher education credentials?


A: Research and experience teach us that children grow and develop so it’s important to continue with your education. This will allow you to have all of the tools you need to work with young children and their families.

-Tracey Matchefts, Site Director of Open Door Preschool East


Q: Why do you feel it is important for early childhood education staff members to seek higher education credentials?


A: “It is imperative for teachers to further their knowledge in our field. We are constantly overcoming challenges when tried with new behaviors. Teachers need all the extra tools that they can get to help them be successful.”

-Amanda Pecina, Director of KinderCare Learning Centers – Emerald Wood


Q: What are other barriers related to staff relying on public supports due to low wages?


A: “It is very hard to survive in Austin, Texas (and the vicinity) with the wages that teachers make. Most of these teachers have children that they have to support and pay for, in addition, to pay for living costs and tuition.”

-Amanda Pecina, Director of KinderCare Learning Centers – Emerald Wood


In This Case, Morale is the Best Motivator


Recognizing our staff’s accomplishments is one small way that we are trying to celebrate their hard work, even though adequate compensation proportional to their gains in education is not available. While there are options available, there is not enough assistance to support the entirety of our early childhood workforce.


“We are here to congratulate you. We know your job isn’t easy and we are so proud of you for working hard to continue your education,” McHorse told another teacher in the midst of a grateful embrace.


A beaming smile is exchanged between the two women. Teacher to teacher, educator to educator, a little thanks goes a long way.