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Irrational Ratios

The Childcare Nightmare

by MICHELLE RENEE MATISONS

While I’m chasing eleven 2 year olds, who are buzzing on sugary breakfast food they were either given at home or at this state subsidized childcare facility, I’m hoping it doesn’t rain so we can go outside. I’m also trying to convince myself outdoors is better than indoors with this many kids. The playground is larger so it is harder to keep track of them outside where danger seems to lurk around each corner. Although childcare workers scan the playground early each morning for dangerous items–like the wood post with rusted nail that once made it into a child’s hands–the kids always manage to find danger. When I started this work, I never thought I would dread working with toddlers.  Now I can’t work under the current legally acceptable conditions at most local facilities for moral reasons. Welcome to the childcare work nightmare, where the light at the tunnel of your long days is barely visible through the sentimental or denial laden shadow cast on the concept of childcare (and the real shadow cast by your empty bank account).

It takes an unique set of circumstances to render outdoor time with children something to dread, but the “Learn and Grow Center” of northwest Florida, where I worked for a few months, did just that to me. Realizing I have nothing special to look forward to in my day– except the sometimes seductively quiet nap time–I am reduced to simply maintaining (the appearance of) classroom control. I do not want to lose my temper with these kids. It’s not their fault many have developed two primary childcare survival instincts: dog piling and biting. I am also trying not to say the word “no” every few seconds, instead using positive redirection while following my “lesson plan” tacked up on the classroom bulletin board. The schedule says “Circle Time” but from the look of things you would think it read “Dogpile Time.”

Quick, here comes the boss who drops by almost every day. I’ll put on the hokey pokey, grab a few hands, and look ecstatic–just like the hired models in childcare ads. If she walks in on a problem, like a bite attack, she’ll chalk it up to either my lack of toddler classroom experience or increased behavioral problems due to marital (financial) problems at the child’s home. I was initially impressed by my boss’ sensitivity toward her clientele, but now I scoff at her sensitive insights. After all, she keeps her own workers so underpaid they can’t even afford to keep their own kids in this, or any, childcare facility.

Crap. Cinder is about to tear up books at the reading corner. Remember, positive redirection–the behavioral mantra of the childcare industry. “Hey Cinder, I’m glad you like books, but everyone else is getting ready to go outside and play… Now’s not the best time to dump all of our…Cinder! It would be much nicer if…” Never mind Cinder. Jimmy just bit Alex on the cheek when I was “redirecting” Cinder, and now there’s an incident report to do. Furthermore, Nixen, who’s had diarrhea all week and should be at home, just blew a gasket all over his jeans. It seeped onto the floor where Ashley accidentally stepped in it with her silky white monogrammed Easter shoes. Her mother, who spends much of her meager paycheck on her daughter’s thematic holiday wardrobe, is going to complain to my supervisor later. I want this day to end early although I really need the money ($8.50/ hour), but this is the day I close. The fact that tomorrow someone else will be closing (which has me losing $10.00 that day) is the only comfort I can conjure up for myself here.

After my high school English teacher job in a special needs voucher school ended (see my previous post on Florida’s Vulturous Voucher Program), I decided to continue my field research on Florida education by going to the source of the problem: early childhood education. I wanted to work with 2 year olds since they are at such a challenging, formative age, so I took a job as a 2 year old classroom teacher at one of my town’s only state subsidized childcare centers. I went in like a dedicated soldier with a cause: I wanted to Montessori-cize and Waldorf-ize these childcare centers, giving poor kids what they deserve–an awesome head start. But it took only a week or so to realize that just because there’s a will doesn’t mean there’s a way. I may have only worked in one subsidized center, but when comparing notes with other workers who have worked at many more in their exhausting careers, I have concluded that what I encountered is generally the norm, not the exception. For contrast, I then worked at a non-subsidized private childcare center that caters to some of the county’s wealthier owning class families, including a prominent Republican politician’s family. “Class war at your childcare door,” I joked about my latest incarnation of employment. Although the private center had less behavioral problems, the same labor problems loomed at both venues due to a toxic combination of state standards and owners’ greed. Until we eliminate the profit motive in childcare, positive and progressive childcare experiences (and rewarding employment opportunities working with kids) will remain largely determined by parental incomes.

There’s a popular simplification that bad childcare environments emerge from government or individual negligence. Consider the premise of Jonathan Cohen’s widely circulated New Republic article, “The Hell of American Day Care”. This article uses an unusual–and highly sensationalistic–home care provider tragedy as a springboard to call for more childcare industry regulations and inspections. Jessica Tata was a licensed Texas home care provider who left sleeping children behind to make a Target run. She also accidentally left a pan of oil on a lit stove top. The pan caught fire, and while she was gone the house went up in flames–killing four out of seven children in her custody. Cohen’s example of home care neglect is quite an attention grabber, but it does little to illustrate the daily factors encumbering the achievement of accessible, quality childcare for millions.

One of these factors is the changing socio-economic roles of women. To be fair, Cohen’s article acknowledges the need for something women’s movements have always prioritized: affordable, quality childcare. There’s resistance to viewing childcare as work (as opposed to something done out of love by eager parents or family members), and this resistance translates into policy. That childcare responsibilities frequently fall to women presents further complications as more women’s economic roles have changed in the post-war decades. Cohen’s answer of more childcare facility inspections works well for the inevitable panic after an unimaginable horrific event, like a childcare fire, occurs. But it does little to address the insidious structural neglect that is the hallmark of childcare culture in America. Sensationalizing these problems by focusing on unusual accidents distract us from key mundane factors such as classroom ratios, set by state governments, that spawn related profiteering practices.

Irrational Ratios: Eleven 2 Year Olds??!!

Usually, when the topic of poor quality in an occupation arises, logic suggests raising wages produces worker incentives. But the childcare nightmare is not simply about inducing worker motivation through compensation. Because it’s our precious angels we’re serving to hardworking parents, not a bucket of fried chicken we’re serving to hungry customers, childcare wages usually hover just over minimum wage. And don’t get me wrong, more money would help the problem. But childcare struggles would still exist if the hourly wage was higher simply because optimal conditions required to successfully do the work are lacking at so many facilities.

In my experience, classroom ratios are the main source of the childcare nightmare. (Meanwhile, websites like http://www.classsizematters.org devote resources to arguing the same thing about K-12 education.) Most childcare struggles I perceived emerged from the fact that both facilities kept to the maximum number of children legally allowed in each classroom. This is a big problem; Florida allows the jaw-dropping number of eleven 2 year-olds to one childcare teacher. Eleven terrible 2′s! And they are learning to go to the bathroom and talk at this sensitive age: taught largely by workers.

Consider one coworker case study. The private childcare where I worked employed Hannah, a dedicated 2 year old teacher who keeps a clean classroom, communicates well with parents, and pays out of pocket for her own carefully thought out supplies and activities. Hannah makes $9.50/ hour–which is at the high end of the county’s childcare wage spectrum. But the fact that Hannah makes more than her colleagues at other facilities doesn’t overshadow that she manages a “classroom” of eleven toddlers in the process of learning to talk and use the toilet. Some don’t talk really well, some yell. Some can go on their own already and some haven’t figured out that they should poop sitting down. We have quiet standing up poopers, talkative panty wearers, and about every other imaginable combination. Over time, because of ratios, a relatively higher paying position at an “elite” facility didn’t deter Hannah from walking off the job without notice. Exasperated, she just up and quit one day!

Inter-Classroom Rationing: Someone’s Going Home

Childcare facility owners and supervisors choose to enforce the maximum classroom ratios–the root evil in this industry. These irrational ratios breed another common practice that can be avoided by simple administrative principles of fairness to employees and children: inter-classroom rationing. At both facilities, the supervisors’ main objective was to monitor the number of children in the room, shifting them to other rooms with the goal of taking a teacher off the clock. (This practice ensures worker hours are never absolutely guaranteed unless you are in some kind of favor with management.) If the private childcare had a low turnout one day, the supervisor would also move children to eventually create an empty classroom. The main difference between the two facilities was that the private facility supervisor wasn’t as frantic about this as the state funded facility supervisor.

Moving children was the main vibe of my interactions with my state funded supervisor. “How many ya got?” she would bark at me as I meandered my way outside with always eleven (sometimes more) toddlers in tow. Yes, we were sometimes over ratio– an occurrence only to be avoided because of surprise state inspections, not out of fairness to me or the children involved! If I was momentarily under ratio it wouldn’t last long before the Shifty-Eyed Bean Counter supervisor would show up with more children from another classroom: they were always moving kids away from continuity with their teachers, peers, and a familiar classroom space. When arriving to work each day, no childcare worker automatically knows how many children will be there or the duration of each child’s stay. Creative managers could do something really cool in this instance: they could acknowledge how hard the work is and send a worker home early– with pay. But the owner would never have that!

When I first worked in childcare, I marveled at inter-classroom rationing because it contradicts all common sense. It also contradicts the core child development philosophy encountered in state required on-line employee training courses that workers usually pay for themselves. Remember, these are children, not buckets of fried chicken, so childcare workers need to accomplish 40 hrs. of outside training within a year.  Amid poverty, a chaotic schedule, and exhaustion otherwise, the state’s idealistic childcare philosophies are espoused to the low-wage workers already in the daily trenches. Childcare workers are required to suffer through pedantic, often hilariously cliche and idealistic, on-line courses (although not everyone has access to home computers!), and then carve out weekend morning time to be tested in person. The carrot dangling at the end of that stick is a possible, not always guaranteed, small wage increase once coursework has been completed.

Childcare teachers are expected to institute premeditated lesson plans and develop bonds with the children assigned to their classrooms. But this proves extremely difficult when a supervisor interrupts circle time to move children around. At the state funded facility, nap time was pure chaos because workers were breaking for lunch and you could have one or more children from another classroom. Somehow they ended up in your room for nap time and they need pacifiers and blankets stored in another room. They’re balling their eyes out, but no one is around to help at the moment except you. On a busy or under-staffed day, a worker may not get her own bathroom break. Adult diapers aren’t an option here: too expensive!

Plastic Food

Another profiteering practice at both facilities is providing cheap bland food that is almost the nutritional equivalent of the abundant plastic toys that graced both classrooms. Contrary to the employee training on nutritional ideals, I never saw a bright green item served for lunch at the state funded daycare (unless canned grayish peas count), and there were countless days when everything served was a muted yellow or white.  I recall one particularly lackluster lunch of ramen noodles with a lumpy cream sauce, applesauce, a few pieces of canned chicken, and milk. State funded childcares qualify for federal food funding, but if they stay under their projected federal budget while ostensibly complying to nutritional guidelines–they can pocket the price difference. At the private center, the kids brought their own lunches and snacks. A guaranteed snack was also provided that was no different than the subsidized snacks: animal crackers, pretzels, chocolate chip cookies… I never saw an apple slice or carrot stick at either facility unless a child brought it from home or it was in the toy bin.

State funded childcares are required to have developmentally appropriate toys. This includes plastic kitchenettes with plastic food that inevitably ends up in 2 year old mouths. (How confusing since plastic food toys probably didn’t taste much different than real food served!)  There was miniature plastic furniture they are only allowed to sit on–yeah, right. At both places plastic boxes sat on shelves filled to the brim with plastic figurines. At the private facility, the toys were almost the exact same, except they had more. They also had an unlimited donated supply of old mobile and cell phones. In one employee training, it is explained that kids like to emulate adults, so we should provide plastic phones, computers, stoves…and food.  If we really want to encourage children to emulate their parents why not provide play areas where they can drop their kids off at overcrowded childcare centers that serve nutrient deficient foods?

I cringed when I entered the private facility’s 2 year old classroom to encounter toddlers hobbling around throwing old clunky cordless phones at each other. At both centers, the more is better philosophy reigned supreme when it came to toys. The outdoor play space at the state funded facility was inundated with old kitchenettes, wobbly shopping carts, and other cast off items. The private facility’s minimalist outdoor area was graced with white sand, swings and slides: one major difference between the two places for which I was grateful. But indoors, it was as if the sheer number of toys per classroom would make up for the chaos that otherwise ensued in facilities driven by irrational ratios, high employee turnover, and children’s hunger, thirst, and general anxiety/ depression.

Until childcare is perceived as a social necessity, chaos is sure to continue at most facilities driven by indefensible class size ratios and individual shameful greed. Sometime before the federal government shutdown overshadowed other policy discussions, Obama paid lip service to expanded, universal early childhood education.  But don’t be misled to think that this move will escape the same greedy talons of those education companies claiming the expertise to “redirect” K-12 public education today. It’s all part of a big immoral corporate grab. Parents and allies of the young, be very afraid.

Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. is an independent scholar doing ethnographic research on education in the Florida panhandle—for the time being.  She can be reached at michrenee@gmail.com.