Unsung Heroes: Early Childhood Educators Get Recognition

Jun 7, 2017

Every year Virginia honors a teacher of the year, selecting a winner from nominees in counties all over the state.  This year, in Montgomery County, they’ve taken it a step further and chosen a ‘pre-school teacher of the year.'  But that’s as far as it goes because there’s no state level recognition in this category. As Robbie Harris reports, that says something about how society values early child hood education.  

Pre-school teachers are the unsung heroes of American education.

Margie Vest is learning Mandarin along with her students here at Rainbow Riders Child Care center in Blacksburg.  She has her Associates degree, she took Spanish in High school, and she recently began studying German, but when a parent suggested teaching these preschoolers a Chinese language, she bravely stepped up and said ‘sure.’ And that’s among the reasons parents of these preschoolers value her so much.

Eric Johnsen’s son Jack is in her class: “She’s fantastic.  Absolutely. She came to watch one of Jack’s baseball games. Just the extra activity she does above and beyond what’s in the classroom.”

Last week, the Alliance for Better Child Care in the New River Valley named Vest, ‘Early Childhood Educator of the Year.’     

Montgomery County Early Childhood Educator of the year, Margie Vest ( center) Rainbow Riders Owner Administrator, Kristi Snyder,(left) Missy Roberts, Co-Director Rainbow Riders-Knollwood (right)
Credit Kim Thomason

Margie Vest:  “I was very honored to be the first one and the fact that they’re actually recognizing pre-school as being important, because this is the first stop of life.  They’re little sponges when they come to us so it’s amazing the work that we do and it’s just nice that other people see the importance of early childhood education.”

Importance, yes, but when it comes to funding, it’s a different story. Pay at most early childcare centers is low, even as tuition is even more than some families can afford and it’s been this way for decades.  Lisa Martin is co-director at Rainbow Riders.

“Tuition based child care is hard.  It’s difficult for families, teachers, because we’re not funded by the government like public school is so we don’t have those resources.”

For many childcare centers tuition is their only source of income, to pay staff and that sets up a vicious cycle when it comes to hiring qualified teachers. Abby Knobl is director of school age children’s programs.

“We have people coming in, they’ll interview and they’re great, they’ve got what we want but they see the pay and they’re like no, we just can   They just can’t afford to live off of it. So it’s a real struggle.”

As Colleges and universities cut back or drop their early childhood education programs for lack of interest, the pool of qualified teachers continues to shrink. And that’s lead to the critical shortage of pre-school slots at high quality, licensed childcare centers in the New River Valley.

Bethany Mott is with the Alliance for Better Childcare or ABC.

“There are wonderful centers here but there are also centers that are really struggling with their quality. It’s the one part of our quality of life that’s really missing in the NRV. We have fabulous public schools, we have great higher education and we have fabulous outdoor recreational activities, and in order to attract and retain the millennial talent; they don’t have choices when it comes to work.  They both have to be working, they’ve got student loans, they’ve got commitments. We can’t keep them if we can’t offer them quality child care.”

ABC plans to launch a fundraising to create a scholarship program to help families here afford pre-school. But raising the pay for caregivers to a living wage is a multifaceted problem that begins with acknowledging its value to society. And that’s what the Alliance for Better Childcare’s preschool teacher of the year award aims to do.