spread the word

How storytelling is giving voice to a small part of the early childhood workforce — men

Graham Carson, a teacher at Denver Cooperative Preschool, finger paints with a student.

In their own words, the men described the journeys that led them to work in the early childhood field — as teachers, counselors, coaches and administrators.

One, a software salesman, helped his wife with a nannying job then decided to go back to school for an early childhood degree. Another discovered his passion for young children after visiting a friend’s Montessori school in Beijing. A third dreamed of being an actor, but switched gears after a volunteer stint at a campus child care center during college.

The stories are part of a new digital storytelling project focused on a tiny and often overlooked segment of the nation’s early childhood workforce: men. The idea is to provide inspiration in a field known for its low pay and high turnover — and create a support system of sorts to combat the isolation that can come from being the only man on the job.

“Depending on your personality, it can be kind of daunting, said Soren Gall, the former preschool teacher who spearheaded the project.

Men make up just 3 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers, and 5 percent of child care workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gall, an infant, toddler and family specialist at Denver’s Early Childhood Council, felt lucky to have worked with two male teachers when he taught preschool years ago at a University of Denver child care center. Still, he knew that most men in early childhood jobs lack male co-workers or even a network of male colleagues in the broader community.

He wanted to change that. For awhile, he organized coffee shop gatherings for Denver area men who worked in the field. He also launched a Facebook group called Men in Early Childhood Colorado.

Then, with two friends and $2,000 raised through an online fundraising campaign, he embarked on the storytelling project, which features interviews with nearly 50 men who work in early childhood around the country.

While there are other advocates who champion the cause of men in early childhood — such as Bryan Nelson who heads a MInneapolis-based information clearinghouse called MenTeach — Gall’s idea was to support men in the field through story-sharing.

For Graham Carson, a Denver preschool teacher who was interviewed for the project, it worked.

“It was super inspiring and cool to hear,” he said. “It’s good to get stories out there…maybe to encourage other men to give it a try.”

In the 10- to 30-minute audio clips, Gall’s subjects, including 18 from Colorado, describe the sometimes winding paths that brought them to early childhood education and the experiences that kept them there.

Several said they liked being able to shape kids during the critical early years when so much brain development is going on. Others said they appreciate the infectious energy and joy that come naturally to young children.

Denver preschool teacher Graham Carson plays with children at the water table.

Tatenda Blessing, the interviewee who visited Beijing, said he discovered his passion for early childhood education when a little boy at the Montessori school approached him and said, “Hey, you’re my chocolate and I’m your cheese.”

Blessing, who is originally from Africa, was confused, but then the boy explained: “You are brown. I am yellow.”

“It was that moment that I just felt how these kids are beautiful,” Blessing said. “They’re so natural and pure in their approach to life … I said to myself I just want to be here.”

In addition to highlighting the fulfillment gleaned from early childhood work, many of Gall’s subjects touched on the benefits of men in the classroom — their different styles of play and communication, their ability to be positive male role models and the real-world gender diversity they bring.

“We’re a world full of men and women,” said Carson, who is “Mr. Graham” to the 4- and 5-year-olds he works with at Denver Cooperative Preschool. “I think it’s important to have a true reflection of our society helping teach kids.”

Travon Askew, a college student who’s worked in preschool classrooms, said, “All of us aren’t going to relate to a middle class caucasian woman … Just to have that male dynamic to relate to. To say I understand the functioning of boys and how they are because … I’ve been there before.”

Gall said such conversations about men in early childhood are particularly relevant now given the debate in Colorado and the nation about preschool suspensions and expulsions, which disproportionately affect boys of color.

He said bringing more men into the field could help reduce the use of such discipline tactics.

Perhaps a flip side to the benefits of having men in early childhood classrooms is the stigma that sometimes accompanies such a career choice. While some men say it’s gotten better, there’s still a sense that it’s not a masculine job.

A child in Graham Carson’s preschool class drew a picture of him.

Carson, who’s worked in early childhood for 13 years, said he’s gotten reactions ranging from “Oh, that’s cute” to “That’s really great that you’re a man and you want to work in early childhood education.”

One of Gall’s interview subjects, Camron Morton, of Colorado, spoke about being careful to create acceptable physical boundaries between himself and his young students.

“I think it’s a little … more risky for men, I guess, to open themselves up to children,” he said. “If they want to sit on my lap, I find a way that they’re always sitting on something other than me, but I’m still able to be close to them.”

Not surprising in Gall’s interviews was the sentiment that low wages represent a major barrier to attracting more men to the field. (Poor pay is a key problem for women in the field, as well.)

On average, early childhood workers nationwide earn $10.60 an hour, according to a 2016 report put out by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Those with at least a bachelor’s degree earn $14.70, about half of what other kinds of workers with bachelor’s degrees earn.

“There’s a challenge for anyone going into the field to meaningful support themselves,” said Geof Byerly, an early childhood coach in Colorado.

Carson agreed. He believes he’s fairly paid, but said his wages pale in comparison to his wife’s salary as a technical writer.

For now, he said, financial sacrifice is part of life in the early childhood world.

year in review

Early childhood discipline, child care deserts and funding challenges in the spotlight during 2017

Malanna Newell is a toddler teacher at the Mile High Early Learning center in Denver's Westwood neighborhood. She started as a teaching assistant before taking Mile High's Child Development Associate training last fall.

Amid national debate on the disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions given out to young boys and children of color, Colorado lawmakers and educators grappled with the best approach to discipline in 2017.

The year kicked off with a bill in the legislature to curb suspensions for early elementary and preschool students — a shift that would have put Colorado on the forefront of school discipline reform, some observers said. Although the bill had a broad array of backers, a Republican-controlled Senate committee killed the proposal after last-minute opposition from a group of rural school district leaders. Some of those leaders said suspensions weren’t a “rural problem,” but a Chalkbeat analysis found otherwise.  

Despite the defeat, advocates of the bill expect a renewed push for the measure during the 2018 legislative session.

In the meantime, Colorado’s two largest school districts — Denver and Jeffco — spearheaded changes to reduce the number of suspension handed out to young children. In June, Denver’s school board instituted a policy limiting the suspension of preschool through third grade students, though some educators worried they weren’t being given enough support to handle kids who misbehave.

In Jeffco, after Chalkbeat wrote about the district’s high rate of early elementary suspensions, administrators commissioned a report on the issue with recommendations to increase the use of restorative justice practices and other alternatives to suspension.  

Also in 2017, local early childhood leaders launched or expanded efforts to address key problems in the field — including teacher recruitment and retention and kids’ sometimes rocky transition to kindergarten.

At the same time, some early childhood advocates were forced to reckon with the perennial lack of funding that plagues the industry and constricts families’ choices. One of Denver’s most well-known child care providers, Clayton Early Learning, closed one of its two facilities last summer — a move observers said spotlights the high cost of quality child care.

But there were also bright spots in the funding landscape — some growing out of local efforts in Colorado’s rural towns and resort communities. A preschool in Holyoke found a way to give staff members generous raises and a growing number of cities and towns are getting new dollars for early childhood programs through sales or property taxes.

In Denver, several efforts — using a combination of public and private funds — aim to improve child care options in the city’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, which is designated a “child care desert.”

At the state level, officials promoted recently-created financial incentives for child care centers with top quality ratings, though some providers say earning those ratings is too much work.

Looking ahead to 2018, early childhood advocates hope to renew a tax credit that helps child care providers make ends meet. Plus, winners of a new early childhood innovation competition will get financial help to scale up their ideas.

Giving Quest

Advocates push to extend tax credit to encourage donations to cash-strapped child care providers

PHOTO: Porter-Leath

A wide-ranging coalition that includes early childhood, education and business groups is galvanizing support for a bill to extend a state tax credit that incentivizes donations to Colorado child care providers.

Advocates say the Child Care Contribution Tax Credit, which will be up for reauthorization during the 2018 legislative session, represents a key tool for supporting an expensive but perpetually underfunded sector.

“It’s the child care provider’s lifeline to additional funding,” said Gloria Higgins, president of the business group Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, or EPIC.

It’s a public-private partnership of sorts — with the state rewarding private citizens and businesses with lower tax bills when they support early childhood education.

During fiscal year 2016, Colorado taxpayers made about $52 million in donations that qualified for the tax credit, according to data from the Colorado Department of Revenue. Donations can cover costs such as child care scholarships, teacher salaries and building improvements.

“If parents had to pay $50 million more for child care, I don’t know what they would do,” Higgins said.

The tax credit, which first took effect in 1999 and has been reauthorized once, allows donors to claim an income tax credit worth up to 50 percent of their contribution. In other words, a donation of $200 to a qualifying child care provider would yield a state tax credit of $100 for the donor.

Donations to a variety of organizations — including child care centers, programs offering before- and after-school care, residential treatment centers and homeless youth shelters — are eligible for the credit.

The tax credit was suspended for a couple years during the Great Recession because slow-growing state revenue triggered a special provision in the law. The credit was restored in phases starting in 2013 and will expire in 2019 if it’s not reauthorized.

Given the state’s historically bipartisan support for the tax credit, advocates are hoping for a smooth passage.

“The reason why some people like tax credits … really comes from the fact that you’re just declining revenue,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “You’re not necessarily building new government programs.”

And for taxpayers who make the donations, the philosophy is about “letting people keep more of money they’ve earned,” he said.

Currently, there is no organized opposition to renewing the tax credit for another 10 years.

Still, advocates know there are many demands for state dollars.

“We, in early childhood, are truly competing … with potholes or K-12 education,” Higgins said. “We just want to hold onto what we have.”

Colorado is one of only a handful of states that offer tax credits to individuals or businesses that donate to child care providers or related programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oregon, Mississippi, Louisiana and Pennsylvania all have some version of a contribution credit, though generally the parameters are more restrictive than in Colorado.

Tami Havener, who leads a nonprofit that offers full-day preschool and a host of other early childhood services in Steamboat Springs, believes the tax credit encourages supporters to donate more than they otherwise would.

“I think it definitely makes a difference in them deciding how much they can give,” she said. “It allows them to be more generous.”

The Family Development Center where Havener is executive director raises about $110,000 a year — in amounts ranging from $25 to $30,000. The money helps pay for need-based scholarships, teacher training and extra staff so that student-teacher ratios stay low.

The preschool enrolls 80 students, about one-third of whom come from low-income families.

Havener said she’s gotten more savvy in recent years about advertising and explaining the credit to donors because she realized that some didn’t understand the financial benefits.

Now, in addition to helping specific child care providers, some groups envision the credit as a way to get communities to collaborate on larger child care initiatives. The idea is to use the credit as a rallying point for donors interested in pooling their resources for big projects — say, building a child care facility in a neighborhood without one.

“This is no silver bullet by any stretch,” Jaeger said. “It’s a tool in the toolbox.”