© 2024 New England Public Media

FCC public inspection files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact hello@nepm.org or call 413-781-2801.
PBS, NPR and local perspective for western Mass.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Hugs don’t pay the rent: How one early educator is working to save his future

Students in Matthew Wallace's classroom paints with peers. (Ashley Locke/Here & Now)
Students in Matthew Wallace's classroom paints with peers. (Ashley Locke/Here & Now)

On a recent drizzly morning, an almost 5-year-old named Ella is eager to start circle time.

She runs over to the rug where her enthusiastic teacher leads her and her classmates in a good morning song. Matthew Wallace is known as Mr. Matt to his students at Ellis Early Education in South Boston. He’s been a preschool teacher for 18 years and he considers the kids he teaches his children.

“Imagine walking into your job every morning … You’re not really motivated yet,” he says. “And then all of a sudden, like two or three of your coworkers come over and go, ‘Hey, it’s great to see you!’ and they come over and they hug you and they grab you and squeeze you … who’s not gonna smile when someone does that to you? That’s how my day begins.”

Matthew Wallace does a bingo activity with a student. (Ashley Locke/Here & Now)

As much as Wallace loves his work, he says it’s tough to get by on his salary. Right now, even working full time at about $25 per hour, he relies on public assistance to pay more than half his rent.

“If I didn’t have a Section 8 certificate, I would not be doing this job,” he says. “I would not be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment.”

Early childhood teachers like Wallace are in high demand right now around the country as the child care industry struggles to retain quality staff.

The national average wage for an early childhood educator stands at around $14 per hour. So it’s common for these workers to be lured away by retail jobs to make more money.

Matthew Wallace, known as Mr. Matt to his students, is through a new apprenticeship program in Massachusetts led by the nonprofit Neighborhood Villages. (Courtesy of Ellis Early Learning Team)

But Wallace says that’s not a personal temptation. He’s pivoting to become a lead preschool teacher instead. He’s training through a new apprenticeship program in Massachusetts led by the nonprofit Neighborhood Villages.

Binal Patel, the group’s chief program officer, says the program serves as an alternative to college for early educators to advance their careers — and it’s completely free for apprentices.

“It’s really important that it is [free] because, like Matt said, these are educators that are making pretty much poverty wages,” she says. “To have them go [into] debt and to pay more for the training that they need to have and are required to have is just really an injustice.”

Patel says there are two tracks in the program: one for leadership and one for administrative roles. Wallace is on the leadership track to get a Child Development Associate certificate, so instead of a 12-week college course, he can get national credentials in 12 months by taking classes and learning on the job.

Patel says apprentices get 50-cent pay increases every three months they participate.

“Throughout the program, they’re receiving wage bumps,” she says. “By the time they graduate the program, they see a minimum of a $2 an hour wage increase in their salaries.”

Patel says philanthropy, the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts fund the apprenticeship program. She says that investment shows why these educators are so much more than just babysitters.

Patel used to be a preschool director before starting at Neighborhood Villages in 2020. Two of her own children, a toddler and an infant, attended the preschool she worked at.

“By the time I paid the tuition, I was essentially paying the school to work there because the tuition for the two of them was higher than the salary that I made,” she says. “It’s just unsustainable. I had more than 50% turnover every single year with teachers just saying they cannot afford to work there.”

Stories like these are common, says Elizabeth Pufall Jones of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. She says The Neighborhood Villages program is based on one in Kentucky that is funded by the state.

And while these programs are a hopeful tool, she says they are not the solution to support early educators.

“We need public funding on a federal level to be able to sustain the workforce,” she says. “There’s really nothing else that is going to work.”

The Biden Administration offered some relief for child care programs a few years ago with the American Rescue Plan, but that funding expired last fall. Pufall Jones says it remains to be seen how much apprenticeships will help in the long term.

“We’re looking at apprenticeships and how successful are they? Where are the challenges? Are they meeting the needs of the field, the way that it is?” she says.

As the child care workforce struggles, so do the families that rely on it. Half the problem for working parents is the cost, which can compare to a second mortgage. Onaverage nationally, child care runs about $11,000 dollars a year per child.

And even if families can pay, finding a spot in a program can be tricky. Pufall Jones says it’s not uncommon to be on months or years-long waitlists for child care.

Matthew Wallace does circle time with his students at Ellis Early Education. (Ashley Locke/Here & Now)

“If you’re thinking about getting pregnant, get on the childcare list now because you are going to have to wait that long for a slot in a center that’s convenient to you,” she says. “It’s not really comparable to anything because it’s such a broken system.”

Wallace agrees more investment in early childhood education is needed.

“I don’t think anybody in this profession should be having struggles with having a roof over their head or getting a meal in their mouth,” he says. “Some of the teachers have children, and I’m like, ‘I can’t even fathom.’”

Wallace is one of 70 apprentices who graduated this year in the first cohort of the Neighborhood Villages program. Now, he’s enrolled in the program again, this time to train to be a preschool director.

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Eileen Bolinsky. Locke also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.